To go down to the lake in boats

I am a lake sailor. On weekends. I am no threat to the legend of Joshua Slocum, who completed the first solo circumnavigation of the world. My world under sail is bounded not by mysterious horizons but by Oregon conifers.

There are advantages. After a day's sailing you can go home to your own (dry, cozy) bed. Or sleep aboard and watch the eagles settle down and the owls come out. On a moonless night a million stars are strewn across the black night sky. There is never a hurricane nor typhoon, and you can always put in for a burger and a beer.

There's a downside, of course. The first is simply that the lake is covered by ice all winter. A guy loses fighting trim over the winter and doesn't quite get his chops back until about the middle of July. By then he and the boat should be humming like a well-oiled machine.

It's amazing the dumb things I do in June. Last month I rigged the boat and stepped the mast, a three-man operation, and realized I forgot to put a wind vane on top. This requires you to explain to your crew that you must take the mast back down.

One year on the first sail of summer I looked on the starboard side of the mast for the jib halyard and the port side for the main, which is backwards. I attributed this to a form of nautical dyslexia like when you see those weird reflections bouncing between your pickup's rear window and the camper shell as you're backing a trailer, whoa there.

Another downside is that I have on occasion tired of sailing around the same lake and wished for new worlds to explore. This has not happened the last couple of years. I am forced to conclude, with Cassius, that the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.

Last month I rigged a new topping lift in order to hoist the boom when raising or lowering sail, and to catch a little more breeze while running with the wind.

While pondering exactly how to create this thing I came across the following passage (can't remember where, apologies to the author): "There comes a time a sailor 'gets it.' You can design and rig hardware to do what you want. How you do it isn't as important as understanding the need to do it. Sailing is not a rote activity, it is an abstract symphony of different purposes coming together."

Wow. Another instance of sailing as a metaphor for life. Surely this principle holds for endeavors from fishing to philosophy.

It undoubtedly held for Slocum, who set out from Boston on April 24, 1895, in the 37-foot sloop-rigged fishing boat Spray. In his book "Sailing Alone Around the World" he said he navigated by dead reckoning for longitude, using a cheap tin clock, and noon sun sights for latitude. He would lash the helm and adjust the sails so that he could sail hundreds of miles at a time without ever touching the helm.

Why does a sailor do it? I suspect, after all, because it's fun. In ways both humble and profound, without any redeeming social significance, it's fun.

"Life and love are life and love, a bunch of violets is a bunch of violets, and to drag in the idea of a point is to ruin everything," DH Lawrence wrote. "Live and let live, love and let love, flower and fade, and follow the natural curve, which flows on, pointless."

Substitute "boats" for "love" and "sail" for "live" and you've got it.

When the wind is up and my tiller lashed, the keel hums, and the hum mixes with the wind and the sun and the water, and it feels as if the boat is purring. I think Joshua Slocum would understand.

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