THE CONTRIBUTORS’ CLUB
THE EDITORS would like to have the Contributors’ Club remembered by the best essayists, in this country and abroad. A prize of $250 is hereby posted for the most distinctive essay of a thousand words submitted to the Club on or before September 1, 1939. If the results are encouraging, this offer will be renewed from mouth to month. The essays must be in English.
AFTER I had been married several years my father, to my despair, gave my husband a sailboat. It was known as a Cape Cod One Designer. I never could remember its dimensions, until my husband once told me it was three times as long as our sofa. Water Nymph was written on the stern, and the numbers 33 were sewn on the mainsail. There were twenty or more boats in this class which the owners raced every Monday, every Wednesday, every Saturday. The children’s races were on Thursdays. The Yacht Committee could seldom resist calling a special race for Fridays, and every race postponed for impossible weather was posted for Tuesdays. It was a trial to the committee to have so few days in each week.
So there was my calendar, practically slashed in two, half of every day spent on the sea. We lived under a dictatorship, the club commodore in command. We could make no plans social or dental during our entire vacation without consulting that important square of cardboard, our racing schedule. We even had one thumb tacked over the telephone.
The ocean was my barometer. If on a race day the sea was calm, I stepped on the boat a thankful member of the crew; but when it was rough I crumpled up in a miserable heap in the cockpit. By the end of the summer I did not look so apprehensively at whitecaps and was well past the squealing stage when water came over the rail, but on windless days 1 still felt that alarming clutch on my unreliable innards when the sea rolled about and sent the sails yawing back and forth.
Gradually I learned that all races end, and that despite the agony of countless tacks in a horrid sea, or hours of still-pond-no-moremoving, eventually Number 33 would enter our blessed little cut and anchor in a landlocked harbor.
My husband lived for the start, tack, run, beat, and finish of every race; he also reveled in the post-mortems on shore, when agitated yachtsmen argued about their protests, and tried to prove their points by pushing miniature boats over the club table. Impartial elements, quite often beyond the skipper’s control, influence a race; a favorable puff of private wind, an ungovernable drift with the tide, a snarl in the spinnaker, some cuss stealing the wind — and a boat’s position can change from first to last, or from last to lead.
It took years for me really to understand this racing business. At last I saw why sails were tinkered with, and boats’ positions jockeyed about. I became dependable with the stop watch, usually anticipated the antics of the jib, hauled up the centreboard before anyone bellowed at me, and hoped that I was worth my weight in ballast as I flopped full length on the windward deck. In fact, I stopped lolling about the cockpit like a dummy. I don’t suppose even now that I can appreciate what a relief this must have been to my husband. Why, give me a pretty day and all I cared about was winning the race.
Then came the miracle. One July morning I awoke and immediately wished that I had not. A southwester was howling around my sleeping porch; from my pillow I could see the green surf rear up, curl over, hesitate, then come pounding down on the beach. My husband was away. Number 33 bad to be sailed or we should lose our season’s rating.
I kept reassuring myself, as I dressed, that of course the commodore would blow the whistle and call off the race. It would be crazy to take the fleet out on such a day. Eight-thirty — nine — nine-thirty — and no comforting signal. Nothing but the persistent rush of the wind. Ten o’clock found me on board the Water Nymph, a martyr in oilskins, clutching the tiller with two stiffened arms, my feet braced against a pile of life preservers; an unseasoned sailor aslant the ship, our old captain yelling at me to ‘ Put her up! ‘ ‘Put her off!’ ‘Luff her!’ ‘Hard alee!’ ‘Oh God, madam, pull her the other way!’
We plunged madly behind the starting line, our boat one of twenty wild things that tore across each other’s bows and stems. At last the starting gun was fired. Our lee rail well under water, we rushed close-hauled across the line, nicely placed and straining every inch of canvas and every ounce of strength to hold our own. The bow pounding violently through the waves spanked the waters so far apart that the cold spray was forever soaking us as it forced rivulets from neck to knee.
We neared the first mark, passed one boat; then, jealous of every foot, unflinchingly we forced our right of way and shaved across the bow of Number 55, missing a foul by inches as we swung around the buoy. Then, all sails set, we ran before the wind. I looked back only once, for the angry seas that followed seemed reaching up to swamp us. A sudden gust of wind would lift the mainsail, and fears of jibing stabbed my unnautical soul. We had left one boat behind, its mast a useless, horizontal thing.
Once around the course — oh boy, another chance to gain! Could it be I who sat so straight and felt control over this bucking thing, and not the sea that held command over me?
Two hours, two thrilling hours of this. We didn’t win the race, but a different victory was mine.
I now felt more of a mate for my skipper and quite scornful of my former sickly self. I no longer hesitated about joining the yachting circles, but pulled my chair forward and discussed the technicalities of the latest race. A sailor landed on her feet at last.
Long before I thought they were anywhere near old enough, our children spent most of their time in and out of boats in the bay, which meant that I sat for hours at the end of the pier just as if I belonged to some Mothers’ Lifesaving Station. When the oldest had learned to sail we bought one of the small One Designers, so that he could race in the junior class. Often in the past I had been skeptical about my own survival of a race, but this was nothing to the fears I felt when our boy first sailed out to sea alone. It was dreadful; first I saw him, then I didn’t; his little boat would teeter on the swell of a big wave, then drop into its hollow out of sight, leaving barely a facecloth of canvas to reassure me that my son was still afloat. With what fixation of eye I followed him, knowing the child was safe only as long as I could see him! How bitterly I blamed the commodore, the boatbuilder, the sailmaker, — in fact, everyone connected with this crazy performance, — for so needlessly endangering my child’s life! How could such a little fellow know when to tack and when to come about? Still I had to admit he steered his boat as easily as if he had been a minnow in a school of fish. Why, oh why, hadn’t I been dumped in a skiff when I was six and dunked in the bay until all fears of capsizing had been drained out of me? Then the time came when it was not a question of worrying about my child’s survival of the sea, but of his position in the fleet. Could he, would he win?
First one child, then the other learned to sail, which meant that eventually all five of us were skippers, though of course we have had to take turns steering. So we have raced merrily along with the years — sometimes we lost, we nearly won, we didn’t win, we won. Forgotten results of many seasons’ racing, forgotten items on the commodore’s record, but unforgettable memories of a great sport of one who, although not a sailor by birth, became a sailor by marriage and found herself the mother of sea urchins.
BEATRICE BILL TALBOT