In junior high school, I became enthralled with novels about the great sailing ships of old. I read every book I could find on them. But my only sailing experiences back then were on a friend’s small sloop and ice boating. (Our ice boats were simple, sail-driven platforms more like go-carts on asphalt than boats on water.) My interest in sailing ended in high school, or so I thought.
Years later Tom, a friend I worked with at IBM in Madison, Wisconsin, came into my office and asked if I had ever thought about buying a sailboat. I assumed he was talking about something small to use on one of Madison’s lakes. When Tom said he knew about a 36-foot sloop for sale in Green Bay that we would cruise on Lake Michigan, I was immediately sold on the idea!
Since neither of us knew much about sailboats, the seller spent two weekends instructing us. We learned that our Columbia was a heavy boat. It weighed about 11,000 pounds with 5,000 pounds of lead in its keel. The seller said the weight made it very forgiving –all those pounds gave the sloop stability and lessened the risk of capsizing if (when) we made mistakes. The weight also gave it momentum that made docking the trickiest part of handling our sailboat.
I described in the novel why docking the sloop was so hard. I always enjoyed this challenge. Surmounting other challenges such as storms, high winds, cold weather, and biting flies, also gave me, to varying degrees, the joy of accomplishment. What I did not like was seasickness. This affliction hit me about half the time I went out. I never figured out what caused it. It did not always happen in rough seas, on an empty or full stomach, or with lack of sleep. Dramamine, fresh ginger, and other remedies did not work. Once it started I stayed sick until I was on land.
In Dreams of Life, Steve’s experiences during his crossing to Muskegon were based on events that actually happened to me, though not on a single cruise or while I sailed alone, with one exception. I was alone the one time I ran out of gas. The time I fell overboard occurred the first weekend Tom and I had the boat to ourselves.
When you fall into the cold waters of Lake Michigan the danger is that those still on board lose sight of you in the waves, hypothermia sets in, and you die. Even on a clear day, the waves can hide the person in the water, pushing him away from the boat as critical time is lost while the boat turns, loses wind power, and then slowly regains speed.
That particular sunny June day was ideal with a 15 mph breeze making the hot day comfortable. Tom, his girlfriend, and I took turns practicing “man overboard” drills. This entailed Tom and I alternating duties as captain and first mate. From time to time the first mate would throw out a seat cushion, which represented a person, and yell, “Man overboard!” The mate would pretend to throw the victim a life preserver, keep pointing at the cushion (person) to maintain sight of it, and then retrieve the cushion once the captain completed the rescue maneuvers.
After a couple of hours doing this, when Tom was captain, the jib (front sail) got tangled up, and he ordered me to fix it. I went forward wearing only my cutoffs and tennis shoes. As I freed the jib, I realized it was between me and the wind. Before I could even drop to my knees, air filled the sail, and it flipped me off the deck.
As I summer-salted toward the Lake, my forehead slammed against the hull loud enough to be heard by Tom and his date. My first thought, “Oh shit,” was immediately followed by the fear I would be knocked out. I then hit water so cold it forced the air out of my lungs like I had been slugged in the gut. Gasping for breath, I watched Tom and his date sail by, staring at me with open mouths. No doubt they would have eventually implemented the rescue we had practiced, but I was understandably impatient. I managed to get enough oxygen in my lungs to yell, “Throw me a life preserver!” With this encouragement, they sprang to action.
I have cruised to Mackinac Island, northern Lake Huron, around Isle Royale in Lake Superior, and to every port on Lake Michigan. I enjoyed these adventures, but after years of being seasick in every kind of weather except snow, I agree with the sentiment that the second happiest day in a boat-owners life is when the boat is sold…