By Stas Holodnak
This lake was bigger than the last one. Carrying the word
'pines' in its name it had an island filled with densely grown
trees - pines and cedars among them. A bear, who some locals
claimed seeing swimming in and out, was said to hide over there.
The boat too was bigger. Twelve feet long from the stern to the bow it had a mast, benches along the sides, and a hatch housing a half-flying, half-jumping insect the size of a butterfly that kept making rounds. It would not leave even when chased with an oar.
What it did not have was a headsail that would make sailing upwind faster. "You got some nerve to ask for a jib, the boat shop owner said with a hurt tone in his voice. You have no idea how much effort it was to put this boat together for you!" I knew that he wasn't really offended as he well knew that I appreciated his efforts. You can rent anything in America from a pair of skis to an air plane but good luck renting a sail boat. You can buy one cheap but as a New Yorker you don't have space to keep it, although my friend stores a windsurfer in his living room behind the couch.
A worker from the store named Lu brought the boat to the launch site. The wind was substantial, save for the last day, stronger than on any other day during my stay at the Pines Lake.
"Are you sure you want to do this now?", asked Lu as the boat
heeled wildly when I stepped onboard. Struggling to keep my
balance I raised the sail. The boat shot forward like a rocket.
I looked back, there was no sign of Lu or anyone else. No one
else just the boat, the wind and me.
I wasn't sure at first if my centerboard was up or down as it refused to move in any direction. Yet by constant drifting sideways and heeling I started to suspect that it was not where it should have been.
The shape of the Pines Lake resembled an overfed figure eight with island in its belly. Pushed by the wind I found myself in the eight's lower half. This was a place which despite of its scenic beauty I would try (and fail) to leave for the rest of the afternoon.
If boats could leave trace on water, mine would have redrawn a right angle dozen times on that day. I would sail from one corner of the lake towards the island. At the same time, the wind pushed me sideways to the lake's other corner. Wind puffs were heeling the boat which came close to overturning on a number of times. Twice I submitted to an instinct to take the sail down - not a good impulse since this makes you lose control of the boat altogether.
A short paddle that came with the boat was not nearly enough to move it any considerable distance but it came in handy when avoiding slamming into docks. I managed to leave all of them unscratched but the property owners had to see for themselves. Like tidal waves they appeared on the docks when I sailed away and withdrew in time when the wind pushed me back in.
The wind brought heavy rain with it. I got soaking wet in the matter of seconds. I tied the boat to the next dock the wind pushed me into and was about to leave, but looking at the house in front of me, I hesitated. Towering above surrounding trees, it stood about one hundred feet away from the lake. From the dock where I was a narrow trail ascended to its back porch. Halfway through a small dog was barking at me. A woman peered from a porch then disappeared inside the house. I just stood there waiting for the rain to stop. As soon as it did, I'd set sail again.
The upper half of the lake had three public docks while the land surrounding the lake's lower half was privately owned. I was scouting for the least unfriendly looking landing site inside the area where the wind would let me sail. One house stood out. Instead of a dock it had a small beach. Close to the land three or four sunfish sailboats were swinging around their mooring sites. I made a landing between them. A tall man came out. "I am sorry", I said, "but I can't escape this place". "Yes I saw you getting pushed by the wind", he said sympathetically. "You can come and get your boat anytime today." I asked him if I can come tomorrow and he agreed. "I won't be here", he told me, "but my dog will. He is friendly though."
The first thing I did when I got out, was to drive to the boat shop. Lu was there manning the register. As soon as he saw me a bright smile spread across his face - a little too bright for a welcoming smile. Watching my balance dance this morning must have been entertaining I thought to myself.
I told Lu about the centerboard issue I was having. Luckily he had a boat's hull, just like mine, lying in the backyard. "You have to pull a pin out of the centerboard to lower it," Lu said. He lent me a wrench.
On the next morning I towed the boat with a kayak to one of the public docks. It was not a proudest moment for me as a sailor but I hoped that everyone and above all the friendly dog would still be sleeping. As soon as I wrestled the pin out of the centerboard, it lowered itself. Inspired by the new development I ventured out. The boat to my satisfaction was behaving appropriately. The laws of sailing were applying at last.
The following ten days sailing was a pure pleasure. I circumnavigated the lake over and over again. I explored the lower half, the upper half. With centerboard raised I sailed inches away from the island at times getting a feeling, that a pair of eyes (probably that of a squirrel) is drilling a hole in my back. I took on board friends, family, and anyone who had any desire to sail, and anyone too polite to decline an invitation. I was comfortable and in control one hundred percent. Then the wind came back - a powerful wind.
Some years ago I came across a book called A God Forsaken Sea. It listed a series of accounts by the participants of the race called the Vendee Globe. In this race lone sailors race non stop around the globe in the Southern Ocean - place where forty knots per hour winds and twenty foot waves are the usual weather. This is a place where I would not want fly over in an airplane.
Nevertheless what striked me in the book was its introduction. The writer described how his boat once got caught in some storm and how terrified he was. But as he conveyed conditions to fellow sailors, some shook their shoulders. Without any bravado such weather wasn't a big deal for them. It was normal. It seamed that everyone had his or her own weather tolerance threshold..
According to an iPhone weather app mine was seventeen miles per hour wind plus strong gusts announced by a loud shushing of trembling leaves.
Even before I got out I knew that this time it will be different. My boat did not sail - it flew. If before when accelerating the hull made the squeaking sound, now it roared. The wind puffs were heeling the boat well outside my zone of comfort.
When in doubt let it out - such is the most important sailing rule of thumb.
To ease the tension the wind had built in the sail, I released it. Eventhough the boat righted itself, the wind pressure on the sail did not subsize. It was not a fair fight and the wind knew it. Like an arm wrestler who can push down a hand of a weaker opponent at any time but is waiting for the right moment, the wind kept the grip on my sail. I tricked it by turning the boat away. The wind now was blowing from behind harmlessly pushing me forward, but after a while, I started to ran out of water. Then in what amounts to full stop in sailing, I turned the boat directly into the wind. The sail protested by loud flapping. The wind began to shake the mast violently. It felt like each and every pin that was holding the must, the boom and the boat together, had something to say to me.
I, on the other hand, had nothing more to say to the wind. I sailed back to the dock and called it a day. The feeling of control I enjoyed before, it turns out, was only an illusion.
Other stories by Stas:
Sailing on the Hudson River - A Birthday Sail: Sail by the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island & A Race Recap.