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Windshifts: Passing the Torch

My dad came from a long line of sailors and seafarers, but he didn’t start boating himself until he was nearly 50. I was 12 years old when he bought a 14ft Rhodes Bantam. Together, with some trials and errors, we set about learning to sail it.

My dad came from a long line of sailors and seafarers, but he didn’t start boating himself until he was nearly 50. I was 12 years old when he bought a 14ft Rhodes Bantam. Together, with some trials and errors, we set about learning to sail it. Once, when the centerboard jammed in its trunk and we couldn’t sail upwind back to the dock, it was Dad who waded ashore and walked back around the pond to get help. He was the captain—he alone held the light that guided us forward. The final responsibility for our safety and security rested squarely on his shoulders.

I was 14 when we moved up to a 19ft wooden Lightning. I’d learned a little about sailing, but I still relied on Dad when things went wrong. At the launch site when I dropped the painter and the boat drifted off into the lake, it was Dad who swam out to retrieve it. When dry rot attacked the hull, it was Dad who did the replanking.

Two years later we bought an Islander 30, and I felt like we’d moved up to the big leagues. I was learning more about sailing and doing more aboard, but Dad was always there to point me in the right direction. When a jib sheet got fouled in the prop, it was Dad who dove into the icy water to untangle it. When we made our first big cruise to northern Lake Michigan, Dad did the navigating, and when we went aground, Dad got us off. He was the captain, and it was up to him to get us, and the boat, home safely.

But I was beginning to catch on. We sailed the Islander down the East Coast to Florida when I was 17. On that trip I took on more responsibility. Dad navigated by dead reckoning across the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas, but I was the one who climbed the mast and made repairs aloft while we were underway. Dad also began to let me handle more of our docking operations, and I took full responsibility for the foredeck work and sail handling. By age 18, I’d learned enough to take the boat home to Michigan from North Carolina. More importantly, Dad was confident enough to let me go. I was becoming a sailor.

When I was in my 20s, Dad bought a Freedom 30, and we sailed it on summer cruises to the northern Great Lakes. All summer he continued to give me more room to make decisions. We’d always sailed together as a team, but Dad had always been the coach. Now he was letting me call the plays. 

A few years later I made an Atlantic crossing on a friend’s boat and Dad was thrilled when I called him from the Azores and then from Morocco. The next year I bought my own boat, a Westsail 32. Not long after, Dad sold the Freedom.

It was then that the torch officially passed. That summer we took my boat cruising on northern Lake Huron, close to Canadian waters. When the U.S. Border Patrol came alongside and said, “Let’s see your documentation papers, captain,” I was surprised to see they were looking at me. 

As I anchored that evening, it sunk in: responsibility for this new boat was all mine. I couldn’t lean on Dad anymore, because now I was the owner. I was the captain. It was all up to me. I stood watching the sunset and realized that part of my life was gone forever. Like it or not, I was carrying the torch and had to find my own way. The winds of time had blown open a new chapter in the pages of our lives, and regrettably, there was no voyaging back. 

I now sail in a world of ocean cruising and distant landfalls. Dad is always with me, but only via telephone, ham radio and e-mail. Dad’s 94 now, his boating days behind him, but every time I sail I think of him. I can feel his guidance, wisdom and companionship. And sometimes on a black night when the wind is up and the seas are high, I feel his reassuring hand on my shoulder and I smile, because with Dad there, I know he’ll hold the torch aloft and light the way for me.

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