High and dry in the unchanging latitude of my zero-knot armchair, I was an excellent sailor. Always at the ready, nimble and knowledgeable, never seasick or tired—I was eager, eternally young, and unafraid.
You need only ask some of my former illustrious shipmates. Joshua Slocum, Sailing Around the World Alone, found me a stalwart companion. With Richard Henry Dana, Jr., I spent Two Years Before the Mast. Eric Hiscock suffered me sailing Around the World in Wanderer III, and Tania Aebi found me lolling indolently on the V-berth as she made her Maiden Voyage. Even the boys of Kon-Tiki had to make room on the balsa raft for me.
If I didn’t have the penchant for tarnishing dreams by actually trying to achieve them, my reputation as a meticulous, competent sailor might still be intact. But I am proof a fool is born, if not every minute, then often enough to get around to everybody. At 43, a mother of two with a landlubber husband and minimal sailing experience (including the Jamaica Incident as well as the El Toro Brouhaha), I knew my time had come. I bought Elation, a 1980 Catalina 27 sloop, and went for it.
The first days of my captaincy were idyllic. Elation tugged demurely at her mooring in the Everett Marina, where I’d purchased her with alarming ease. With the help of my husband and every passing boater who couldn’t outrun us and our questions, I learned how to use the radio to call for help and to properly flush a marine head. Like a rabid purser, I stocked the galley with food for 40 days and 40 nights in anticipation of the two-day cruise I would make with my crew—my husband, Peter, and my friend of 30 years, Sam—to Elation’s new home in Quartermaster Harbor, on Vashon Island, Washington, where we live. In the small sun-washed cockpit on the eve of my own maiden voyage, I reflected on my knowledge of sailing, which took exactly the same amount of time as it did for me to finish the Bud Light I had just opened. We were ready to go.
The weather reports for the Pacific Northwest’s inland waters disagreed. In a display of uncaptainly decision making, I didn’t hesitate to press on; I had, at great effort, arranged babysitting. I nosed Elation out of the breakwater under gathering thunderclouds and a rising southwest wind. I was too excited (and stupid) to be worried—yet. The wind quickly rose to 22 knots, and close-hauled, Elation screamed (or was that me?) on black, white-capped water due south toward her first port of call, Shilshole Marina. I didn’t know how to reef—a skill I thought I needed only in the Roaring Forties—and Elation was overpowered. She heeled nearly to her rail as I sat in the rain-drenched cockpit with my feet on the port locker. The thrill was lost on me. In a violent display of how to whip a first mate with canvas, the sails were finally brought down.
After much difficulty, Peter started the 15-horsepower outboard, which cavitated as we slogged along. With a touch of cruelty, Shilshole Marina welcomed us with a very tight berth for the night. My lips stuck in a grimace as Elation bore down on the J/40 unfortunate enough to be docked in front of us. I was giving thanks there were no spectators—those lucky sailors who heed weather reports without giving a rap about babysitting—when the outboard coughed and died. In the fashion of a 250-pound flying squirrel, Sam, dock line in hand, leapt valiantly from the bow. He landed, mostly on the dock, with a sickening thump.
Desperate, no captain or friend was I. “Have you got the line, man?” I screamed. His body inert, Sam gave me the thumbs up. We were saved.
I dropped like a monkey into Elation’s cabin. I had but one thought. When I grabbed the silver flask, I guzzled a huge draft of whiskey. Before the burning had even stopped, and still apoplectic, I rummaged like a mad scientist for Elation’s original FOR SALE sign, determined to hang it back on. But I couldn’t find it. I took another swig of whiskey and disappeared to the V-berth, where I lay for the next twelve hours except for a brief hiatus abovedecks when the alcohol stove seemed certain to catch the boat on fire. It was, I was certain, The Strange Last Voyage of Karen Buhler Gale.
As if the sailing gods knew my resolve was weak, the next day dawned with obvious good will, clear skies, and mirror seas. And, importantly, I still had babysitting. The mates were cheerful, and we pushed and pulled Elation out of her berth, miraculously leaving the J/40 unscathed.
Under power, we headed southwest, crossing the shipping lanes and entering Colvos Passage on Vashon Island’s western side. Catspaws dimpled the water halfway down the 10-mile run, and I tentatively ordered sails up. Three knots of wonder and motion. A quiet magic. Rounding the most southerly point of the island, we came into Tacoma’s Commencement Bay, Mount Rainier looming magisterially 14,000 feet into the sky. The Point Defiance–Tahlequah ferry Rhododendron, a 1947 brass-and teak-charmer, shuttled back and forth in front of us as if pulled on a string.
Still under sail, we arrived in Quarter-master Harbor and grabbed our mooring buoy the first time. Without loss of life or limb, we were home, sunburned, exhausted, and bruised. Between spastic nervous ticks of my left eye, I looked at my crew, haggard and tired men. Aye, sailors we were. Motley, maybe, but we were sailors just the same. And this time I didn’t have to read about it to know it.
Boating writer Karen Buhler Gale is a columnist for Boat.com