Waterlines: Wax On, Wax Off

It doesn’t matter how many children you have, or how much practice you’ve had raising them, one thing holds true: you get to start over with each one.
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The author and his daughter, Ellie

The author and his daughter, Ellie

It doesn’t matter how many children you have, or how much practice you’ve had raising them, one thing holds true: you get to start over with each one.

Sure, some things pay their way forward (diapers, riding a bike, etc.), but every kid arrives with his or her own unique personality, and nothing in the familial DNA can predict whether one child will love baseball and the other sailing.

Lucky for me, my daughter, Ellie (16 going on 30), is a gung-ho sailor. Invariably, she’s the first crewmember to jump out of her bunk in the morning and announce: “Wind’s up, let’s go sailing” or “Papa, can I take the helm today?” or “I wanna run the foredeck on Lynn’s J when we do the Shaw Island Classic! Will you talk to him?”

As millions of teenagers (and their parents) wander through life in a digitally induced coma, you have to love any kid with enthusiasm for a real-time connection to the natural world. So I respond to her enthusiasm with a “You betcha!” as a warm wave of gratitude reminds me it wasn’t always this way. Far from it!

She was six years old when we got Nehan, and though she seemed plenty excited about the prospects of dock life, bouncing along under sail scared the heck out of her. The moment we left the dock she turned silent, her eyes pinched together in a shadow, and soon she would vanish belowdecks. Nothing made her shriek louder from her bunk than heeling 15 degrees. Sailing paralyzed her with fear and I was at a loss. What could I do?

As someone well versed in the effects of acute anxiety, I knew that 1) her fear was more real than real, and 2) if it took root in the emotional centers of her brain it could have long-lasting effects. Somehow I needed to help her tame the runaway horses of fear and anxiety. That took time, ingenuity, luck and a little bit of that old Hollywood magic.

It was about that time that the film Life is Beautiful was playing in theaters (and won an Oscar for best picture). This was the story of an irrepressibly ebullient Italian man, played by Roberto Benigni, who protects his innocent young son from the horrors of World War II by creating a fantasy world. I thought, “Hey, that might work for Ellie. What happens if I create an imaginary reality for her on another boat, with different surroundings and other sailors?”

It worked like magic. One beautiful day I coaxed her into going sailing with friends on their racing sloop. We headed out in chipper spirits, telling stories, singing little songs and exclaiming how beautiful life is on the water. Up went the sails, in came the sheets, over we went heeling. As we slipped through the water at eight knots I watched Ellie out of the corner of my eye, braced in the cockpit, her eyes pinched together, waiting for the fear to come. But it didn’t come that day. The joyful enthusiasm we created proved irresistible to her, and before I knew it she was sitting between my legs on the rail, white-knuckling the stanchion, and yelling: “Make it heel more!” She beamed. This was a moment to remember. She had vanquished a crippling demon.

That was the moment Ellie became a sailor. Now she wanted to learn everything there was to know about Nehan. To reinforce those desires I showed her one of my favorite films, The Karate Kid, which tells the story of a teenage boy who has moved to a new town, gets beaten up by boys in a karate dojo, and befriends an elderly Japanese bonsai gardener who promises, after some haggling, to teach him karate for self-protection. To begin his lessons, the old master has the young boy wax all of his cars. He teaches him to put the wax on with one hand, and rub the wax off with the other, saying, “Karate, wax on, wax off.”

Ellie got that. She studied knots, learned how to read charts, took bearings, managed ground tackle, varnished and painted her dink, mastered sail trim, and, perhaps most daunting, started reading the engine manual when it started giving us fits, five years ago, by overheating at the most inopportune times.

This past summer, we couldn’t get more than a hundred yards from the dock before the engine would overheat, forcing us to turn around. Calling a mechanic would have cost us $2,000, easy. I had tried all of the usual cures: raw-water strainer, impeller, raw-water pump. Nothing added up. Finally, I said, “Ellie, let’s get out the tools, we’re going to have to do this ourselves. We’ll get it together.”

“We can do it, Papa,” she said, more certain than I.

Six hours later, with every hose labeled, manifold disassembled, pumps removed, water heaters disconnected, we found it! Many years of saltwater rime had finally blocked the heat exchanger intake. Exhausted, grimy and famished, this was a “Eureka!” moment for father and daughter. Dog-tired, we reassembled the engine, started it up, and hung our heads over the transom to see if we were right.

Water flowed out the exhaust like Niagara Falls. Upside down, her signature braids dangled beneath her beaming smile and our hands smacked together in a resounding high-five.

“Wax on, wax off, Papa. We did it!”

My daughter. The sailor.

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