Giving Thanks to a Sailing Mentor
My love for boats began in 1960 when I was a high school freshman. A friend’s father had a small powerboat and we water skied in wet suits as early as May. Waterskiing became my summer joy of choice as a teenager. It wasn’t until some years later that my engineering career would lead me to an even greater boating passion – sailing.
My first sailing experience occurred in 1974 when my waterskiing friend, who was director of a community recreation department, organized a sailing program but needed one more student to fill the class, so I signed up. The lessons were to be held aboard a training sloop that sailed on Lake St. Clair in Detroit, Michigan.
When I arrived and saw the boat, my lofty expectations met reality. Our “classroom” was an old wooden, 29-foot sloop with an open cockpit and no cabin. It was fitted with weathered bench seats. The mast and boom were spruce spars whose peeling varnish had seen better days, and a massive tiller was perched atop the afterdeck.
The skipper was equally as colorful. Wearing a tattered Mackinac race cap, a Rolling Stones’ t-shirt, Big Labowski-styled shorts and deck shoes that were well beyond their expiration date, he looked more hippie than Corinthian. But he knew how to sail and throughout the next six weeks, he planted a seed in me that has never stopped growing.
Years later, I worked for a major auto company as a design studio engineer, where the staff consisted of artists, craftsmen and an oddball assortment of extremely talented characters. But more importantly, there was a very active sailing community.
I became friends with some of the creative staff, notably a master sculptor named Charles. He was about twenty years my senior and occasionally mentored me on my drawings. Standing six feet tall with grey-streaked auburn hair and a moustache, he was ruggedly handsome, athletic and worldly. I was aware that he sailed, and when I told him that I had taken some sailing lessons, he suggested that I race with him. I had no idea what I was getting into.
The following Saturday, I boarded Manon, Charles’ Crescent 24, at Detroit’s historic Bayview Yacht Club. There were three other crewmembers, all of who were women. The Crescents were the sport boats of their era. With deep-fin keels, a low freeboard and a bendy mast, they were fast and fun. I found that Crescent sailors are like a cult, complete with their own cheers, traditions and camaraderie. The jovial pre-race atmosphere was just the beginning of the celebrations. This was my first race and I was both excited and nervous.
Everyone donned his or her foulies. A 15-20 knot breeze and three-foot seas greeted us on shallow Lake St. Clair, and I knew it was going to get very wet aboard Manon. My heart was pounding as we tacked back and forth behind the starting line. My only goal was to sail around the course without making a mistake. On the first weather leg, Charles handed me a bucket and said, “Bail.” And that’s what I did for two exhilarating hours.
A bright June sun warmed the early afternoon. After the race, I dried off while the crewmembers removed their rain gear and handed out beer. As I sipped my beer, Charles asked me if I knew how to trim a spinnaker. I admitted having never sailed under spinnaker, and I soon got my first lesson on how to fly a kite.
After the crew readied the chute for hoist, I held a death grip on the sheet. When the halyard went up, the kite filled with an explosive pop, sending Manon surfing off. Perhaps it was beginner’s luck, but I somehow managed to trim the sail without it collapsing or spinning out. I did well enough that Charles invited me back often and never again asked me to bail.
I’m not sure what place we finished that day but it didn’t seem to matter much. Once back at Bayview, I was immediately welcomed into the family of Crescent sailors and I enjoyed the first of many regatta parties to come.
Sadly, Charles passed away before I fully appreciated what he did for me. At his memorial, the crew and I recalled how much he loved sailing, being on the water and having fun. I quietly thanked him for introducing me to a sport that became a life’s passion, and I remain forever grateful to him.
My first sail with Charles occurred nearly forty years ago, and I continue to enjoy a rush of excitement every time I race Raging Storm, my Olson 911S, on western Lake Erie.