Many things change, and our lives grow each day more complicated, but some things never change. A child of 5, looking for sand crabs and starfish at low water, works his toes into the wet sand and bends over his little black hunting shadow in an attitude that is timeless, and when a full-grown and city-bred man, pale and desk-ridden, takes off his shoes and walks with the child, his shambling gesture repeats, atavistically, that of the child.
Life began in the sea, and the neap tides and the spring tides run within us whether we know it or not, and on that inner tide in all of us rocks gently at her mooring the boat that we will own, now or later, soon or some day. The idea of the boat comes to a man inevitably, and usually endures for the rest of his life. It is a fantasy that persists even when it recedes into the heart of the labyrinth that is our daily life, so that even when we have carefully developed the financial and mechanical symbiosis between self and jobs, mortgages, home appliances and automobiles, it is there in its simplicity, at the center.
My first attempt to realize the sailboat fantasy was in 1947, and my ownership was partial, ignorant and brief. It was a small, nondescript lap-strake sailboat and the asking price was $150. With very little hesitation a friend and I put down a $20 deposit and prepared for our first sail. The seams were open from three seasons on the beach and the rigging was rotten, but we soaked the boat in the water for a few hours to tighten her up. Having spent years at an imaginary tiller while reading nautical books (whence all my detailed knowledge of water soaking), I looked confidently at the whitecaps and the gray squall coming out of the northwest, leaped in and shoved off. "Listen, Ernie," I said, "you handle the jib and I'll steer. Just watch the boom when I come about."
The boat, now about a hundred yards offshore, had six inches of water in the bilge, which became seven, then eight, and she sailed a little sluggishly, I thought.
"Ready about!" I shouted, as the boom rapped me smartly on the head and the boat heeled like a felled ox. "Trim ship, Ernie," I snapped, and abandoned the tiller to trim ship also, for the boat lay on her side with the sail in the water. By standing on the centerboard and heaving, we righted her and had the keen sensation of sailing again for about 40 seconds in a boat full of water, which increased her stability, so that instead of heeling sharply she rolled over gently as the next gust split the sail. So we swam toward the beach towing the boat until a motor cruiser took our painter and removed our embarrassment from the local yachting scene.
Later, while we sat on the sand arguing with our wives, a little sailboat came running in. I think it was a Snipe. The jib was down, and the man at the tiller smoked his pipe in a monumentally offhand manner as the boat flew toward the dock. Scarcely looking, he put the tiller down, rounded up into the wind an inch from the dock, stepped off to fend off the boat, dropped the mainsail, and tied up. It was all easy beyond words. It made me feel sad and humble to watch him, and we paid the damage and went home boatless.
The image of this smart sailor, relentlessly sharp in my memory, kept me humble for more than 10 years, the humility fading as it was replaced by overweight and the shortness of breath and money that characterize the commuting wage earner and home owner, the father of three children and the provider for creditors full of faith.
I continued to reread Slocum every year, and in this recent summer of 1958 I again bought a boat, sensibly and permanently. Some may argue the use of the word sensibly, for I bought it at the time when business was at its worst, since I had started free-lancing and had given up the security of a job and a regular income. There was very little money in the bank, nothing on the way and no definite prospects. I had been reconciled to the fact that I could not buy a boat this season, and a little resentful of having paid the price of a small boat 10 times over during the last three years in home improvements. "It's all right," I told my wife, "I'll just go look at the catboat in this ad here in The Norwalk Hour and see what he wants for it, and maybe, if that big campaign comes through with the full color double-page spreads, we'll buy it. Of course, we'll talk it over first. Naturally."
And with that I drove to the gas station, where the boat sat on its trailer. It was a 12-foot mahogany-planked cat of the Beetle class, built in Germany by Abeking and Rasmussen. Every piece of wood was beautifully joined and fitted, and instead of the straight oak tiller in the American Beetles, there was a beautifully curved piece of springy locust. The price included the almost-new Dacron sail, cockpit cover, mushroom anchor and mooring buoy, and a three horsepower outboard motor. She was newly painted and as smooth as glass. She was, I need not tell you, an exceptional buy.
I thought, the boat is only 12 feet long. How can it look so big? And then I realized that to me good boats look big because they are shaped for the sea. I touched the tiller and ran my hand over the cockpit coaming, and I knew I was pale and my forehead felt clammy, and I said, "She's a beautiful boat. I'll buy her." It was the only sensible thing to do, and I have not regretted it.
How do we define common sense? To stay out of the rain? To save our money and pay our bills? To look before we leap? I submit that there is a deeper common sense that has no justification except that it keeps us alive and knowing that we are alive. Nowadays, when a man feels very good, he is apt to use an expression that I do not remember hearing as a child; he will say, "I'm really living," which would indicate that there are times when he is less than certain of this vital fact. People used to say that they were living in a great big way, or in style, but never that they were simply living. Now it is a little harder to know that we are alive and that life is to be lived, and harder too to know who we are and just what we are.
A small sailboat is only a little faster, with sufficient wind, than an oxcart, and this is a time of jet planes and rockets. The jet planes and the rockets are part of us when we think of what we are and what we can do. We can fly faster than sound; we can smash cities and leap into space. We are immense and worried, and the world is little and life is just one thing after another in a big hurry. But this is a collective fever and a delusion, and there is a remedy for it. In the sea you can find the remedy.
A man in a boat regains his sense of scale, knows how big the sea is, and he remembers who and what he is.
In a boat, we become whole again, and the flying fragments of our lives that whirl about us daily become concentrated in us. All of us is here in the boat, the wind is from the southwest and freshening, the tide is high and the current is running from east to west, and we account for the leeway as we pay off from the mooring and beat up the entrance channel, tacking toward Ram Island, where we shall have a picnic and a swim and look for shells and starfish with the children, and there is more of the world and life than there ever was before.
There is the pleasant cunning of making the wind take us where we want to go, and there are charts to read, with their soundings and buoys and markers, and the tide tables, and the tidal current tables, and the tidal current charts, and knots and splices to learn. The children duck their heads without being told now when the boom swings around, and they identify the buoys with pride. We sniff the wind and watch the weather, pick our way through the islands with a map in the cockpit and essay the rougher weather sometimes when the thunderheads stand over Westport and the wind is at 15 mph. The waves where the bottom shoals suddenly between Chimon and Ram islands (when the tidal current is at maximum strength) look very big from a little boat in the sea.
We run back before the wind, put the tiller down and round up the mooring buoy as smartly as did the smart sailor of 10 years ago. And at night we walk outside and feel the breeze and look at the moon and know that it is a spring tide or a neap tide, and the tide inside us is the same, and, rocking gently at her mooring, is the boat, the boat that is really ours, and now.