River Sail

The summer winds of the mid-Atlantic held steady around 12 knots, rolling effortlessly in like a whisper out of the northwest and filling the beautiful New Zealand-made tanbark sails of my 1967 30 foot Rawson cutter Ave del Mar. We were on a broad reach, zigging across the South River just outside Annapolis, Maryland. With one hand on the tiller I leaned in through the companionway and pulled the kill switch. Her Universal diesel immediately fell dead silent.

There we were. Sailing. Finally.

It hardly seems a noteworthy moment to a boat that has seen storms in every ocean, has rounded Cape Horn, transited the Suez and Panama canals, and tied off tanker ships in the Indian Ocean for Thanksgiving dinner. But for this boat and me, her new captain, it was an auspicious day indeed, 389 days into our journey together.

That journey had started on a clear spring day in the town of Reedville in Virginia’s Northern Neck where I had trekked to take a look at a free boat that had sadly ended up being worth about what I would have paid for her—nothing. Unwilling to admit defeat I walked around that marina under a perfect blue sky painted with cotton ball clouds eyeing forgotten boats for signs of hope, a sign that came to me crudely wired onto the stern rail of Ave del Mar, its block letters spelling  “F O R  S A L E” and a faded phone number nudging me to call.

“Hey, Dad,” I yelled towards the car where my 84 year old father sat equal parts patient and disinterested, “have you ever heard of a ‘Rawson’?”

“A what?” he murmured.

“Never mind.” I called the number from the sign, and so began my life with Ave.

Months later I had the boat trucked north and I moved aboard, living in a marina just west of Annapolis, commuting to my job at a bar in Washington, DC, and spending every waking moment working on, fixing, and dreaming of things to come for the boat and me. Her mast lay in cradles, stretching from bow to stern and cantilevering off the back like a diving board over a backyard pool. Systems worked or didn’t depending on their moods. Every day I worked on the boat, small jobs before or after work and major projects on my days off. Things slowly improved. LED lights replaced original-equipment incandescent fixtures. A shiny new circuit breaker replaced the aging and corroded fuse block as I contorted my way into lockers and rewired everything belowdecks. No longer was it necessary to grab that wiring harness just inside the engine compartment door and shake it mightily to coax electronics to spring to life. A new LPG line meant less praying when lighting the stove for my morning coffee, and the engine started to spring to life with just a crank or two. Ave felt more and more mine with every day, as she and I made our own little history together.

Winter gave way to spring, as it does, and the chatter from the neighbors crept higher, step in step with the mercury. “When are you going to get that mast up?” they would ask. “Are you ever going to sail?”

“There’s plenty of sailing ahead for me,”  I would always reply with a smile.

I found some leftover wire rigging, bought a single Sta-Lok fitting at the local marine outfitters, and practiced my rigging skills for hours, fitting and refitting that piece onto the ever-shortening wire rope. I sanded and repainted the spreaders, dismissing the corrosion that marked their 5 years of decay on the hard. I studied old photos, drew diagrams, and took apart pieces that were deep, dark mysteries to me. One stretch at a time I pulled off that old standing rigging, measured it against a strand from a spool of new stainless rope, and cut. Installing the new Sta-Loks became routine, even Zen. One before work, on a clear day. Three on a good weekend day. I rewired the mast lights and ran new coaxial for the VHF. Tools were brought out and tools were stowed again, over and over, day after day. Then suddenly, one day, it was done.

The mast went back up after a harrowing four-hour trip out through the angry and agitated Chesapeake Bay and into Annapolis proper, during which I knew, repeatedly, that the mast was going to snap its lashings like a caged elephant and slide slowly and helplessly to the depths of the bay. A few times I silently practiced the phone call I would make to her former owner and now friend of mine, Jamie Bryson. “Captain,” I would sheepishly say into my imaginary phone, “I lost your mast to the seas.” But for all of its straining and sliding—and perhaps thanks to the heroic efforts of my friend and crew Tony—the mast stayed put and snapped only a few dangling tendrils of my fragile confidence.

With the mast up again the static from the neighbors grew even louder. “It’s a beautiful day to sail!” they would shout at me from the docks while I sat feeding mast light wires through the hawse pipe and into the electrical panel below.  “Are you ever going to get that boat out?” would come the questions as I hopped from stay to shroud with my tension gauge and screwdriver, trying to get the rigging tuned. Why didn’t they understand? I would sail. I will sail. I will sail more than they could ever dream of, but first I have to get the boat right. Over the phone her former captain would tell me, “If you treat her right she’ll treat you right,” before launching into another story of their shared exploits in days gone by. He was always patient with me; I felt I was being patient with the boat.

Then, on a sunny August Thursday it occurred to me: today is the day to sail. Sunshine, steady-if-not-unimpressive winds, and an absence of that scary weekend bay traffic meant my time had come. I tipped the gas dock girl $20 to help me out of (and hopefully later back into) my slip, stowed a few things, topped off the diesel, checked my systems, and off we went.

We settled in on a broad reach, tied off the jib sheet, and made way for the far shore as Ave’s sails ballooned with that summer wind and my soul ballooned with pride. The boat responded to my every touch. I leaned in through the companionway and pulled the kill switch knowing that if I needed the diesel again it would fire right up. Silence fell on us like a fog as I watched the water ripple away from the hull. Ave del Mar, my loving thoroughbred, veteran of Southern Ocean storms and distant ports of call, had come back to meet me at the beginning of the path. “I can start a new journey with you from here,”  she said. Our slow, lazy sail on the quiet South River was epic. Huge. Did you see that, marina neighbors? I thought to myself. We sailed.

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