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Beyond wind and water, sailing offers life lessons

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This quote by George Santayana has been on replay in my mind for a while. But sometimes — and I explicitly do not imply political meaning here — it is desirable to do just that, to remember and repeat.

Jasper (at the helm) and Lisbeth Johannsen were introduced to sailing at a very young age.

What seems like a lifetime ago, someone told me that sailing is not just the art of moving across the water by the force of the wind, but a holistic approach to living. I understood the words, but the deeper meaning proved elusive, and soon the idea was buried under the trivia of everyday life. It wasn’t until a cold and misty morning last October, puttering downstream on Germany’s majestic Elbe River, that this idea suddenly resurfaced.

Aboard Port Tudy — a spick-and-span Vindö 40 that belongs to my friend and colleague Lasse Johannsen — we set out from Wedel, a suburb on the western fringes of Hamburg, and were heading to Stade, a Hanseatic town about 10 miles downriver. It was a final trip before hauling out for winter. No agenda, just for kicks. At the helm was an old hand, Lasse’s 8-year-old son Jasper, who expertly steered the 31-foot yacht, keeping her outside the shipping lane, which is militantly off-limits for pleasure boats, while taking great care to stay away from the wooden stakes to starboard. “They mark the shallows at the end of the groins,” he said matter-of-factly, occasionally glancing aft to check on a cutter that followed in our wake.

The boy was in his element, but he also was showing off a bit; he was conscious of his little sister, Lisbeth, watching him like a hawk, no doubt plotting to take a trick at the wheel. Meanwhile, Lasse was preparing a thermos of java below in the galley, confident in the abilities of his two little mates, who knew the motion of the ocean long before they knew how to walk. Taking the kids sailing early and often is a family tradition, and it has a didactic purpose that’s removed from breeding rock star athletes who chase championships and scholarships.

“It’s not terribly important to me that they are going to sail around on an old boat [later],” Lasse says. “I’m interested in imparting values like personal conduct around others in a confined space, boat handling and seamanship, respect for nature, being outdoors and being active, talking to each other without staring at a screen, talking to others so one might get to know them, being able to take care of your own affairs and figuring out how to solve problems on the fly. If they can pick up on that, I’m happy, whether they become sailors or not.”

The Significance of Sailing

For Lasse, sailing was baked into the cake. He was born in Kiel on the shores of the Baltic Sea, which is to German sailors what Newport is to their peers on the U.S. East Coast. He got his first taste of salt air and water during his first few weeks on this planet, on his parents’ annual summer cruise. With so much water at your doorstep, sailing is as easy as shooting hoops in the driveway.

At age 8, Lasse was at the helm of an Optimist; at age 12 he was on the youth squad of the Kieler Yacht Club. He rose through the ranks by sailing the Pirat, a classic hard-chined two-person dinghy, and the Nordic Folkboat, a clinker-planked long-keeler that is tough and pretty. He joined the crew of Cläre, a stout 50-foot cruising ketch with a displacement in excess of 50,000 pounds.

As you can guess, Lasse is not an adrenaline junkie who needs to go airborne at 25 knots to experience fun on the water. He is a stickler for stuff that works, though. So when he was able to buy his own boats, he did not hesitate to crank up the Sawzall if he had to — for example, to replace the waterlogged foredeck of his Folkboat. Do-it-yourself boat work is an arduous process based on trial and error, he admits, but that never stopped him from tackling the tricky, sticky stuff. I surmise this type of courage might also have been in play when he decided to shelve a career as a barrister, despite his law degree and his father, who was a sitting judge. Instead, Lasse went to work for a sailing magazine.

He also married Friederike, whom he’d known since youth and, of course, who also had a sailing background. So it was only logical that Jasper, who was born in 2008, joined the boat “for the 2008 season,” just as Lasse had joined his parents on their boat as an infant. When Lisbeth arrived in 2011, family cruising to destinations in the Baltic Sea was already routine, so having one more kid in the forepeak merely added to the fun.

Hands-On, Hands Down

The Johannsens bought Port Tudy late in 2008 from a relative who was the boat’s first owner. She was built in 1978 in Henån, on the Swedish island of Orust, next door to the famous Hallberg-Rassy yard. She’s a modern classic with a fiberglass hull, mahogany cabin top and teak deck — a beauty that’s a size up from the Folkboat.

As pretty as a vintage Vindö might be, Port Tudy doesn’t stay that way without help. It’s not just a casual coat of varnish in the spring, but a lot of little and big improvements that Lasse makes during the winter when the boat is hauled and lives in a shed on a farm. Among the maintenance jobs was refurbishing the teak deck, rebedding the cabin windows, and replacing the pantry and the head.

By contrast, installing a diesel stove was a plush gig because that item looks Gucci and has tremendous utility, as it takes off the chill and dampness below and extends the sailing season by a couple of weeks at both ends. Lasse also does some of the work in a garage workshop, where Jasper gets to help and is learning early on that there’s more to this game than steering and trimming.

“The biggest adventure by far was testing the new autopilot with remote control I installed last winter,” Lasse says. “On a trip to [the Danish island] Aeroe, the new mate and I started to click during a hail squall while sailing downwind with the jib poled out to windward. He did what he was supposed to do, quietly at the push of a button. I was stoked [because] I remembered the butterflies in my stomach when I tore out the inside of the boat to make room for something that might not even work. But work it did, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Now I can enjoy squalls.”

An Ancient City

Squalls were not in the cards during our little chautauqua on the Elbe. The sun struggled to burn off the mist, so the breeze never materialized. As the tide started to turn, we were motoring up the Schwinge River toward Stade, occasionally stopping for railroad and highway bridges to open. As we approached the town, which looks back on a history of prosperity and destruction that dates from at least the 13th century, the captain squeezed Port Tudy into the last open slot along the cramped pier.

Jasper was the first to leap ashore, to make fast the stern line and show me the historic sailing ships docked there. Later we set off to explore the shops, the Saturday market and the town’s impeccably restored center with cobblestone streets and remnants of a rich maritime past that includes occupations by Swedes and Danes. And to my surprise, the petite art museum was showing a well-curated exhibit of works by Salvador Dali.

The day was a success all around, long on leisure and short on stress. It drew to a close to the pitter-patter of rain on deck, but the stove was roaring and the pasta was steaming below in the cozy saloon. Snickers had to do for dessert, but we didn’t mind — and mom will never know. As bedtime loomed in the forepeak, Jasper asked for a detailed account of the howling coyotes of Lyell Canyon in Yosemite National Park, and Lisi lobbied hard for a reading of The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking. No one needed a screen to be entertained.

“When the kids are on board it is like home to them because they don’t know it in any other way,” Lasse says. “To them this is absolutely normal, and they still love it. But that might change soon, which is why I should enjoy it now.”

There is profound truth in this statement about seizing the moment, something to remember and repeat. In the end, we didn’t sail a lick the entire trip to Stade and back to Hamburg the next day. No matter, we still had a great time because, you know, even though there was no wind to move us across the water, we still were sailing. And therein, I guess, lies that holistic approach to living.

This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue.