Thursday, February 25, 2016

A Day In the Wind

She’s flying today, I’m sailing, the dog is with me on the boat, he’s along for the ride.

I like to sail by myself. It’s called single-handing. I like to sail in all kinds of weather. The weather today is perfect for me. It’s windy, there’s a small craft warnings out for Massachusetts Bay. The wind is from the Northeast at 20kts, gusting to 25, the seas are 8 to 10 feet. If this wind continues they’ll get bigger. I’ve got three rolls in the genny and a single reef in the main, we’re on a close reach heading south east out of Marblehead. The dog and I aren’t going anywhere today, although we could if we wanted to, just punching holes in waves. I’m sitting on the high side of the boat. The tiller is balanced in my hand. The knot meter reads 6.8 knots, I can feel Air Time surging off the tops of the waves, I could squeeze some more speed out of her and I do by pulling on a few strings on the main to flatten it a little more, then I squeeze more speed by tightening the slot between the genny and the main with a half turn on the primary winch. This work produces a tenth of a knot. I’ve got Air Time in a groove now.

Sailboats are funny machines. They have sweet spots, the sweet spots change depending on the conditions, waves, wind, currents, tide. Sailboats make sounds, those sounds can tell you, if you’ll listen, whether the boat is happy or not. Air Time is happy at the moment, but that could change so I have to pay constant attention to her. She is content for the moment, but could change her mind, like any female, she often does.

I like her, enough so I wrote a letter to her designer in Ireland. He responded with some suggestions, modifications to her rig and keel and after I took his advice and made them, I loved her even more. I wrote him again, told him I was happy and he was pleased. His design is built in three countries under license and there are less than a 100 on the water, only four of them with his suggested modifications. Air Time is the only modified one in US waters and for a 30 foot boat, 9.2 meters long, she is very fast. She’s more Corvette than Impala.

There is an old sailor’s saying, it goes back hundreds of years, maybe even the Phoenicians said it too, “She’s got a bone in her teeth.” Air Time has the bone in her teeth today.

The dog is on the cockpit sole with his head pressed against my leg. He’s been sailing since he was a pup, he’s grown up on Air Time. At home in the city, in the middle of winter, if either of us say, “Want to go on the boat?” he gets excited. Like Air Time, he is happy and content and so am I. He’s a good crew member, he obeys the Captain’s orders, he learned there is only one skipper right away. It took her much longer than that. I miss her when she’s flying, but I like to sail alone and when she’s gone to work in the air, I indulge myself in it.

Earlier this summer she was flying for 4 days and I sailed all the way to Newport and back, 19 hours down and 21 hours back, on the way home we hit the Cape Cod Canal early and had to wait for a slack tide. We killed the time ashore tied up at a bayside restaurant, I bought the dog a plain hamburger and took him for a walk, I drank a beer and ate a box of fried clams and French fries. We both took a good pee and then motored through the canal, on the bay side I hoisted sail and we made it home, sailing most of the way in the rain, me outside in foul weather gear and the dog curled up on the settee down below. Every once in a while he would stand at the top of the companionway stairs and look at me and when he was satisfied I was okay, he would go back to his spot on the settee. If I could have trusted him to hold our course, I would have changed places with him. That day I was glad I spent the money on quality foul weather gear. I was as warm and dry as he was, but my face was wet and his wasn’t.

I don’t listen to music when I’m sailing alone. The sound of the wind and water makes all the music I need to hear. As we sail on I hear a diesel engine in the distance, it’s faint and far off enough that I can’t see the boat yet, I know I’ll see it soon, as it gets louder by the minute. I think about getting the glasses and taking a look in the direction of the sound but I don’t have to, the dog’s German Shepherd ears pick the sound up and he looks in the direction of the diesel and I know now exactly where the boat is, thanks those ears. 10 minutes later I can see the tug laboring with its two barge tow. The barges are well behind the tug when at sea. The tug is headed for Boston and as they get closer to the city, the tow lines will be drawn up and the barges will be up tight on the stern of the tug as they approach the harbor. My guess is the barges are carrying construction equipment, equipment much too big for trucks to carry on the highway without taking it apart. When the tug gets closer I’ll find out if I’m right.

There have been many days in my life when I wish I had chosen a career at sea, I can imagine myself at the helm of that big tug bringing two, big barges into Boston Harbor. Now I can see the tug and her barges. I alter our course to pass to the south of them, I put Air Time on a broad reach by dropping off the wind, doing that requires some sail adjustments, I make them, we add another tenth of a knot and then it drops back again. I try the tiller pilot on this course. It searches for the course and finds it.

I go below and get another cup of coffee from the thermos. I find a small, one serving can of fruit cocktail, pop the top and eat it out of the can. The only time I ever eat fruit cocktail is when I’m sailing, I’ve thought about why, but I don’t know why it’s true. I give the dog a cookie and get the handheld VHF radio out of the navigation station where it’s been charging off Air Time’s main battery. I check the weather, no changes. I put the radio in my jacket pocket and go back on deck. I sit with my back against the cabin bulk head. I put the VHF on the hailing channel to see if there is any chatter. I hear some fisherman yapping back and forth but nothing from the tug. Commercial boats at work, seldom if ever acknowledge pleasure craft and I don’t blame them a bit.

I started sailing the summer I was 11 years old, on a Sunfish, on a Minnesota lake. I’d been running boats since I was a 6 year old, first a 12 foot aluminum fishing boat with a 5 horsepower Johnson out board motor, then after a few years I was running an 18 foot powerboat with an early Mercury 65 hp engine. I was limited to one tank of gasoline a week and it was almost always gone after one day of water skiing and going for boat rides around the lake. Our lake neighbor’s daughter had a Sunfish, she was grown now, she’s teaching school in Minneapolis and the Sunfish is hanging from the ceiling of their boathouse. The neighbor said, “Why don’t you learn to sail it.” He was of no help, the neighbor didn’t know anything about sailing and said his daughter lost interest in the Sunfish shortly after she discovered boys. It was up to me. I learned to sail in the way I now believe all kids should learn to sail, on their own, in a little, simple sail boat with a life jacket on, a little wind and a piece of open water big enough to figure things out on. It didn’t take me long and I was getting the little boat up wind, downwind and could move her nicely on every point of sail. If you asked me then what I was doing, I had no idea, but I could do it. That winter I read sailing books from the library and found myself thinking, “I get it now, that’s how I did that.”

One of the books I read that winter was “Sailing Around the World Alone” by Joshua Slocum. It’s the story of the first solo around the world voyage made by Slocum on his sloop Spray in 1895. I reread the book every couple of years and I’m as fascinated now as I was the first time I picked it up. I have a copy on board Air Time. Slocum is the reason I like to sail alone.

The tug, a big one moved past us. The barges were loaded with big sections of tunneling for the Big Dig. I was right about the cargo, they couldn’t have moved it on the highway. Without a handy ocean and those big barges they would have had to build them on site. We were downwind of the tug now and I could smell the diesel fumes from her stack for a while. The fumes were out of place out here on the bay.

We sailed for another hour on our course. The Tiller Master was doing its usual fine job as helmsman. I went below, turned on the GPS, while it unscrambled itself, I made a salami sandwich with provolone and hot mustard, rather than slice the tomato, I ate it like an apple. I checked our course and speed on the GPS, when I finished my sandwich, we would come about and head back. I took my sandwich and a cold Sam Adams on deck with me. As I ate I gave the dog pieces of salami from my sandwich. Lunch finished, I turned the boat around and headed back, I made the sail adjustments and Air Time went back to the work she was born to do. After the beer I had to pee, I stood at the stern rail and peed over the side. I felt better when I finished. The dog peed in the scupper.

Mid-afternoon the wind began to drop, I shook the reef out of the main and we lost only a little of our boat speed. We past Marblehead just after 4, we sailed west to Peaches Point, after we passed the point, we turned to port. I rolled up the genny on the furler and sailed to our mooring under the main. This side of the harbor is very sheltered by the town of Marblehead in a northeast wind and it dropped to 5 knots. I sailed Air Time just past our mooring and turned her up wind. I grabbed the mooring pennant with my right hand, slacked the main with my left I stood up and the dog and I walked the pennant to the bow, I secured the harness while he watched. I went aft and furled the main and covered it with its red sail cover. I secured the boat and shut her down. I drank a cold beer, finished the beer, called the launch service on the radio. I locked the companionway. We boarded the launch at 5:45. The girl driving the launch loved the dog, she rubbed his ears and talked doggie talk to him when he got on board. We were in our old, green Range Rover by 6 and we picked her up at Logan at 6:45. We were glad to see her and she was glad to see us, we kissed and hugged as the dog pushed between us.

“How was your day?” She said.


“Wasn’t it too windy? The pilot said there were small craft warnings, it was bumpy when we took off this morning and even bumpier when we landed, did you sail?”

“All day and it was perfect.”

“Where did you sail to.”

“We could have gone to the Canary Islands but we came back because we missed you too much.”

“Well. we’ll have to go together in that case, won’t we?”

“Yes we will. Should we get something at Santarpio’s on the way home?”


  1. Pretty darned nice piece of writing, Jager. Is it going to be part of a book some day?

  2. Great read. Riveting and I am no sailor. Nicely done.