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My short career of sailing mishaps

I LEARNED TO SAIL small boats as a teenager, in the frigid salt waters of Georgia Straight near Vancouver. Learning to manage a dinghy in heavy wind was thrilling, but also cold, salty and uncomfortable. My hands always hurt, and when you capsized it was nearly life-threatening!

Imagine my delight 20 years later when I rediscovered sailing in the warm, sweet waters of Georgian Bay, Ontario. I could have the best of both worlds: the high that comes from testing the elements in a small craft, but in the relative comfort of warm wind and temperate water. When I sailed, I could be a kid again, without fear or doubt, and with freedom beckoning up ahead in the open water.

So began my career of adult sailing mishaps.

I started with rented boats, in the big bay off Parry Sound where we went family camping when the kids were small. I loved my first week with the tiny Force 5. I even invited my father-in-law for a quick spin. But in the short space of five minutes, I nearly finished him off. We were hardly underway before I fell off the boat, unused to handling it with two adults aboard. I clambered back, retrieved my hat, then promptly capsized the craft, putting us both in the drink this time. Not a great start.

However, I was moving up the food chain, now sailing in the boats of friends. Sandy invited me to help christen his used CL-16 in a voyage to the outer islands off Twelve Mile Bay one windy afternoon. We managed the long windward leg out into the bay, then “came about” for the easy trip home. But as we turned, the rudder snapped cleanly in two. We stared in disbelief as it floated away, leaving us completely without steering. We limped erratically home using a paddle as a makeshift rudder.

For three summers, we vacationed at Golden Lake, in eastern Ontario. This little lake was a challenge, the wind gusting violently or shifting suddenly, requiring complete concentration. After several days at the helm of a borrowed Hobie Cat catamaran, I was feeling chuffed. I invited my friend Michel for a sail, and my nine-year-old son Thomas begged to join us.

The wind was only moderate, so after a few runs out and back I offered the helm to Michel while I clambered into the “trapeze” – the harness that suspends you from the mast so you can extend your full body out over the water. “Exhilarating” doesn’t even come close to describing the feeling as I whizzed along, almost horizontal to the surface of the lake.

I didn’t notice the squall coming up behind us until it was too late. Michel wasn’t familiar with handling the two-hulled boat when it started it heel over. The result was a sudden, and very violent stop as it capsized. I went flying, landing 20 feet away in a splash.

“Where’s Thomas?” I shouted as I surfaced. But Michel had him, and performed flawlessly in the crisis, calming him down, then flagging a rescue boat, then helping me right the Hobie Cat and sail it home.

When I turned 40, I became the proud owner of my own 1970s-era Laser. It’s a sports car of a dinghy: one sail, a tiny cockpit, and a hull that looks more like a surfboard than a boat.

We have a week at a rented cottage, and I spend every afternoon exploring the complicated shoals and channels in my Laser, safely protected from the sobering force of the open bay. One day, I venture out through a gap in the Hangdog Reef, testing my craft in the full swell of Georgian Bay. The wind, although brisk, is steady and predictable. I sit high on the sloping deck, gazing at the beautifully clear water. The horizon beckons; the risk seems minimal. How far could I go?

I balance freedom and responsibility as I zigzag out into the lake. There are no cottages here, and motor boats avoid this tricky route, far away from the main channel. I’m completely alone and free, far from the nearest humans. Then something inside me clicks – not fear, just prudence, and humility towards this rugged landscape. I turn around.

As I head back into protected waters there’s a loud crack from the hull of my boat, and the mast lurches to one side. I haven’t hit a rock. Instead, my hull has failed unexpectedly where the mast attaches, and I’m barely able to coax it home, navigating with great difficulty because of my disabled rigging.

I thank my inner voice, the one that whispered, “real danger lurks here,” as I sailed westward into the big lake. I return quietly to the dock, where everyone is happily buried in their novels and magazines, oblivious to my near disappearance.

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