From the September 2004 issue of 48° North by Matt King
A very wise martial arts teacher once told me: “You will never learn to perform a physical skill without making mistakes and making a fool of yourself. Therefore, embrace the embarrassment of your mistakes and dedicate yourself to learning.” Not a bad philosophy for learning to sail, eh?
Years later I informed my (slightly) older sisters that I planned to sail around the world once I retire. For me retirement is in 2013. They both responded with: “Where did you get that (ridiculous, foolish, unsafe, daft, etc… you get the drift) idea?”
“Mother.” I said.
“Our Mother!” they responded in a tone that was stereophonic, incredulous and horrified.
“Yup,” I said. “As you both will recall I was dyslexic when I was younger. Mom got a subscription to National Geographic magazine to stimulate my poor reading skills. It was the first magazine I ever read. Mom’s plan worked. I picked it up because it had so many pictures. I then had to read the captions under the pictures to find out what was going on. Reading the magazine and looking at the pictures (nudge, nudge, wink, and wink) filled me with a sense of adventure. Remember the ‘Dove’ articles in it about the teenage boy who solo sailed his way around the world? That is where I got the idea.”
Silence continued for a moment, which is a rare occurrence when my sisters are ganging up on me. I think they were stumped for arguments on why I should not aspire to such a goal. After all, what grown child could say anything remotely like contradiction about the actions and opinions of one’s beloved and deceased mother?
Finally, one asked: “How?”
“Well,” I answered. “I do have ten years to learn how to sail.”
When it was apparent that I was not immediately abandoning my birth family (let alone the wife and kids), and as ten years seemed a far and safe distance away from the here, and now our conversation shifted to less controversial topics.
I was honest with my sisters with my stories of how I decided to someday sail out of the Straight of Juan de’ Fuca and make what Seattle sailors refer to as ‘The Big Left Turn’ into the Pacific and SWS to Hawaii. I was also up front with them about why Mom purchased magazine subscriptions with many pictures for me.
I have a long history of having big dreams and acting on them. I was born in Alaska and at the tender age of five or six I announced to my parents that I planned on climbing Denali. To those of you from outside of Alaska, Denali is the real name for Mt. McKinley. That dream took more than twenty-five years to complete. I started to learn by climbing glaciated peaks in Oregon and Washington during high school and college. After moving to Seattle I sharpened my skills on the more demanding routes of Mt. Rainer. By the time I was thirty years old I was confident enough with my skills to attempt Denali in 1985. I had such fun on the summit that I returned two more seasons in Alaska as a professional climbing guide.
However, time marches on. I have found my ability to climb the high, cold peaks of the world to be slipping. I needed a new outdoor sport! When I was forty-five I found myself raising a family not more than four miles from Puget Sound. I thought about a boat. One problem, I am cursed with a tendency to mal d’mer. I have upchucked in every ocean, sea, choppy river, etc. I have ever been on. My insides have been on the outside in the Columbia River, the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Caribbean, and the Mediterranean…. Well you get the idea. My stomach is so weak that I once got queasy on one of the very sedate car ferries which belong to the State of Washington and creep short hops in Puget Sound!
I decided to take the problem head on from the head. From previous experience in flying small planes I knew that if I was the one at the controls I never got sick. It was my observation that during bumpy flights over the Cascade Mountains my passengers might become ill but not I. Maybe being the master and commander of a sailing vessel would provide me with the same protection from nausea that holding onto a joystick did.
In the business world the next step in my plan for learning the skills needed to sail safely would have been called ‘Proof of Concept’. I took the Basic Keelboat Course (but never took the exam) to test my theory. Sure enough, even with the wind a mild five knots I found that I would quickly feel it necessary to toss my cookies if I were not at the helm. But once at the helm I was in super shape and exhilarated at the freedom a small boat on a great body of water gives you! I was hooked!
I then purchased a boat to “fly” and to see if I could make myself seasick. Oh, she was a sweet little thing. Twenty-one feet of 1972 Clipper Marine with a rusty trailer, a two-stroke outboard and a swing keel that banged like an out of tune bell every time we tacked. The first summer I put in to the calm waters of the north end of Lake Washington. Many a fine summer evening was spent just learning the boat and its quirks.
The winter months were spent refitting and painting the craft. Come the second summer I leased a slip on Lake Washington next to a float plane base. I moved from trailer to slip so I could drop in and sail without dealing with drunken power boaters at the public launch ramp. That summer brought warm evenings and weekends dodging the same-said drunken power boaters and the float planes that use the lake as a runway. Dodging aircraft on final approach is not to be a recommended way to learn to solo tack but it sure kept my head out of the cockpit!
The third year I applied for and got a slip in the marina operated by the town of Edmonds, WA. A whole New World was open to me. Saltwater! Swells! Tides! Harbor Seals! Little black porpoises! It was great! A short motor around the breakwater and I was on the Sound! Back and forth I went between Edmonds and Kingston on the weekends. To further my learning I bought a pair of binoculars to watch what real sailors were doing on their boats so I could imitate them.
Two more years of practice sailing past. A daughter started college. I was rebuilding a ’66 Mustang with the son. Time and money to sail dried up. I had proved I could handle what my stomach considered rough water without feeding the fishes. It was time to move on to the next phase of my plan. I sold the small boat by way of Craig’s List. It was hard to see her go. I had sweated in the hold doing repairs, almost busted my back raising and lowering the mast, made many mistakes but I gained the knowledge that even a middle-aged climber could learn to sail. Demonstrating this one skill quieted one objection from my sisters, i.e. that their brother was too old for such an undertaking. As my Sifu (a Chinese word for the Japanese word for Sensei, a martial arts teacher) said all those years ago that embracing mistakes and the embarrassment they bring allows a person to learn any skill they choose.
Time has to pass before I am ready for my next boat. Get the kids through college, take an offshore course, read, plan, watch instructional DVDs, take more sailing classes. I have ten years to learn enough to confidently move a vessel across open water. Do you think that will be enough time? If you don’t please don’t tell my sisters!