It’s the Summer of 1997 or 1998. I’m in Silver Bay, New York for the annual retreat of New York Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. Basically it’s adult summer camp for Quakers in New York.
That’s as exciting as it sounds, complete with lots of meditation, reading, quiet conversation, and contemplative walks in the woods. Oh, and water sports.
I’m afraid of the water.
I know how to swim, sort of. I spent my life around swimming pools in the Bay Area. But I have almost zero experience with natural bodies of water, and am low-key terrified of “the deep.”
But my only friend at this retreat REALLY wants to go sailing on this tiny little boat, and convinces me that all I have to do is just “sit there and be dead weight.” That sounds easy enough. I’m wearing a life jacket, it’s not a huge lake, how hard could it be? I think.
So it’s late morning and my friend and I get into the tiny boat, adorably called a “sunfish.” It’s basically a few bits of wood with a sail sticking out of it, and a tiny rudder in the back.
We get out into the water, and for the first couple of minutes it seems pleasant enough. I think, wow, this could be the highlight of my trip!
And then, about 50 feet from the shore, my friend turns to me and says in a panicked voice, “I’m sorry, I can’t do this.” And she jumps out of the boat! She starts swimming toward the shore and shouts at me, “I’ll send someone for you!”
Well, okay then.
I’m on there for a few minutes, watching her make her way to the dock and then walk away. I’m thinking, well, I have a couple of options.
Option One: I can wait, and hope that she finds someone who can come out and rescue me. Which might take awhile, since there aren’t any real sailing experts at the retreat house that I know of.
Option Two: I try and sail back to the shore, ideally the dock.
I hadn’t been paying a lot of attention to what my friend was doing. And we were only on the boat for a few minutes. But I knew the basic idea of how a sailing vessel operates. There’s a sail, there’s a rudder. Between the two of those things, the sailor can direct the boat where they want to go. That’s two controls, how hard could it be?
So I see that there’s a rope that seems to control the tautness of the sail. It’s pretty slack. I think, I bet if I pull it tight that the boat will start to move a little. Then I can adjust the rudder and get us moving toward shore.
So I pull the rope a bit, and nothing really happens. So I pull it some more. Then a gust whips by and starts to move the boat. I’m sailing. I AM SAILING.
Then the boat picks up more and more speed. And I realize that I’m going toward the center of the lake, which suddenly seems more and more like an ocean. I panic and let go of the rope.
The boat comes to abrupt stop, falls on its side, and dumps me into the water. I swallow a bunch of gross lake water and grab frantically onto to my now capsized boat.
This is not good. I’m stuck in the middle of a lake, by myself, on a boat I don’t know how to use.
I figure out how to get the sunfish right-side up somehow and climb aboard it. I think to myself, well, we’re just going to have to figure this out.
I spend the new hour or so experimenting with the line, the mast, and rudder until I can sort of get it going in a direction. I capsize the boat several more times. But slowly I start to get the hang of it.
Maybe an hour and a half later, a group of sunfish sail by, led by a tan young man.
“Hi there, how are you doing?” he asks?
“Not very well,” I reply. “I don’t really know how to sail.”
“Oh, how did you get out here?”
“It’s a little complicated. Can you help me get back to shore?”
“Sorry, I am actually leading this group out on a tour of the lake right now and can’t leave them. But looks like you know the basics.”
He then gives me a few more quick sailing tips and gets me going in the general direction of the dock. Then he and his group sail away.
It takes me maybe another 45 minutes to get back to the dock, a couple more capsizes later. But I do it.
Back on land, I’m feeling the strangest mixture of relief, happiness, and anger. But most of all, I’m proud of myself.