Come sail away

I don’t know why he thought I would say no to a sailboat.

He was hovering behind me in the kitchen while I finished the dishes after yet another dinner at home. He was sheepishly squinting his eyes, expecting the worst. “Please think about it before saying no.”

I set down the dishtowel and took his phone. A Facebook ad for a sailboat, the kind with living quarters inside; a tiny sink, a microwave, and a two-burner stove. Pillows embroidered with lighthouses were arranged neatly on long blue benches that could serve as narrow beds or as seats when the clean white dining table dropped down from a beautiful the teak bulkhead. “1978 Hunter 27 with 2020 slip fee included. $4,995.”

“I had no idea something like that was within reach,” I said. I knew nothing about sailboats, but I couldn’t imagine turning down another opportunity this year.

The year 2020 was meant to feel like a new beginning for our family. For the first time in years, I planned to attend conferences for work. This was the year I was going to get excited about my job again, and I was hoping to find real purpose. The conferences were deferred, then  deferred again, and finally, they became “virtual.” In the summertime, we planned to take the kids to Mexico. We wanted to show them the ocean. Instead, they spent the summer in the basement and explored the ocean by watching Octonauts.

We never picked up my daughter’s sparkly pirate costume for the big  summer performance. There was no reason to help our son learn the songs  he’d sing at his preschool graduation. In March, we explained to our  children that they couldn’t go to their friends’ birthday parties. We assured them things would be back to normal soon but, after six months in quarantine, they moved on to new schools and will never see those friends again. Even though my oldest mastered the technology to stay in touch with her schoolmates, few had the equipment to reciprocate.

My husband tried to relieve the stress of working from home by going  fishing. I’d wake up alone while he was off somewhere, wading in some suburban creek. Sometimes he took one of the kids and they returned with muddy feet and no fish. He hatched a new plan to get closer to the fish by acquiring a small fishing boat that he could maneuver on his own. Somehow, his online searches took a detour to sailboat ads.

In a year of disappointments, he’d stumbled on something we could get excited about.

Every weekend from summer into fall we followed the Mississippi  River, which cuts through the bluffs from Minneapolis to Lake Pepin. A 90-minute drive is the perfect amount of time to feel you’ve gotten away for the weekend. I spun up a classic rock soundtrack and, without a hint of irony, showed my children how to belt out the chorus to Styx’s “Come Sail Away.” We counted the hawks that flew over the changing leaves. We stopped for cheese curds and hand pies in the small towns along the way.

We packed our cooler with new traditions. Bacon for pancake brunches, beer and juice boxes to enjoy on the water, and bratwursts that we could prepare on a grill attached to the side of the boat. Before each sail, I popped popcorn and shared it with my children who sat on the lighthouse pillows to reach it on the fold-down table. And then we set sail, exploring the open water or dropping anchor to fish together. It no longer mattered that the fish weren’t biting.

Every time I watched the sun set from the deck of our sailboat I felt  like we were getting away with something. I thought boats were an extravagance, not something average families could afford. Five thousand dollars is not easy to spend, but it’s roughly the cost of one of the trips we’d missed. And with its own bathroom and sleeping quarters, a 27-foot sailboat is a safe place to stay during a pandemic. Our home on the water.

My husband had never mentioned that he learned to sail as a boy at summer camp. I felt admiration as I watched him remember and relearn yet another hidden ability. And then he passed it on to our 7-year-old girl. In 2020, she missed out on fencing, circus, and swimming lessons. But 2020 was the year she learned to pilot a sailboat. Someday, we will invite her friends and they can catch up over popcorn and juice boxes while she shows them what she’s learned.

Back at the marina, my children ran free. My 4-year-old boy skipping  along with his tiny feet floating through the air. They practiced  swimming and collected shells along the protected beach. They introduced our dog to strangers near the docks. They waved at other children whose  families had found their way to this place. Maybe they can all be friends when we return next year.

The fall colors faded by mid-October and we spent a cold weekend  preparing our boat for winter storage. On our last night at the marina, I crossed the train tracks to the local bar, joining other boaters to warm up by the bonfire. There, I met Alex, who was leaving the next day to spend four months sailing down the Mississippi to Florida. “From  here,” he said, “you can get to anywhere in the world.”

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