I love this time of year. In Wisconsin, April is when people prep boats to go back in the water. It has been a long, hard winter of reliving last year’s races at the bar, reading magazine stories about other people sailing in warmer weather, visiting ocean racing websites and yearning. And now it’s time for the northern sailor’s rite of spring: getting ready to launch.
In the fall, the yard surrounding our yacht club is transformed. Our tent—which morphs through the season from head-banging dance-party venue to after-race hot dog and beer joint to junior sailing regatta headquarters to impromptu sail loft—comes down, the junior dinghies are packed away and trucks bring in our cradles from wherever they were rusting over the summer. Members’ boats are hauled, dripping from the water and shoehorned into every available space. The former tent site becomes the boatyard, which then goes into hibernation along with the boats. Like most yards in the north, scant work is done over the frozen winter. The static raft-up is quiet and cold.
Come April all of that changes. Covers come off and Saturday mornings are abuzz with the sound of sanders, buffers and sprayers. Friends who have seen little of each other over the winter waste precious prep time talking. Some get sucked in by the vortex of the club bar. Folks climb ladders, wash decks and engage in a spirited but short-lived competition for vacant electrical outlets and water spigots. Maintenance projects are proposed, discussed, disputed and—all too often—put off. The best paint/dust mask/tape/wax/varnish is extolled or belittled. Repetitive trips to the (inexplicably) distant chandlery are made. Crew shows up to help. We are reacquainted with our favorite people: sailors.
Before the boat goes in, the coming summer is a vision of optimism. No race has started, so each one represents potential victory. No distant port has been visited, so each represents a potential destination. No friends have arrived, so each one’s first visit to the boat is warmly anticipated. The rigging tape is supple and white, topsides are gleaming and streak-free, varnish is still smooth and unscratched. And, of course, nothing expensive has broken, so the budget has not been exceeded. Yet.
I climb the ladder in my grimy clothes and take a seat in the cockpit. There is no rigging to clutter things up and even the tiller is still at home, awaiting its final coat of varnish. The sun is out, unseasonably warm. I spent countless hours here last summer with my friends, racing hard at times, drifting at times, just fooling around out on the gorgeous lake at others. I can hear the chatter before the start, the laughter after the finish, and can imagine the quiet hours in the evening. Last summer my boat sprung annoying leaks in portholes, stubbornly refused to stop growing mold in the hanging locker and devoured bags of ice, cans of beer and bottles of rum and water. It also endured the worst storm I have experienced on this lake with stout grace, carrying my partner and me through without a hint of trouble. It brought me laughter, some victories, a few disappointments, great friendships, a bit of bravery and some love.
This year, as always, will be different than last. As I prepare to climb down and return to work, I look over the battle-scarred deck and wonder what lies in store for us. I look out over the boats in the yard. Some are still covered. Others are shined up, varnished, painted and ready to go. In less than two weeks, all of these boats will be floating, but today each one remains a bundle of potential. Climbing back down the ladder, ready to mix up a messy brew of paint, I cannot wait to watch the keel kiss the water, to guide the mast down onto her step, to raise the sails for the first time.
To sail again.
I love this time of year.
Illustration by Tom Payne
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