Zen and the Art of Sailing During A Small Craft Advisory Warning
I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to barf. I didn’t want to get salty. I didn’t want to smell feces. I didn’t want to be dominated by forces beyond my control. That’s right, I didn’t want to go into Christian Grey’s Red Room of Pain!
Okay. I wasn’t actually invited to Christian Grey’s Red Room of Pain.
I was invited to take a sailing lesson with my mom and daughters for my mom’s 73rd birthday last weekend in Santa Barbara, which could lead to motion sickness barfing, salty sea water in the crack of my fanny, bird guano and seal poop and let us not forget that force beyond my control the sea-God Poseidon, who could drown we land lubbers.
And, as Poseidon would have it, the day of our adventure dawned wild and woolly.
As our car rounded the bend along cliff drive hurtling toward the harbor I could see miles of white chop in the ocean signifying powerful gale-like winds.
I felt uneasy because I’ve been raising my 10 and 12-year old daughters like veal.
I don’t allow them to walk home from school because they have to cross two major intersections and I’m terrified they’ll be run over.
I don’t allow them much free rein in our neighborhood because we live right in the heart of Los Angeles and just off Pico, which may as well be Omaha Beach on D-Day.
They’ve only been away from us once, for seven days with my mom, the freaking thrill-seeker sending us into this tsunami.
Compare that with my upbringing in the 70s when I traveled in the open flatbed of trucks, rode my bike all over Claremont by the time I was 7 or 8, and, believe it or not, lived with my mom and stepdad on an actual, real-live sailboat named The Allegro.
We were docked at Antioch Harbor and on weekends sailed down the Delta to the San Francisco Bay.
My mom and stepdad Nick bought The Allegro before they knew how to sail and learned while we lived aboard.
We had some memorable mishaps to say the least. Like the time our anchor came loose in the middle of the night just off the shore of Angel Island and we rammed our neighbor’s boat, breaking their bow sprit.
My mom says the last thing she saw of our neighbor John that night were the bottoms of his deck shoes flying up in the air.
Then there was the day my 13-year-old friend, Tammy and 9-year old me thought it would be a good idea to row a rubber dinghy a half mile to Angel Island in the middle of gale force winds.
As we struggled with the oars I looked back to see my mom on deck waving and smiling at us from the bow, trusting Tammy and I would figure things out.
I never felt so alive, free and courageous. Even though moments later we lost one of our oars and had to be towed back to our boat by a passing cruiser. It was a pinnacle childhood moment.
One late afternoon a couple of years later we sailed from Alameda across the bay to Sausalito. When we reached the Bay Bridge, slipping beneath it, the sun sinking below the horizon, all the lights came on in the city.
I sat on the bowsprit in my flannel nightgown, both legs dangling down, with the sea spray in my face and the wind at my back. I felt like I was literally in the center of the universe at the most exquisite moment; it’s transience making it all the more precious.
I’ve never forgotten what I saw, tasted, smelled and felt in that moment, which still lends my childhood an aura of magic.
But I wasn’t thinking about any of that when we pulled into the Santa Barbara Harbor to discover there was, indeed, a small craft advisory warning because the winds were blowing between 28 to 33 knots (which translates to 32-38 mph).
I was certain our instructor would cancel.
Instead we were greeted by Kendrick, a 20-year-old college student/sailing instructor who reminded me of a stretched-out version of Opie on The Andy Griffith Show; he was the epitome of buoyant enthusiasm, and said we were definitely going to sail and it was going to be a blast!
Cut to: 5 minutes later and we’re bored out of our skulls because Kendrick’s got us tacking back and forth in the confines of the harbor with two hours stretching before us.
My daughter’s dutifully worked the jib sheets for Kendrick and manned the rudder, but I could see my mom rubber-necking to open water.
Didn’t she see that my girls were much safer this way? The worst that could happen was a little seagull crap on the head! Did she expect me to be a parental libertine the way she had been? Thrusting them into the unpredictable maw of Mother Nature?
So you can imagine that no one was more surprised than me when I looked at Kendrick and said, “Can’t we go out into open water?”
Kendrick perked up. “You want to go out to sea?”
I looked at my mom who had a huge grin on her face. “Okay with you, Mom?”
“Let’s do it!” I said to Kendrick.
It was as though we’d let a thoroughbred out of the gates at The Kentucky Derby. Kendrick had us coming about so fast the boom practically knocked all of our heads off.
And then our little 22-foot ketch was in open water and we were flying on winds, according to Kendrick, ranging from 38-50 knots at a 37 degree heel that had us standing on the walls of the cockpit practically perpendicular to the water.
Suddenly I was 9-years old again on The Allegro in the bay with my stepdad yelling, “Coming About!” ducking as the massive boom swung from portside to starboard, sea spray flying over the bow drenching me, as the wind whipped my hair about my head as if I were one of the three Furies, adrenaline pumping through my veins as dolphins suddenly appeared beside the boat jumping high in the air as if asking me to come and play.
But now I was with my two girls, watching the wind whipping their hair about their heads as they shrieked and laughed when a wave came over the bow and soaked them.
We circled a massive Princess Cruise Ship that looked like a city in the middle of the ocean, passengers dashed to the railings to wave at us and follow our trajectory, because we were the lone sailboat on the water that day.
It felt as if we were in the center of the universe at the most exquisite moment; it’s transience making it all the more precious.
As I watched my girls work the sheets and ropes, crawling around the cockpit, eager deckhands, I thought that some risks are worth taking and that, in the inimitable words of that Viking Seafarer Helen Keller, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing!”