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Sailing the British Columbia Coast

Call me an optimist, or maybe just a fool, but as I packed my duffel bag for the weeklong sailing trip I was to take with my father and older brother through Desolation Sound, in British Columbia, I was beguiled by visions of long, hot days and marine-blue waters. Late June, I was thinking, the start of summer–and then there were all those photos in the guidebook that called to mind, in their sunstruck brilliance, some fantasy locale south of Tahiti. The upshot of such dementia was a bag stuffed with the sort of clothing you might bring on a day trip to the beach: shorts, bathing suit, T-shirts, sunscreen, even a pair of–this hurts–"driving" moccasins.

The first cool breeze of reality blew over me in Los Angeles, at my father's house, where I stopped en route to Vancouver. My father is a lawyer but also a lifelong sailor, and this matching of pursuits has imbued him with a particularly clear-eyed view of things like weather, both meteorological and human; neither lawyers nor sailors can afford to be romantic about the elements. It was in such a spirit that he handed me, on a perfect southern California day, a bundle of gifts for the voyage: a windbreaker, a heavy wool sweater, a set of foul-weather gear (waterproof pants and hooded jacket), and a pair of long thermal underwear. I thanked him and tried not to look alarmed.

It's not that I was a novice, exactly. Led by our father's zeal, Matt and I had grown up sailing on weekends in Long Island Sound, on a 27-foot sloop our parents owned with friends. The boat was kept in Old Lyme, Connecticut, and we would take overnight cruises to Fishers Island and Block Island, to Nantucket and Sakonnet Point. Some days, armed with a Playmate cooler full of sandwiches and drinks, we would simply head out into the Sound with no destination at all.

For us, it was an important, if complicated, way of being a family together. My father was the skillful, occasionally impatient skipper; my mother, brother, and I were the apprentice crew. Practical lessons lay in even the most mundane actions: how to stand on a heeling ship; the proper way to cleat a line or turn a sheet around a winch; how to read the telltales dancing in the wind; the utilitarian beauty of blowing a foghorn; what not to do with an anchor; or, for that matter, what not to do in almost any given situation.

I remember not always being delighted–a family brought together on a 27-foot floating island, with a hierarchy no less defined than that of a gorilla pack, is a family exponentially itself–but I do not remember being bored. Everything counted, to a degree unknown in the daily land-life of a growing boy. A thing was done right or it was done wrong; there was no in-between, no getting away with it, and either way, in a world so condensed, the consequences were immediately evident to all. Aside from the sheer physical thrill of sailing full out under charging winds, it was the intense mutual scrutiny of life on a boat that made it so memorable. I have never forgotten the feeling.

We met up with matt at the vancouver airport and took a small plane to Comox, on Vancouver Island, where Desolation Sound Yacht Charters is based. At the marina, our boat was waiting in its slip–a 38-foot Catalina sloop, practically new. We walked over and through it like prospective buyers, turning winches, flipping switches on the navigation station, checking the head for signs of potential comfort (not likely). Within minutes, a certain proprietary air could be discerned: this was our ship now. Her name was Aisling, which in Gaelic means, I was told, "dream."

It was already 6 p.m., the weather was coming on, socking us in, with a shearing wind, and clouds gathering off the massive peaks across the Strait of Georgia. One of the peaks was an actual glacier. The tide was out, in a place where, my father kept telling us, it could drop or rise 14 feet in a few hours. A blue heron fished the muddy flats of the harbor, taking slow steps, stiff-kneed yet graceful, like a Japanese dancer.

We walked into town, ransacked the supermarket, the liquor store, three men in a fit of menu planning. Can't have too much beer, throw in a fifth of vodka, half a liter of single malt. And fish?Out of the question. It doesn't keep, and besides, my father doesn't like fish. The answer, then, was meat, meat of all kinds, burgers, steaks, ribs, Italian sausages, hot dogs, sliced ham and turkey, a second ham for good measure. Potatoes and potato chips, cookies, half a pound of chocolate. We would name this the Cholesterol Cruise.

Everything stowed away (intelligent stowage is a religion on a sailboat), we had dinner at the local pub and turned in early. Then came the crucial moment: the divvying-up of bunks. My father got the captain's berth, in the stern. It was the biggest but had exceedingly scant headroom, a fact he would come to rue. My brother took the forward V-berth, and I settled for the main cabin, where the dining table lowered to become a bed.

The night was ominously cold, but voyagers are by definition optimists, and we went to sleep half naked, with the hatch open. The summer-weight sleeping bags provided by the charter company offered little warmth. By four in the morning, there was much stirring in the dark of the cabin, a general hunting for thermal underwear and thick socks. I woke to dim, grayish light and a sore throat. The weather was ugly, with 20-, 25-knot winds; over the VHF radio we learned that a small-craft warning was in effect. We headed out of port under power, ready for adventure. It was Father's Day.


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