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Richard Whitten Barnes

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A Sailing Lesson
By Richard Whitten Barnes
Saturday, October 23, 2010

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A grandfather's effort to reach into the head of a fourteen year old boy's head has some interesting results.

A Sailing Lesson


Richard Whitten Barnes


“Tommy! I’ve called you three times, now!” his mother—my daughter-in-law—admonished for the fourth time, actually.

“I’m just finishing this game,” his answer.

Sarah, my wife of forty-three years, reached over to put a hand on my tensing hand, disabusing me of any attempt at physically bouncing this fourteen-year- old’s rear end from the sofa to the dinner table, where the rest of us waited. It wasn’t the first tense moment in the week since Kate and her two children—Tommy and younger sister, Martha—arrived at our summer cottage on the southern shore of Lake Superior.

Looking back, I suppose a lot of the tension was due to my disappointment  in, once again, my son Tom’s absence from the summer’s activities. Our times together at our northern Michigan get-away were special. I was never so close to him as when we were there. We communicated on a different level there. And we sailed!

For the third year in a row, Tom was missing the summer. Two years earlier, he’d lost his job at a major bank when it was absorbed by a larger one. He’d spent the first summer looking for another job, then last year and this, getting his fledgling accounting firm solvent enough to support his family.

I watched my grandson now, the image of his father, as he took his seat and stared at his potatoes. “Can’t we have mashed? I don’t like fried,” he pouted.

“Just eat your dinner,” his mother said in her serene alto.

I had the urge to grab him by the ear and march him to his room. Never mind that at his young age, he was almost my weight and strength. Sarah’s sharp glance dissuaded me. Dinner was completed in relative peace, Tommy’s sister leading the conversation in a recap of her day with the kids down the shore.

After the dishes were put away, I stepped past Tommy—again engrossed with his hand-held game—to the deck. The weather had been wonderful all summer and tonight, the lake below me was like glass. My thirty-five-year- old Snipe sailboat swung slowly around its mooring like a patient pony, nodding now and then at the wake of someone’s distant boat. I’d bought her new, the year before I competed in the Snipe nationals, coming in a respectable fifth overall, with son Tom as crew, and was still in love with the feisty little boat.

The cottage was built in the late 1930s, and purchased by my parents shortly after WWII. Growing up, there was hardly a year that we didn’t spend our vacation there, and I learned to sail on dad’s venerable Lightning. Then, when Sarah and I married, I was delighted when she, too, fell in love with our annual trek up north. Sarah was a willing crew and we competed in loosely organized racing on Superior’s south shore. But when our young son Tom first got in a sailboat, I knew he was a natural. He was six when I bought the Snipe, and by then, already sailing his own pram.

This year, I’d been sailing just a few times. The Snipe is a two man boat, and not safe to handle alone in anything but benign weather, at least for the older gentleman I’ve become. Lake Superior is rarely benign.

It just wasn’t the same without Tom here.

I stood on the deck, taking in the beauty of the lake, for several minutes before returning inside to find Sarah, Kate, and Martha deeply engaged in a jigsaw puzzle; Tommy still at his game, thumbs working in rapid, practiced coordination.

“That your exercise for the next two weeks?” I was immediately sorry I’d said it. Sarcasm with kids rarely has a positive outcome, I’d learned the hard way.

“I guess.” Was his predictable reply. He didn’t look up. His game emitted an infuriating, inane melody.

I tried a different approach. “What are your plans for tomorrow?”

“Nothing, really.”

“Well it’s your vacation. I suppose you can do what you want.” That ought to get him.


I retired to my chair and picked up my book, but it was no use. Over the top of the book, I glared at my grandson who, oblivious to my frustration thumbed away at his game.

“Tommy!” I waited until he looked up. He didn’t.

“Yeah?” still engaged in the game.

“How is it that you never learned to sail?” I asked

The question requiring more than a one or two word answer caused him to stop, and consider. “I don’t know.” Three words.

Kate said from the puzzle table. “We were never able to spend enough time here, dad.” Kate calls me dad. I liked it because I like Kate.

“Leave the boy alone, Steve.” Sarah, this time.

“I’m just asking,” I gruffed. “Tommy, it’s time you learned.”

He shrugged.

“It would be nice if you let grandpa teach you, Tom,” his mother chided. I’m pretty sure that translated as humor the old guy.

Tommy rolled his eyes at her. “I guess.”

I was not deterred. I’d show this kid a thing or two. I grabbed a pencil and pad from my chair side table, plopped down on the sofa next to him and began scribbling. “Okay, the first thing is to learn is nomenclature, then the points of sailing, then….

And so it went, with me showing off how much I knew to this fourteen-year-old, all the while pontificating on the virtue and purity of sail over power. It went on for too long.

Finally, Sarah put a stop to it. “That’s enough! For Pete’s sake, save it for tomorrow. Now, who’s ready for dessert?”


The next morning was a clone of the day before, except for the warm south breeze that rippled the lake just beyond the moored boats along the shore. We’d finished a late breakfast.

“What do you say, Tommy? Want to put your newly found knowledge to work, as sail that little beauty down there?”

He looked out at the waiting Snipe. “Guess so.”

Never one to waste words, that boy.

By 11:30 a.m., it was already a hot day. We trudged down to our dock and rowed the john boat out to the Snipe. Often, on a hot day like this I would sail with my life jacket off, but within reach. Today, as an example to my student, I made sure we were both wearing them. We tumbled into the sailboat. Immediately, I began pointing out various items on the boat, quizzing the boy for their proper names. He didn’t do well. Last night went in one ear and… well, okay, I thought, he’ll remember better out here.

We got the jib and mainsail up, and the rudder shipped.

“Alright, Tommy, I want you to crawl forward and unclip the painter from the buoy.”

He complied. “This rope?”

I heaved a sigh. “It’s a line. Boats have lines, not ropes. Remember?”

“I guess,” he mumbled, and we were under way.

We ran before a soft southern breeze that quickly freshened as we cleared the wind line of the shore. Soon, our wake was bubbling joyfully. I let Tommy take the tiller right away to get the feel of things, again going over parts of the boat—boom vang, downhaul, dagger board settings, fairlead positions. It was rewarding to see a bit of enthusiasm in the boy’s face as he worked the helm. If he wasn’t absorbing my lectures, he seemed to be having fun.

“We’re really far out, grandpa.”

He was right. I’d been going on so long, I hadn’t noticed how the wind had picked up and driven us well north on our broad reach. “Better let me take the tiller, now. We can practice tacking into the wind on our way back.” We traded places as I handed him the jib sheets to work.

Events started going downhill from there. Tommy had been fine, as long as he was steering the boat. Once I demoted him to crew, and began issuing orders, his brain stopped working. “Drop the board a bit,” I said.

“The what?” He looked left and right.

“The dagger board—right in front of you!”

He fumbled with it, despite our having practiced earlier.

“Okay, now, ready about!” I waited. “I said, ready about!”


“Are you ready?””Yeah!”

“Then say so!” I grouched.

“I’m ready!” Sarcasm dripping off the word.

I pushed the tiller over. “Helm’s alee!”

He wasn’t ready. The Snipe’s boom, though mounted higher than most small boats, came over hard, clipping him smartly on the noggin.

“Ow!” He gave me an accusing look.

“Sheet in!” I ordered. The jib was flapping gaily. He was still rubbing his head. Finally he pulled, but on the wrong sheet.

“Which rope?” he asked.

“No ropes, remember?” I instructed. “The leeward one.”

Now he was really confused.

“That one!” I pointed, not helping his self-confidence a bit. The boat settled down to a nice port tack. I decided, that since practice makes perfect, to tack again. It was a near mirror image of the last fiasco. The more we sailed, the more Tommy’s brain refused to function—for, aft, windward, leeward, port, starboard, boom vang, hiking strap—up, down!

“Let’s call it a day,” I called, after seeing diminishing returns had set in. Tommy glumly stared at the distant shore.

The wind had picked up, veering to the southwest. I noticed the sky darkening in the west, as well as significantly larger seas. I decided to stay on our starboard tack, even though I knew we’d have to tack again to get home. I was a serious mistake. The closer we got to shore, the higher the swells.

Finally the time to put the boat over to port had come. I wished we’d done it sooner. “Ready about!” I yelled over the wind.

Tommy looked at the lines in his hands. “Okay, I guess!”

Helm’s alee!”

He ducked as the boom went over. He scrambled to the high side and set the jib. A huge wave hit us on the port side, throwing green water over the gunnel.

“Good work!”

He didn’t respond, as he dealt with the icy cold of Lake Superior water.

 Now the wind was really starting to blow. We were hiked out, fighting to keep the boat upright, while water sloshed in the boat’s floorboards.

We stayed on that tack for several minutes, but the wind was reaching gale strength. The waves were making it almost impossible to gain any westward progress. I decided to tack once more to the south, and beach the boat somewhere down wind of our cottage.

“One more time, Tommy!” I yelled. “Ready about?”

Ready!” I could barely hear him over the wind and spray hitting the sails.

I threw the tiller down hard, just as a wave punched our bow, drenching us again, and preventing the tack. I tried again. This time the boat came around, but another wave hit us on the starboard side.

Before I knew it I was in the water. I surfaced, frantic, and looking for the boat and my grandson! There! I saw the boat, somehow still upright, galloping away downwind—out to sea! It was soon out of sight.

Lake Superior never quite warms up—even on an August day—except for the occasional shallow inlet. I began to panic, not only for my grandson’s safety, but for my own ability to last very long in sixty – something degree water. The waves were now beginning to break on top of me., sapping my energy.

A large roller picked me up for a view of the horizon, and yes, there was the Snipe, some hundred yards off. The jib was flapping, unattended, but Tommy had somehow stayed with the boat, and worked it back upwind. I could not believe it. My life preserver had a whistle attached, and I used it.

For what could have been fifteen minutes, or an hour—I couldn’t say—Tommy clawed his way to windward, but was unable to maneuver the boat close to me. After some long tacks, he managed to get upwind of me. I could see that he was exhausted. So was I. A roller came crashing down on me, turning me over like a tumbleweed. I came up sputtering, to see the top of the Snipe’s mast bearing down on me. The next thing I saw was the boat surfing down a wave, its bow wake a white billow of spray.

In the Snipe, I keep all the required safety equipment: a bailer, flashlight first aid kit—and fifty feet of throwing line. I knew Tommy, his hands already occupied, could never get to that line, but if he could throw the mainsheet over I might be able to grab it.

“Throw the mainsheet!” I screamed.

Tommy shook his head violently, looking around the boat’s floorboards.

Desperate, I yelled, “A ROPE!”

Tommy leaned down, and snatched up the only rope he saw—the mainsheet. The boat flew by me like a shot. At the last instant, I saw the sheet snaking above my head. I grabbed for it, but was too slick for my weakened  hands to hold. It was slipping away.

At the bitter end of the sheet, the stop knot I’d made caught my grip. I went under, but held on with two hands, surfacing to see Tommy heaving on the line. He pulled me to the transom, and with the help of a following wave, wrestled me into the boat with surprisingly strong arms.

The boat had shipped a lot of water, and was rolling violently from side to side, its boom hard against the shrouds, and boiling downwind. We had no time for celebration. I seized the tiller, and headed for shore—any shore!


“More hot chocolate?” Sarah asked Tommy, as we all sat close to the fire. She gave me the latest of her how could you have taken such chances looks. I ignored it. I was too proud of my grandson. He had probably saved both of our lives.

We’d found a beach about three miles east of ours, and drove the Snipe up on it. A family who had been watching us approach from their cottage was there to meet us, warm us up, and provide the short ride home.

“You should have seen your son handle that boat on his own!” I told Kate for the eighth or ninth time.

“I hope your boat’s okay, grandpa.” Tommy took a sip of his chocolate.

“It looked no worse for wear. We can take the trailer over, and pick her up tomorrow, if you want.”

“Maybe take her out in the afternoon?”

Those words made all the scolding I’d taken from wife and daughter-in-law, bearable.

“If it’s nice,” I answered coyly.

“He turned to his mother. “Don’t worry! Grandpa’s been showing me the ropes.”

His face gave no hint of it, but I’ll never be sure I wasn’t being given the needle, just a bit.


* * *













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