I was eleven when I wrestled an old sailboat and its tangle of rigging out of storage. Every summer, my father and I spent a week on Pentwater Lake near Lake Michigan. My summer days were filled with swimming in the brisk water and running up and down the dunes.
My father was always reading an huge biography on war. Thick, stout books. The kind you put on chairs for children to boost them up. For an eleven-year-old, a reading parent creates great unoccupied swaths of time. It was in this boredom that I discovered my first great love.
Flipping through a series of books on sailing, I deciphered celestial navigation with the help of a plastic sextant. I traced illustrations showing the proper angle between wind and sail. I dreamt of voyages beyond the horizon.
When I pulled the sailboat onto the grass and piled its sail and lines on top of the hull, I just wanted to see for myself if I could figure out how to set the mast and boom. It was a Sunfish, simple to set up. And soon enough the sail, with its fish silhouette, luffed lightly. As I pulled the boom back towards me the breeze filled the sail, the mast pressed forward, and the hull rocked over to one side. The little boat wanted to go.
I slipped her hull into the water that lapped the edge of the lawn, hopped aboard, and skimmed out into the middle of the lake. I felt freedom I never had before, freedom I’m still only able to conjure with a line in one hand and a tiller in the other.
Soon, I was regularly navigating the channel connecting Pentwater Lake and Lake Michigan. I’d tip my hat to fellow sailboat captains and together we’d cast a condescending eye at the powerboats in our path, their engines growling. Poetry isn’t written of powerboats.
A sailboat is a tempestuous friend. With care, we anticipated each other’s intentions, and together we bent nature’s power to our will and glided swiftly across the waves. If I neglected her she would hurl me into the lake.
In those early days on Lake Michigan, my sailboat became a great ship moving across the fathomless deep, and I became a sea captain reading the tides and the wind as it moved in darkened ripples on the water. As the vast lake surged beneath me, I understood its latent power and realized the terror of ancient sailors, making offerings so as not draw the ire of Poseidon, or awaken slumbering Leviathan.
I rode the waves rolling in from the horizon, burying the bow in each swell until it popped out the other side, throwing an icy spray. When the wind died, I lay back until my world shrunk to a bright sail against the blue, cloud-flecked sky. The sailboat rose and fell beneath me on the waves. I felt the warmth of the sun on my skin, and knew only the sound of water lapping against the hull.
At times I’d grab the bow line and dive into the clear water. The light filtered in fractured beams, and the dark outline of my little boat rocked on the waves while I floated below. Soon, wind rippled the surface of the lake and the sail caught the breeze. My fingers felt the tension increase in the line, and again the Sunfish leapt across the waves.
The sailboat became my solitude, providing peace I could not find elsewhere. An escape from the discomfort of complicated relationships. I longed for the water, when the world melted away, and my mind focused on finding the proper angle to the wind or the right heading around the next bit of coastline.
The Sunfish and I worked in concert with the wind and the waves, feeling them in harmony, bringing order to chaos. If I sailed too close to the wind her hull shuddered, a warning to restore balance. On blustery days she heeled far over, railing awash. Driven before the wind we raced toward the horizon.
At times, I contemplated continuing far out into the middle of the big lake, until nothing but rolling waves surrounded me—to experience nature at its most primitive, and hear echoes of the unordered, primordial chaos that existed in the beginning. To imagine that the sailboat and I, alone on the great lake, were all that was, or is, or ever would be.
Cover photo by Jeremy Bishop.