Once again, January finds me jobless. I’ve developed ways of coping with this. I read, fix things, take long walks and take to the water. What I hadn’t developed—until now—is a way to beat the guilt of not spending every waking moment looking for a new job. Like the writer and sailing enthusiast Hillaire Belloc, my wife understands that a young man ought to be able to drink a little, shoot a little and sail a little. But with four children to feed, such understanding can no longer be taken for granted. Thus even the thought of sailing while jobless is accompanied by gale-force guilt. Until now, that is. One day a week and for several weeks running, I’ve turned from post-modern provider to pre-modern provider, and that day happens to coincide with the itch to go sailing.
The ancient idea of harvesting the sea by sail came to me late. To me, if you fished, you rowed out or you motored out, but you didn’t sail. Foolish, I know, but when was the last time you saw someone trolling off the stern of a Flying Scot? Luckily, in Belize, I witnessed day after day a very old man fill his very small sailboat with fish. The idea was so perfectly simple that it stuck with me, and thank goodness for both my conscience and for my presently incomeless but nonetheless well-fed family.
I try to go crab sailing in the middle of the week because that is about the time I need an uplift in morale. I sail in all weather—in the inlet, the worse that can happen in heavy gust is that my Laser flips and a tug picks me up—and in light weather, I row. Once, when a fog rolled in I still went out, keeping close to the shore. When I could no longer see land, I used my crab pot as an anchor.
I bike my kids to school and then return to our townhouse to grab what I need for a working day out on the water. Into my backpack, I stuff my lunch, a large thermos of tea, a pipe filled with cheap Red Cap pipe tobacco, a towel, spare clothes and an extra pair of heavy wool socks. In the summer, I include a liter of home brew, but in the winter, with the inlet frigid and empty and my lack of life insurance, I forgo this item. Then I kiss my wife goodbye and set off for the four and a half mile ride to the boatyard, stopping en route at the grocers to buy bait. The store at this hour is empty save for a few pensioners vying for discount chicken parts. The checkout girl must sense that my station in life has slipped somewhat—whereas I once bought only drumsticks, now I buy only necks and backs. I remount my bicycle and continue toward the water.
The ride from here onwards is downhill and striking, bordered by the snow-capped mountains and evergreen forests of British Columbia. I sit up in my seat to see the surface of the inlet. At this altitude, determining wind by the movement of the surrounding shrubbery can be deceiving. I’m looking for ripples on the water. In the summer, the Barnet Marine Park is full of picnicking families, but now only the diehard crabbers are here—old men who cast their traps off the piers all day long. I wave to them as I pass by. Rarely is the gesture returned.
I open the padlock on the gate and enter the boatyard. The co-op canoes and dinghies slumber beneath tarps that sag with rain water or crackle with frost. I park my bicycle in the shed and check the tide table pinned on the corkboard. What it says may determine how hard I’ll have to row. Then I set to rigging my Laser. Most of the Lasers are old and leaky. I maintain one in sound shape and within minutes have her ready to go. Then I rummage through my locker for my survival suit, whistle, and Greek fisherman’s cap. The cap has a hole in the top from when, two seasons ago, it became home to a family of mice. In my present state, I’ll have time to mend it. Finally, I bait my crab pot. When all this is done, I open the lock on the adjacent gate and wheel the Laser down the ramp to the water.
To avoid wet feet, I pounce onto the dinghy like a cat. When the wind is up, this maneuver is not advisable, but in the winter the inlet is quite calm. What blows through here now is what I call angel’s breath, an almost imperceptible breeze that would move nothing much bigger than what I’m sailing.
Keeping a crab pot balanced on a Laser’s bow is not easy. My routine now is to drop my crab pot shortly after departing. That way, I avoid any unnecessary tangles and keep the pot in the water longer. Off the boat and down it goes 50ft or 65ft into the cold, clear water. With the day’s work half done, it is time for lunch. I unwrap my sandwich and pour out some tea. Then I look around for my dining companion. Not once in the years that I’ve sailed here has a seal not popped up. I wave to him and tack just for his entertainment. He disappears. I spill my tea.
Out here in the Burrard Inlet at noon on a workday is about the most perfect place in the world that I know of. I watch the cars scream toward Vancouver and the trains and planes too. I’ll be part of that game again soon. For now, though, I’m making faces at a seal and blowing copious amounts of pipe smoke into the blue sky. Only the call of a higher power could lead fishermen to abandon their nets. I ease back into the cockpit and stretch my legs over the gunwales.
Hours pass, and I head back to shore. The wind has shifted a dozen times and now blows from the east. My heart beats as I approach my pot. I point my nose into the wind and begin to haul up on the rope. It’s heavy this time, heavier than ever before. I pull faster and let go of the tiller and sheet. Soon a whole bevy of crustacean life appears before me. Up they come into the cockpit, full-bellied with clacking claws. I’ve caught my legal amount for the day.
At the beach, I throw back the females and babies. Seagulls swoop down from nowhere to fight for what remains of the chicken necks. With my pack full of crabs, I pedal up the highway just as rush hour begins. I’ll be home shortly after the kids arrive from school. To them, everything is normal as Dad comes home from a day of work.
Peter Valing is an award-winning writer and avid dinghy sailor. He lives with his wife and five children in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he spends his summers sailing as far as a dinghy will take him and his brood