If I had a blog, today I would write about my love affair with the sea.
When we get a warm-spell this time of year, my imagination turns from dreams about dogsled racing to adventures on the sea. As with dogsledding, my practical experience on a sailboat is limited, but it doesn’t take much to start a love affair with the wide and beautiful sea.
When I was a kid, most of our summer vacations were spent at the family beach house on Casey Key, in Florida. The Beach House was on a private beach, so we had miles of sand and surf to entertain us on our two-week sojourns. Back in the 1970’s, beaches were still covered in shells and if we weren’t swimming, we were adding to our seashell collections. On those warm tropical evenings, we would sit in silence and watch dolphins play in the surf or wait for the ghost-crabs to emerge from their sandy tunnels for a night of hunting. Those were days to remember, days I replay often in my dreams and wish I could experience one more time. I couldn’t imagine loving the ocean any more than I did on those rarefied days of childhood, but that was before I stepped aboard a sailboat.
With the exception of canoeing Missouri rivers, boating was foreign to me. The only other boat I’d been on board was the ferry that took us from Washington to British Columbia and the rolling waters left me more woozy than excited. Then came the summer of 1981: The summer we went to Boca Grande. Because other family members had booked the family beach house during the time Dad could get off work, we set out sights on a little cabana near the town of Boca Grande, on Gasparilla Island in southwest Florida. I was thirteen years old and, for that one summer, I felt good about myself. I was thin, and tan, and looked good in my little white shorts and tank tops. The boys at the bait shop flirted with me and I life seemed full of endless possibilities, as if nothing could stand in my way. Those days didn’t last, but “for one, brief shining moment” the world was my own.
Mid-way through our trip, Dad booked us a day-trip on a sailboat called The Epicurean. This was part of Dad’s dream: Buying a sailboat and spending summers island-hopping around the Caribbean. Mom had doubts about three months on the open water with two teenagers and a Labrador retriever, but to our delight, she was willing to sample the boating lifestyle for a day. Once Dad mentioned our sailboat dreams to our captain, our day was interspersed with Sailing 101. In some ways, I think it was the boat-jargon that fascinated me most. As we sailed south, past Cayo Costa, I walked around The Epicurean memorizing sailboat “anatomy” and in no time I knew where to find the bow, pulpit, mainsail, boom, keel, and transom. I practiced tying bowline knots and learned about “tacking into the wind.” By the time we reached The Cheeseburger in Paradise Bar at Cabbage Key I felt like a real sailor.
It would be ten years before I’d discover, and fall madly in love with, the music of Jimmy Buffett, but dining on Cabbage Key was an unforgettable experience nonetheless. The open-air restaurant looked like your typical island cabana until our eyes became accustomed to the low light and we realized the walls and ceiling were covered with dollar bills, each with the name of the donor written across its face. As the bills fell to the ground, they were collected and sent to assorted charities. That seemed magical, in-and-of-itself, but when a bill came to light on Mom’s plate bearing her name, we knew we were on a truly mystical voyage.
After lunch, we sailed to a deserted island and swam to shore, where we looked for shells and basked in the afternoon sun, then sailed around some of the other islands that dotted this edge of the Gulf. The wind dropped late in the day and although we had a motor for emergencies, we took advantage of the doldrums and dropped anchor. Clouds were building, rising high above us on the tropical air, and the sun shone like a spotlight on our little patch of ocean, and we cooled our sunburned bodies swimming in a pool of emerald green. Our reverie ended with a loud clap of thunder and we hurried to set sail before the storm broke. The wind came up quickly and the sails filled, sending us over the choppy waves at great speed. Thinking back, I suppose I should have been afraid, racing ahead of the black clouds with lightning flashing all around, but on that day, the storm thrilled me. I stood in the bow, soaked with spray, as we shot through the Pass and saw the marina ahead. The sheets of rain had washed the salt from my skin and I felt reborn, sleek and dripping with life.
It has been almost forty years since that day and although our dreams of bare-boating around the tropics never materialized, I still long for the sea. I will go back to the ocean; to walk beaches and bask on sun-warmed sand, but I won’t recapture the glory of that one perfect day. Instead, I will hold it in my heart and remember what it was like, if only for a moment, to be young, and strong, and loved by the sea.