The breeze kicks up. The boat digs in, and I tighten my grip on the mainsheet. It’s overcast but warm. The slate-blue water around me is patterned with whitecaps. Ahead, the low, tumbling hills of Old Mission Peninsula, a 17-mile long finger of land separating the east and west arms of Grand Traverse Bay, spread out along the horizon. I have sailed in this corner of northern Michigan, where my grandparents built a house for themselves many years ago since I was an 8-year-old boy. The peninsula has always helped me keep my bearings. As I steer toward a distant tree, the 20-year-old 11ft Laser Pico I’m sailing picks up speed. I live in Los Angeles now. Today is the last day before I head home. It was a long drive getting here, but as I hike out, counteracting the force of the wind, I know it was worth it.
Suddenly, a hard gust comes rolling in from out of the north. The Pico shudders loses speed and starts to broach. I let the mainsheet slide through my fingers, but it’s too late. The main is chattering, and the wind has caught the exposed underside of the hull, now well out of the water. The boat is going over. I watch the boom slap against a wave, then I fall in after it, quickly coming back up again to grab hold of the boat, now drifting sideways before the onslaught of wind. Embarrassed, I grab the daggerboard and coax the boat into slowly righting itself. I tumble into the cockpit and yank on the mainsheet to get going. A few minutes later, I’m back in the water. I right the boat a second time. I capsize. Things are not going well.
As I scramble yet again back up onto the boat’s daggerboard, though, it occurs to me that while I may be spending almost as much time in the water as on it, I’m still having fun. That even a bad day on the Pico is still pretty great. I’ve been pushing the boat, testing my skills and enjoying one of my favorite places on earth—the same as I’ve been doing every summer since I was in second grade. Rugged and simple, our family’s Laser Pico was the first boat I ever sailed and remains one of my favorites.
The first Laser Pico was built in the mid-1990s. Around 11,000 have been manufactured since. It’s a dead simple boat—a rotomolded plastic hull with a mainsail, jib, rudder and daggerboard. The rigging is stripped down to bare essentials. The mainsail furls around the mast like a window shade. There’s no halyard, no reefing lines to worry about. As a kid, I could rig it in a matter of minutes.
My dad bought our Pico in 2000, after seeing one in a magazine. He’d always dreamed of going sailing. It was my mom who encourages him to go and check one out for himself. He did. The next day the Pico was delivered to my grandparents’ house on Lake Michigan.
When it arrived, I didn’t know a thing about sailboats or sailing. My dad didn’t know a whole lot more. As he learned what he was doing, though, he taught my brother, Charlie, and me as well. On those early trips, I’d man the jib. When my dad called out, “Coming about!” or “Jibe ho!” I’d let go of one sheet and heave in on the other, ducking under the main as I did so.
Soon, Charlie, and I were able to take the boat out on our own. That’s when the real adventures began. I would drag the Pico down to the water and then shoot out across the bay, marveling as the sandy bottom plunged away beneath me, the crystalline water turning from turquoise to indigo. Holding onto the tiller, I soon learned how it only took the lightest touch to keep the boat in balance. I also learned how to read the water, looking out for gusts, how to watch the telltales and how close I could sail the boat into the wind before the jib would start getting cranky. There was nothing better than catching a breeze and watching it surge through the waves, sending clouds of spray cascading over the bow. I was hooked.
Since then, my experiences aboard any number of larger, more complex boats have shown me just how unique the 11ft Pico truly is. A few summers after we got our Pico, for example, my dad bought another boat, a 29ft Hunter. Suddenly, we had a lot more real estate to play with. We also had a galley, bigger sails and a higher top speed. We could sail farther and in greater comfort. We could invite friends on board, promising them they would only have to worry about getting wet if they went swimming.
Of course, nothing in life comes free, and the Hunter also came with plenty of strings attached, in the form of slip fees and a dizzying array of systems to keep track of. I have nothing against bigger sailboats, but I doubt many people become sailors because of a love of diesel-engine maintenance. By contrast, the Pico asks very little. Over the years, we’ve had to replace the rudder and sails. That’s it. The hull has sat exposed to a score of Michigan winters but has yet to warp or crack. With the arrival of summer, it’s always there waiting for us.
Back when I was a kid, my dad liked to talk about the ancient Phoenicians. To this day I like to think about the “magic” of what they and their fellow mariners of old were able to accomplish—crossing oceans using little more than the wind and their sails aboard boats made of wood. Being out on the Pico, I feel close to this same magic. And if that means getting the occasional soaking, so be it.
Photos courtesy of Michael Charboneau