Unlike the main character Maeve Winters in MY LIFE AFLOAT, I did not grow up sailing, but my husband, Michael, did.
When he was twelve years old, he and his family moved from California to the Chicago area. His first sailboat was a Sunfish which he sailed on Crystal Lake where his grandparents (Henry and Louise) lived. Mike was hooked from the very beginning. Once he learned to sail the Sunfish, he saved his money to purchase a more raceworthy Force 5. When his parents moved from Illinois to Texas, both the Sunfish and the Force 5 were sold. By then, Mike was enrolled at the University of Illinois, where we met each other during our second, sophomore, year.
We were both 19 years old then, and I remember how much Mike talked about saving up for a sailboat for graduation (two years later!). I’d only been sailing once in my life on a family friend’s boat in Chicago when I was just 5 or 6 years old. I’ll always remember how convinced I was that the boat was going to tip over, and how calm the owners’ two Irish Setters were even as the boat was heeled way up on her side. I also remembered how hard it was to wear that puffy orange life vest. And so, Mike’s obsession with sailing was something very curious to me. I didn’t quite get what all the fuss was about.
The summer before our fourth and final year of college, Mike’s graduation present, a Laser II, arrived early. He was thrilled, and I was eager to see how everything worked. Mike taught me everything, like how to rig a boat, how to race it, what the rules of navigation are, and how to take proper care of the sails and the rigging. He showed me how to watch for the wind on the water, and how the tiniest adjustments to the sails can make a very big impact. He had such an innate sense of how to make the boat move as fast as possible, and it was really fun to be with him. The boat was like a rocket, and my job was to hook up in the “trapeze”, or as Mike used to call it, “the monkey suit.” It was a harness that I stepped into and wore over my shoulders and around my waist. On the front, a big ring allowed me to clip myself to a wire connected to the top of the boat. When we’d sail, I’d stand with my feet on the edge of the boat, squat back and then lean my entire body out to the lake. The idea was to use my weight to flatten out the boat so we wouldn’t heel up too far, but it could get scary (and very, very fun). Many times, the only parts of me touching the boat were my toes, gripping the edge of the fiberglass hull. Mike and I learned a lot about trust in those days! A few times, a gust of wind would cause the boat to tack unexpectedly while I was out on the wire, and when that happened, I’d find myself whipping at lightning speed around the front of the boat, suspended only by the thin wire clipped onto my harness. Small-boat sailing was a time for many bruises!
During those summer days, I saw firsthand how wonderful the sailing community is. Mike and I raced the Laser II every Sunday, and it was always the highlight of our week.
A year after we graduated college, we got married. I was 23 and he was 22 (I’m four months older than him), and our honeymoon, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, gave us plenty of chances to sail together. After the honeymoon, we sold the Laser II and bought a used, 17-foot fiberglass Thistle named Yankee. She was a beautiful, red boat, much heavier and longer than the 14.5-foot Laser II. We were so excited to learn to sail her! We tried sailing with our new Black Labrador, Chloe, on Yankee, but she got seasick every time!
The next summer, a violent storm knocked Yankee off the shore station we kept her on at Mike’s grandparents’ house. The boat was destroyed, and I’d never seen Mike so sad. Luckily, were were able to use the insurance money to purchase another used Thistle, this one all wood rather than fiberglass. Mike and his dad spent an entire winter restoring that boat together, and she turned out just gorgeous. She had a shiny, navy blue hull, and her wood trim sparkled in the sunshine. The small yacht club we sailed with during Sunday races always complimented us on what a pretty boat she was.
We sailed our second Thistle together as often as possible until our first baby, Henry, arrived. Then, I spent more time on land with the baby while Mike raced with friends and family. We added a 2nd baby, Maggie, two years after Henry, and discovered that a boat the size of a Thistle was tough to race with a young family. Mike needed at least 2 crew members to race well, and it wasn’t always easy to find people willing to commit an entire Sunday to race. We sold that boat in 2000 and bought a used Laser, just so Mike had something easy to sail on his own. By this time, I’d come to realize how essential sailing was to him. He fell asleep thinking about sailing, dreamed about sailing, and read everything he could about it. I was busy with the kids and thought he was a bit over-the-top with the whole sailing thing, but I had no idea what was to come or how much I, too, would “get into” sailing.
In 2004, our 3rd baby, Nate, turned one. Mike worked at a law firm with a woman who also had young children, a woman who, with her husband, sailed a Hunter. For people like us who’d only sailed small boats on suburban lakes, a large vessel like that seemed out of the question. But, after talking with Christi and her husband, Stephen, Mike learned that a boat just a few feet longer than the Thistle – with a small cabin down below and a cockpit large enough for the 5 of us at one time – was a great way to get the whole family sailing together. Fortified with their enthusiasm (and several moments asking each other, “What are we doing!?”), we sold our Laser and took out a loan to buy a used Beneteau First 265 — 26.5 feet long — named Allegro (which, we discovered, means moderately fast in Italian).
Allegro was a great boat for our young family, and it was an exciting adventure learning how to moor a boat and use the tender service in Chicago’s Monroe Harbor. I took a keelboat certification course to feel more confident with my sailing skills, which it did, but it also showed me that I’m not the intuitive sailor my husband is. He sails by feel, by sensation, by his gut. I sail using my brain quite a bit, which can often lead to over-thinking. Our different styles have always presented challenges, but over the years, I’ve come to appreciate how calm he is in tense situations, and he appreciates how accepting I am of his obsession with sailing.
In 2006, Mike and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary by taking a three day excursion on a Maine Windjammer called Mercantile. I loved sailing with new people away from my home port. The boat held about 30 guests, plus a liveaboard crew of four: a Captain, two crewmembers, and a cook. In my view, their lives were so romantic. They’d provision the boat for each excursion and live on what they had.
No last minute trips to the store for eggs. No way to get extra toilet paper if you ran out. The wood-fired stoves belowdecks were seasoned from a century of meals, and the ritual of gathering as a group for dinner, followed by everyone helping to wash and dry the dishes on deck under the stars while someone played a guitar and sang, was something I’d never experienced in my life. Everyone came together to talk, to share their sailing experiences, and to learn about one another. Falling asleep in our tiny bunks at night, rocking in the gentle Maine waters under a moon so bright it kept you up with its beauty…well…it was unforgettable. On that trip, I really started to “get” the sailing thing. I loved the simplicity, the lack of materialism, and the true human connection that sailing seems to bring out in just about everyone.
I can’t tell you how often I heard the phrase that, once you’re a sailor, you’ll develop something called “one-foot-itis,” meaning you’re always looking for a bigger boat. Well, after our anniversary trip, we did, in fact, sell the Beneteau First 265 in order to buy a slightly longer (by 8 feet), used Tartan 34 Classic (34 feet long). The Beneteau had been a great first “big boat” for us, but Mike was now ready to graduate from a cruising class boat to a racer/cruiser, and something slightly bigger. The Tartan, named Liberty, was such a labor of love for Mike. He spent many cold weekends at the boat yard under the Skyway Bridge, sanding, rewiring, and occasionally dropping things from ladders (and trying not to say bad things), loving every minute of it.
Here’s a picture of Liberty, our Tartan 34C, on the day it arrived at Skyway Yacht Works in the midst of a Chicago snowstorm (you’ll note how excited Mike looks):
Liberty had a lot of work ahead of her. Just take a look at the photos before Mike began…
We found that, with our growing experience (not to mention some more leg room), we started entertaining friends more often. We love taking guests for casual sails along the lakefront in the early evening. Chicago’s skyline is all the more amazing when seen from the water as the sun sets behind the skyscrapers. On top of that, we’ve never stopped appreciating how delicious an easy meal eaten out in the fresh, open air seems to taste. We did find that, as our entertaining grew, it made sense to join the more casual Columbia Yacht Club to have a central place for our guests to meet, to load and unload all the provisions and gear, and to occasionally dine inside if the weather turned rough. The kids particularly loved having a place to run around and explore while the adults lingered over a meal, and the Wednesday/Saturday evening fireworks, viewed from the stern of the Columbia Yacht Club ship, are as good as it gets.
My highlight with LIBERTY was taking our first overnight sailing trip. Our friends Christi and Stephen and their two children sailed with their friends right alongside us on their Hunter (at times using autopilot…who knew?) from Chicago to Michigan City, Indiana, about a 7-hour sail. Woo that sun was hot (we were wishing for a dodger or a bimini top for Liberty to provide shade), but the challenge really came from the biting flies. In the middle of a huge lake, were did these swarms of huge, blood sucking flies come from? We discovered they hitch a ride on the hull, basking in the sun and the spray, then seek us out in the cockpit when they start to feel hungry! We had a lot of fun catching them (the word massacre was used for good reason), especially since they move so slowly.
In Michigan City, we stayed overnight on LIBERTY in that city’s municipal marina. It was there I got to see some fascinating boat life, including many people who live aboard year-round, stopping in various harbors along their extended journeys. A violent storm on our way back, followed by a magnificent rainbow, reminded me once again of how quickly the skies change, and how important it is to stay calm in unknown situations (trust me…Mike was very calm, but I wasn’t).
LIBERTY also carried Mike and our son Henry for their first lake crossing, straight to South Haven, Michigan. Their trip took fourteen hours in huge swells. Henry and his buddy, Tom, refer to that trip as “Puke-Fest ’08.” Our family’s lucky in that all five of us are generally void of motion sickness, though when lumpy seas occur, Henry knows that after a few hours, his stomach gives way. I admire his love for sailing…because without it, I don’t think he’d ever get back on a boat after “Puke-Fest ’08”. Every summer for one whole, restful week, our family enjoys renting a house in South Haven. We love to visit a tavern on the Black River called Cap’n Lou’s, just under the drawbridge. We snack on bar food and watch the sailboats glide between the bridge’s two lifted sides on the hour, every hour.
We owned LIBERTY when I began writing MY LIFE AFLOAT. It’s the boat I’ve always pictured Maeve and her father sailing and living aboard. After I’d read John Otterbacher’s book SAILING GRACE, I was able to imagine what it must have been like on board for extended periods of time. Before he set sail with his family, John had been told he’d had just months to live due to heart and vascular diseases – and ended up sailing throughout the world with his wife and children, finding strength, purpose and insight on his journey. I contacted John because his book touched me deeply, and I shouldn’t have been surprised by how encouraging he was when I informed him I was writing my own book about sailing. Like any true sailor (or writer, for that matter), he extended a level of support that made all things feel possible and right.
The Tartan 34C was a strong racing boat, and Mike earned several awards sailing her to victory in the Wednesday night races on Chicago’s lakefront. After a few years, though, he was ready for something a little bit faster. Maybe not “one-foot-itis”, but I’m sure you can see where this is going.
In February 2010, we sold LIBERTY and bought a used Beneteau First 10R (10 Meters translates to approximately 34 feet, and the “R” stands for racing). We changed her original name to CHIEF in honor of Chief Illiniwek, the former mascot of The University of Illinois where Mike and I first met. We were fortunate in that CHIEF’s former owner, Rod, had raced the boat in the Chicago to Mackinac Race – something Mike had always hoped to do. Rod sensed Mike’s dedication and passion for sailing, and offered to help prepare CHIEF for the upcoming, 103rd Chicago to Mackinac Race that July. Those five months were a whirlwind of gathering crew, safety checks, navigation discussions, and YouTube videos of past races.
If you learn one thing about sailing Lake Michigan, it’s that many believe it to be tougher than ocean sailing. The reason is that Lake Michigan’s narrow width, combined with incredibly deep waters, creates a quicker and shorter period of waves (whereas the period between ocean waves is much longer). While saltwater stings ocean sailors and their boats, repetitive waves batter Lake Michigan sailors and their vessels. The Chicago to Mackinac Race covers 333 miles and, in its 103 year history, it had never once lost a sailor to a race-related death…until 2011, when Mike, Henry and Rod set out with 5 other crew members.
[Photos Coming Soon]
Before the race, I had been disappointed not to be invited to the crew. After all, it was my boat too! Plus, I was 43 years old and had been sailing with my husband since we were 20…and he picks our 13-year-old son to accompany him instead? However, Mike’s instincts as a sailor were spot on: I don’t react well in tense situations, and I certainly would have panicked while listening to the mayday calls from other boats during the squall. I love to sail, but I’ll admit that I’m most comfortable sailing in steady winds with sunshine and Reggae music.
Until the Mac race, I hadn’t fully grasped what a wise sailor my husband is. I accompanied CHIEF’s return crew for 70 miles after the race, listening to stories of the storm and how Mike decided to drop the sails in the middle of the race before the 100-mile-an-hour winds hit. I also observed, during my return leg, how physically exhausting it was to sail through rain and rough water. Stepping belowdeck, even to hit the head, took an enormous amount of balance and bracework just to remain upright. The plan had been for Mike and I to disembark for the evening to a small Michigan island for our 20th wedding anniversary, but in the high winds, we were unable to safely approach the docks, even momentarily, so we spent our anniversary on CHIEF with three wonderful gentlemen who serenaded us (two of whom we’d sailed with back on our Crystal Lake days) and stayed up all night keeping anchor watch in the harbor during the howling gusts.
Three months later, we celebrated our anniversary close to our honeymoon destination, this time in the British Virgin Islands at a sailing resort called The Bitter End. We took an excursion to The Baths on a 50-foot catamaran, and together we sailed Lasers, Hobie Cats, and Rhodes 19s. We hadn’t raced together in years, so it was a thrill to assume our former roles as captain and first mate without missing a beat. We’ve grown up and learned a lot about sailing and about ourselves these past twenty years, but the one constant of sailing remains: there are always challenges to face, but they’re absolutely worth it.
What I love about sailing is its power to unite people. No matter what size vessel, sailors love to share their stories, to help each other, and to learn from one another. Sailing constantly provides me the opportunity to get out of my comfort zone, to expand my vision of who I am (and who others are) and of what we’re all capable of. Sailing helps me stop and focus on the most essential things in life, like safety, the beauty around me, and the practice of listening to my instincts.
Recently, we split the cost of a small, kids’ sailboat with some friends. The boat, called an O’pen Bic, gives our kids a safe and fun way to try sailing out on their own terms, just like Mike did at their age. Our three kids and their two children put their heads together and named the boat SEA YA, a perfectly fitting name for teens and their pre-teen siblings aching for the chance to be free. What this investment has given both families, though, at least from the parental point of view, is a chance to stay connected just a little longer than we might otherwise. We can ask them all about their experiences on SEA YA, talk about the differences between CHIEF and SEA YA and the other family’s O’Day Mariner named SERENITY. I think all of us parents agree that it really doesn’t matter if the kids love or hate sailing. It’s just a great opportunity for them to simply learn about themselves.
I’m certainly not an expert on sailing (I’m not even close), and I know I never will be. I married someone who is a natural-born sailor, who can find winds on the calmest days and ports in the blackest of nights. I used to wonder if I’d ever “catch up” to his level of skill and knowledge, but now I’m just thankful he opened the world of sailing to me. It’s enriched my life in so many ways.