Learning The Ropes

People often talk about the passing of habits and hobbies through generations. Your mom stored coffee grounds in the refrigerator, so that’s what you do. Your Dad loved Fords, so now you’re loyal too.

Jibe Ho Sheet InMy dad grew up sailing with his family, so he taught his kids to sail as well. In our early years, it was the only boat we had, and since this was well before we were awarded the option of opting out, we were all going. Period.

As a kid, I spent more time tangled in the lines that not.

“Ready to jibe… Jibe ho,*” Dad (Captain Bob) would warn.

“On the rails, ye railbirds! Sheet it in*!” he’d call.

After untangling myself, I’d follow the Captain’s orders, just a bit slower than expected. Noticing the lag, he’d scold me.

“If this boat flips and that rope is wrapped around your ankle like that, you’re a gonner.”

He’d joke about having me walk the plank, but in all reality, it was obvious I wasn’t the best crew. My inability to foresee what was about to happen earned me the “Sailor of the Year” award the fourth year it was given out.

I have three siblings.

Mom wasn’t eligible.

But I’m willing to bet, if Dad were to re-distribute the award in current times, I’d be the first recipient, and maybe the only, since the sport only truly stuck with me. My brothers and sister – and even my mom – would rather do almost anything than step foot on a sailboat with Dad, an act that rarely happened voluntarily.

It’s not that he’s all bad. He is just very noticeably irritated when you scratch the paint on his boat, fail to stop the boat from slamming into the dock (no matter the speed you’re approaching), don’t sheet in to perfection, pass the wrong type of beer or don’t bail water fast enough (even though the captain is arguably at fault for water coming aboard the ship).

Captain Bob and I, at sea in the Redhead.
Captain Bob and I, at sea in the Redhead.

Alright, so he’s not the friendliest captain, but by far his weakest quality in my family’s point of view was keeping promises pertaining to time, which led to a number of crew who intentionally looked for reasons to be asked to walk the plank and excuse themselves from the boat – permanently.

Fortunately, I was never bothered that “an hour or two” in a boat on a sunny day turned into five. Even if we ran into some hang-ups (a shredded jib on a gusty Labor Day, the centerboard coming loose and dangling below like an inaccessible anchor, or the wind completely dying), I was having fun. Even though I’m a fair weather friend, I wasn’t all that bothered getting caught in storms in the 18-foot “Redhead.” I even kept complaining to a minimum the years we chiseled through a thin(ish) layer of ice to get to the boat landing at the end of the season (late, as per Dad’s timing).

But ultimately, there is a handful of lessons I learned sailing with Dad. This was, after all, the place I had my first sip of beer. It’s where I said my first swear word. It’s where I was informed that my parents had signed me up for a sex education course that I’d be heading to as soon as we returned to shore. A high schooler, I had already put most of that puzzle together, but the official class was good review (chalk another one up to dad’s timing).

Despite the last minute heads-up of my parents’ seemingly life-ending decisions, the sailboat is where I learned to trust Dad and the people around me. It’s where I learned the importance of wearing a hat – a habit I still use to protect my freckly skin today. It’s where I learned to wear a life jacket and then later became “too cool” for one, then learned when “too cool” was safe and when it wasn’t. It’s where I accepted that a life of automatics – smooth sailing so to speak – isn’t always the most exhilarating, that thinking ahead was crucial, and not to take important things for granted – like your rudder. Because when something like that breaks, life is not the same.

The “Oldtown Whitecap” sailboat my Dad grew up sailing in. Gradnpa holds the tiller on the low (port) side, and Grandma hasn't quite gotten on the rail yet on the starboard side!
The Oldtown Whitecap Dad grew up sailing in. Grandpa holds the tiller on the low (port) side, and Grandma hasn’t quite gotten on the rail yet on the starboard side!

It’s where I learned that each line on the boat means something, and that sometimes the thinnest, least-used ones end up being the most important. Bottom line, they’re all there for a reason – much like the people in our lives.

These things I picked up on out in the boat were likely some of the things Dad drew from his dad. I never got to meet Grandpa Stoneburner, but if I could, I’d thank him for passing down the sailing hobby to his family. I’d tell him I admire him for dragging his kids along in the boat. Because, as generations go, it meant I got dragged along years later.

Come to think of it, maybe Grandpa Stoneburner didn’t share this pastime out of habit, but rather intention.

Very, very well-thought-out intention.

From the stories shared in the sailboat, that sounds like him.

Shootin’ the Wit is a sporadic blog about everyday life that should never, ever be taken too seriously.

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