Reflections on The Spirit of Sailing : a Celebration of Sea and Sail by Michael Kahn (book review)

By Michael Kahn, Courage Books, Philadelphia, PA 19103

I purchased The Spirit of Sailing as a Christmas present for myself in 2006. It was just a year after my wife and I moved from the coast of North Carolina to the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Sitting in my rocking chair that winter, in front of the woodstove, with hemlock and red oak burning brightly, I turned the pages, slowly, tenderly, as if it were an ancient text. On each page there was a photo of a classic wooden sailboat and a beckoning quote. I’ve included some of the quotes that drew me back to the water in the middle of winter, with the west wind blasting through the pines.

I threw a couple of more logs into the wood stove, sat back down in my rocker and turned another page. Small boats, fast sleek sloops, lines and sails, all in black and white. I could feel the pull of the tides and the visual images of wooden boats I had owned, especially the old 20’ racing Flying Dutchman sailboat that just strained at the mainsail when a gust would sweep by.

A sailor is an artist whose medium is the wind. Webb Chile

I’m a lucky guy. I still have passion in my life. One is going into my studio/gallery and throwing pots, trimming them, then wood firing them in my little kiln next to our cabin. Another is writing about pottery, water and boats. Maybe my passion for sailing could be the metaphor of my life.

There are no lakes in my county and the coast is a six hour drive away. When I’m iced in or snowed in, I go the bookcase and pull out The Spirit of Sailing, ready for a photo of a classic wooden boat or a quote that transports me back to the sea.

Ships are the nearest things to dreams that hands have made. Robert N. Rose

Twenty-five years ago, I went on a sabbatical to the North Carolina Mariners’ Museum in Beaufort. I needed a change of pace and I wanted to learn how to repair my old wooden sailboat, a 19’ Lightning. Jeffrey, the master boat builder looked her over and said, “Mate, she’s too far gone to repair. Stay here for the summer and I’ll teach you how to build a real sailing vessel.” Jeffrey, a Brit, had apprenticed himself in England for seven years before he took the job in Beaufort.

Four of us showed up as students that summer at a converted aluminum airplane hanger across the street from Turner Creek where a number of old hand built Harkers Island skiffs bobbed at anchor.

Hot! Oh boy was it was hot that summer! Jeffrey taught us to build two small sailing dinghies with hand tools. I remember the sweat, the scent of sawdust, learning and relearning how to sharpen my chisel and finally at lunchtime walking out the dock to catch a breeze. On Saturdays, I’d take my eight year old daughter out on the creek in a Sunfish and teach her how to sail, figuring out both the winds and tides. On Sunday mornings, I’d get up early and ride my bike with my fishing pole over the bridge to throw a line into the Atlantic. Standing there, with the pole resting on my hip bone, I was one with the swells.

A man must be obsessed by something, I suppose. A boat is as good as anything, perhaps a bit better than most. A small sailing craft is not only beautiful, it is seductive and full of strange promise and the hint of trouble. E.B. White

I grew up in the 1950’s surrounded by wooden boats on Higgins Lake, a deep water lake in northern Michigan. Over the course of fifteen years we owned one Dunphy and two Centurys: one inboard, one outboard. Neighbors owned Chris Crafts, Hackercrafts and Lymans.

Every Memorial Day, in went the docks, the boat lifts and then the boats. The engines were choked followed by several pulls on the rope and wham!, those Johnsons, Everudes and Mercurys started up and streaked down the lake. In the midst of all this activity, a lone man stood along the shore, a pipe in one hand and a paintbrush in the other, his boat turned upside down at the edge of the lake. It was a Lightning and the man’s name was Alex Carlin. He had three sons. They did not own a motorboat. He taught his kids, one by one how to sail that Lightning. On Sundays, one of the boys would be at the tiller while Alex took care of the main and the jib and sailed across the lake to Higgins Lake Regatta and won every race.

As an eight year old, I’d walk down and watch him. He scraped, he sanded, he painted, then sanding lightly and then carefully laid on another coat. He didn’t seem to notice me. The pipe in his mouth, his hands working stern to bow along the wonderful lines of that boat. I stared, in a trance. Later I learned that during the winter season he was a hired captain in sailboat races around Antigua, Cuba, and Key West.

Michael Kahn, the author and photographer of The Spirit of Sailing grew up along the coast of North Carolina at Topsail Beach. When he was a kid, his first boat was a yellow Sunfish, named Lemon Drop. He was brave enough to sail out Topsail Inlet into the Atlantic. The next year he was given a camera for a trip to a northern Ontario lake where he spotted his first wooden sailboat. And he was hooked!

My dad took his vacation the first two weeks of August. When I was twelve, he said,

“Son, let’s go over to the marina, there is something I want to show you.”

We jumped into his Mercury station wagon, our English Setter in the far back and set off. We wound down a dirt road past a number of tin roofed buildings and stopped in front of what appeared to be someone’s large white garage. We parked the car and walked up to the garage while the dog headed into the woods, hot on the trail of something, probably a chipmunk. My dad pushed the sliding door, on trolleys, sideways, which allowed the sunlight to glance in.

“I want you to look at this,” he motioned to me, pointing at a flat red and white small sailboat, “This is a sailfish, do you like it?”

I nodded slightly, wondering what he was getting at.

“Look, he pointed over in the corner, “There’s the mast, and the sail. Just right for a boy, don’t you think?”

I nod again.

“I’ve watched you go down to Alex Carlin’s. Maybe this boat would be a good way for you to begin sailing.” He stepped back.

I knelt down, felt the flat plywood, gazed at the varnished centerboard and tiller.

“You mean, this is mine? You’re buying it for me?”

“You bet, let’s see if we can push it into the back of the station wagon. Give me a hand.”

Like Michael Kahn, I was hooked. I taught myself how to sail. And over the years, I fiberglassed the bottom of that Sailfish just to have one more summer to sail her. My dad gave her away the year I graduated from college.

Those who live by the sea can hardly form a single thought of which the sea would not be part. Herman Broch.

In the Spring of 2007, I did what I had vowed never to do again. I bought another wooden sailboat. I blame this on Michael Kahn and The Spirit of Sailing. This time it was a 13’ Herreschoff/White Catspaw Dinghy. Built by a master boat builder living near Topsail Beach. This classic sailboat was even in the movie, The Road to Wellville! I love this oak on white cedar skiff. When the wind is right, I’ll sniff the breeze, jump in my truck and drive the six hours to the ocean, launch her, then row her out into the sound and put up the spritsail and take off. Ah, a southwesterly off the ocean, saltwater, sprightly filled white sail and the Catspaw heading off for Sugarloaf Island.

Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover. Mark Twain

While living on a sailboat in San Francisco Bay, on a lark, I signed up for two weeks of ocean sailing certification around the islands of Tahiti. Although the sailing was challenging in San Francisco Bay and out past the Golden Gate, I was always cold. Tahiti! I thought of snorkeling, beaches, south sea islands and warm trade winds. I had also marveled at some of Van Gogh’s painting. I was ready! Winter and early spring on San Francisco Bay is no fun.

Oh the wind, oh those deep, deep blue blue waters, oh the snorkeling and those dark green sentinels of islands. Those protected anchorages inside the coral reefs. The spearing of fish, eating on the deck, gazing at the Tahitians. But too soon, we flew back to San Francisco and too soon my wife and I moved ‘back east.’

For all at last return to the sea- to ocean, the river, the lake… the beginning and the end. Rachel Carson

It’s mid-April, 2008 now and we have taken the plastic off the windows, opened the doors and done some spring cleaning. I’ve recently discovered Claytor Lake, two counties over, a dammed up thirteen mile portion of the New River, a river so old that it twists and turns north and then west cutting through the Appalachians and the Alleghenies all the way to the Mississippi.

I’m picturing me on Claytor Lake, sailing my glossy white Catspaw, the varnish on the inside shining with the sun. Soon I’ll be breaking the binds of a cold, wet spring. I don’t care if the water temperature is 50 degrees. All those Memorial Days on that deep northern Michigan lake when the ice had been off less than a month and I went in the water to sail that Sailfish. With a life preserver on, if my dad was around.

So if I take off now, my wife Karen won’t miss me for an hour or two. By then I’d be there, rowing out the cove into the main body of the lake, setting the oars aside, putting up the boom on the bow and then rigging the spiritsail!

Alex Kahn would say “Yes!” Alex Carlin would nod his head, take the pipe out of his mouth and watch me, that slight grin on his face. I’d be home before dark. It’s only an hour’s drive.

To me, nothing is more beautiful than a sailboat underway in fine weather and to be on that sailboat is to be as close to heaven as I expect to get. It is unalloyed happiness. Robert Rose.

I’ve just turned sixty-five. The fever of sailing has not subsided. What theology I have about eternity can be summed up in a few phrases, a few images. A wooden boat slicing through the waves, me leaning out, tacking into the wind, maybe toward the further shore but maybe the water is the ocean, the horizon limitless.

Spirit of Sailing

-- Mccabe Coolidge is a writer and poet from Virginia..

An archive of Mccabe's articles is located here.

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