A Sail! A Sail!


THE Standard Dictionary, making due allowance for emergencies, defines a sailboat very warily. ‘A sailboat,’ it says, ‘is a boat that is or may be impelled by a sail or sails.’ This definition, in my judgment, could not be improved.

Until I met this boat, sails had always seemed to me to belong on horizons, or in books. I had not hoped to have one in my control.

‘You’ll take to it easily,’ Phineas assured me, as we rowed out into the little cove where the sailboat spent the night. ‘We ‘ll just go for a short sail out around the lighthouse, past Shell Island, and then into the bay to the big dock. I told Veronica to meet us there for a swim at eleven.’

We started before ten. Phineas had thought best to allow a good margin of time; for this boat, he told me, was like some horses, less sensitive than the average to the rein.

It looked docile enough as I climbed in. It was hardly larger than the rowboat itself; but it was equipped with those items of seafaring gear that set a sailboat apart forever in a landsman’s mind as something fabulous and rare. To one who has spent life inland, the most hackneyed terms of salt-water vocabulary seem like a literary language, to be used only by Captain Hook and Dick Dead-Eye, and Conrad and John Silver and Defoe. Here I had my first chance to bandy such words about. Our craft might be small and cranky; but it had a mast, a sprit, a sail on the sprit, two thwarts, a centreboard, a tiller, a life buoy, a mushroom anchor, and a sheet! We took along our oars.

‘When I have shown you the main points,’ said Phineas, catching the light wind in the little sail, ‘you can tack out of the cove against the wind.’

Skillfully he went through all the right manoeuvres for my benefit; and I, as attentive lecture-audience, learned what it was to put about, to sail close to the wind, to port the helm to do everything except the one act in which I later specialized.

‘Now,’ said Phineas, ‘we’ll change seats. You ‘ll have to be good and firm with the tiller. This boat doesn’t understand hints. When you want to turn her, give her a good full yank.’

‘ How shall I know which way to yank?’ I asked, taking the sheet in my hand and seating myself by the tiller.

‘I ‘ll tell you,’ promised Phineas. ‘In a minute, when I give the signal, put her over hard to the left.’

I made a rapid mental calculation to decide which would be the left. Would it be the left as the boat, the tiller, the sail, or Phineas saw it? Suddenly it dawned on me that I should have to tell Phineas about a deficiency of mine that I had hoped to hide from him forever. The fact is, I do not instinctively know right from left: that is, I have to stop and reason it out before making practical application of the terms. I try not to let this become too evident, because I am aware that this matter forms one part of modern tests for feeble-mindedness, or worse. But now and then comes a crisis that exposes me. In gymnasium drill, for instance, when the command is ‘Right, dress!’ I am just as likely to dress left.

‘Phineas,’ said I, trying to speak naturally, ‘there’s something about me you don’t know: I can’t tell right from left.’

‘Oh, well,’ replied Phineas lightly, ‘that won’t matter. On a boat we say starboard and port.’

This is typical of the way people view my disorder. They think that I confuse the words, and that my difficulty will clear up if they use synonyms, such as clockwise and counter-clockwise, gee and haw. But I do in theory know what the words mean. What I lack is the feeling in my bones. Under this handicap I was about to sail a boat .

‘Now!’ exclaimed Phineas, as we bore down upon an anchored sloop that was bobbing in the eelgrass near the shore. ‘Put about!’

Obediently, about I put. I gave the tiller a mighty jerk in what I judged would, in Phineas’s opinion, be the left.

‘Hi!’ said Phineas, brandishing an oar. ‘Turn her to the left! The other way! You ‘re going to luff.’

‘How do you luff?’ gasped I, shaking my idle sail as one shakes a baulky alarm-clock to start it.

‘You are luffing,’ responded Phineas, poling us off the eelgrass diligently with his oar. ‘I ‘ll have to show you how to jibe.’

I shall never see gay sunlight on bright blue water without remembering that day, when, with Phineas to guide me, I jibed and luffed busily back and forth across that little cove. I thought of the old fairy-story in which the wolf used to say to the little pigs, ‘I ‘ll huff and I ‘ll puff and I ‘ll puff and I ‘ll huff, and I ‘ll blow your house in!’ Similarly, hither and yon among the tethered sailing-craft, I puffed and I luffed.

‘Now then,’ said Phineas kindly, ‘we ‘ll make a good tack this time. Put about, steer across, and use the windmill on the island as a guide.’

Cautiously I spread my sail, as one spreads her apron for apples from a tree.

‘Be firm, now,’ encouraged Phineas; and around we went. Triumph. We sped across toward the windmill, like a clipper ship off for the Barbadoes in the Spanish Main. And suddenly the wind gave one last sigh, and died.

‘It ‘ll spring up again,’ said Phineas. ‘Be ready to take full advantage of the next gust. The sprits’l is n’t sensitive, you know.’

If the sprits’l was not sensitive, I was. A superstition as old as the sea teaches us that certain passengers bring bad luck. I felt responsible for this dead calm. It seemed to me that the sprits’l was partly responsible, too. A little sail with such a sprightly name ought not to hang so still. Placidly it drooped from the sprit, no more in a mood for voyaging than a tent flap in the sun.

‘I see plenty of wind,’ announced Phineas, ‘just outside the point. If we could only get around the sand spit!’

‘Shall we row?’ I inquired tentatively.

‘No,’ said Phineas.

I began to learn the code of the New England skipper. To resort to oars is like giving up the ship. My own lubber-like impulse would have been to go where the breeze was, but your true mariner whistles for the wind.

‘Phineas,’ I ventured, after a long period of sun-baked calm, ‘do you think it’s eleven yet,?’

‘It ‘s half-past,’ replied Phineas briefly, with that up-to-date intelligence as to time that men acquire from long practice with the Watch Surreptitious.

‘Well,’ said I, ‘since we ‘re so short of wind, don’t you think you’d better sail us around the point?’

‘Possibly,’ admitted Phineas. ‘You hard up the centreboard if we look as if we were going to ground.’

But even Phineas could not inspire the sprits’l. We were now so near the shore, and so pretermaturally still, that sandpipers came running down the beach by twos and threes to look us over. A sea gull alighted on the water not far off, and floated toward us, like a duck.

At last came a scant teaspoonful of wind, and we began to move.

‘Don’t let us graze,’ cautioned Phineas.

One never gets a sharper impression of an uneven coast-line than when peering anxiously over the edge of a little craft, calculating the probable clearance for a mysterious centreboard. I imagined ours as fin-shaped, very deep, and pointed. Very soon, at the first sponge-like bed of seaweed that I sighted in our course, I hauled it up entirely, to relieve the nervous strain. We cleared the sand spit so near to scraping, that a small crab sunning himself on the bottom ran for his life.

The teaspoonful of wind was now a skyful, with more to come. As I took the helm and grasped the tugging sail by its one slim rope, I had the irreverent thought that I was holding something alive and frisky by its tail. Literary voyaging in Treasure Island and Typhoon prepare one in a way; but when one is skirmishing slantwise along with a Cape Cod wind on the quarter and a tricky sprits’l sloping toward the shore, one’s sensations begin to be first-hand. There is a kind of rollercoaster motion about the waves around Shell Island that begins to be disturbing if persistently indulged. The long bask in the hot sun of the cove had not been the best preliminary for these slithering ups and downs.

‘Phineas,’ I began, in a voice that sounded diffident and formal, ‘in a few minutes I may not feel quite like myself. Be ready to change seats.’

My passenger gave me a searching glance. But he made no sign. He knew that my salvation lay in things outside myself.

‘Rocks ahead,’ said he tersely. ‘Steer exactly between the bell buoy and that gull.’

Sailing orders of this kind preserve the soul from death — one’s compass a surf bell, one’s star a flying gull.

Around the island, past the rocks, past the lighthouse, we went scudding up the bay, plain sailing now before the wind. I even made the landing at the dock, coming up to the lee of it as Phineas directed, and coasting neatly until we touched and made fast. I was pleased to note that we had not scraped any of the gorgeous paint from the sides of the other vessels moored near by — Periwinkle, Sabot, Isabella, Viking, and Flea.

Just then, out beyond the boathouse, we saw one of the boys swimming toward us, with signals of welcome and surprise. Phineas hailed him in brotherly tones, making a megaphone of his hands.

‘Did Veronica wait long?’ roared Phineas.

The swimmer made no answer, but came splashing toward the pier and hauled himself up beside us, presenting me with a starfish as he came.

‘How about Veronica,’ queried Phineas. ‘Did she get cold waiting around?’

‘Oh, no,’ said the swimmer calmly, ‘she did n’t. Veronica did n’t come.’

‘What happened to Veronica?’ persisted Phineas.

‘Nothing,’ said Veronica’s brother, ‘nothing happened. She just said she guessed she would n’t come. She said I could probably ride up to the cottage with you along about three this afternoon.’

He turned to look at our proud caravel bumping its nose against the barnacles on the pier.

‘ Veronica did say,’ he added thoughtfully, ‘that she knew you and the sprits’l just a little bit too well.’