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In remembrance of two ancient mariners

The Strait of Juan de Fuca separates the United States from Canada around the 49th parallel north. Water can move through it like an avalanche, and seas can be treacherous, especially when they run counter to the current. But on this day it was flat calm, nary a cat’s paw on the placid surface.

The author scatters his parents' ashes in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The jagged peaks of the Olympic Peninsula to the south and the Cascades to the east stood at attention, sentinels before an azure sky. Squeezed into a small kayak in the company of two copper urns, I commenced paddling a slow circle around the magnificent schooner Martha, which rolled gently with the swells. No clock was ticking; no phone was chirping. All was still.

The moment I’d anxiously anticipated was finally here: I was about to disperse with my own hands the ashes of my father, Siegfried, who’d passed away more than a decade ago, and my mother, Rosmarie, who recently followed. They’d left without specific instructions as to their remains, but as sailors they had an affinity for salt and water, so I figured a setting such as this would suit them fine. Besides, there was a party in their honor. Watching from the schooner’s deck were the next two generations of family members, who had come to bid farewell together in a private ceremony that was light on formalities.

A slow goodbye

I stopped the kayak, unshipped the paddle, opened the urns and removed the lids of the capsules inside, noticing how much heavier my father’s remains were. After a few moments to steady myself, I started to pour the urns’ contents over the side, without hesitation or fear. First Dad, then Mom, as it always was. A dusting of ash remained on the surface, but most of it cascaded into the abyss — slowly, silently and with dignity.

Being the family’s next ancient mariner, I sat there, alone on a wide, wide sea, allowing random recollections to percolate. Not of the man who in his last years — an alcoholic stricken with blindness — depended on mother’s care. Not of the dazed woman in a wheelchair who lost her mission in life the day Dad signed off yet struggled on for years, sliding deeper and deeper into dementia.

Instead, I thought about their starkly different personalities, which clashed at times but also complemented each other. Father, the breadwinner, was the imaginative, free and creative spirit who loved to indulge his hedonist streak. He was the fun master who took us kids skiing, hiking and, of course, sailing. Mom, at the hearth, was the disciplinarian — faithful, modest and frugal to the point of austerity. She was the glue that held it all together, trying to keep everyone in line with varying degrees of success. As differently as they were cast, they did their best so we could have the kind of life they never had.

Our parents shared a love for adventure, which made up for lost ground because both were cheated out of their carefree years by World War II. Mother grew up poor and hungry in northern Switzerland, listening to the bombs falling on German towns across the border, and later became a pediatric nurse. Father was conscripted into the Wehrmacht in 1939 at 18, with tours to the Russian front and the final showdown with the Red Army in Berlin in 1945. More than half of his high school buddies did not return from this war, but he was lucky and shrewd enough to survive, which allowed him to finish medical school and become a physician.

Siegfried’s and Rosmarie’s tacks crossed in the late 1950s in a missionary hospital in Bushbuckridge, near Kruger National Park in South Africa. Both had emigrated here — Siegfried to escape post-war Austria, looking for a better life for his first wife and son, a search that ended in acrimony and divorce, and Rosmarie seeking new horizons to escape Switzerland, which she found stiff and stuffy.

Together they drove around in the bush ambulance, bringing basic medical care to the native population, doing dentistry, minor surgery and nursing frail children back to health. They encountered elephants and wildebeests and heard lions roar at night near their camp. Decades later, telling stories, showing slides and remembering these times with a glint in their eyes, they were young again.

They married in 1959 in a colorful ceremony accentuated by the lovely voices of a native nurses’ choir — Apartheid be damned. But Dad missed the snow and his beloved Alps, so he prodded Mother to move back to Europe. They landed in Nuremberg, Germany, where he found a job in a hospital and I was born. Later, we moved to Austria, where my brother joined the family. Right around that time, in the mid-1960s, Father was also bitten by the sailing bug.

Learning to sail, building a boat

I remember this eureka moment all too well. We were puttering about in a red inflatable along the beach someplace in Croatia, where we used to vacation, when a strange-looking boat with two hulls, one flying high in the air, zoomed past. That was the first time he laid eyes on a catamaran, and it changed him forever. “I have to find that guy,” he mumbled on the way back to shore. And find him he did.

That fall, glossy English-language multihull magazines began to arrive in the mail, and soon we drove our Fiat to the U.K. (not without breakdowns, of course) to bring back our first beach catamaran, a monster called Shark that looked like a little A-frame house when folded for trailering.

A few years later, Dad replaced the Shark with a plywood Tornado that also came from England, but this time by truck. When we first assembled it in front of a wide-eyed crowd at the club, it caused quite a stir among the brass. “You’re all gonna die,” they predicted. Well, we didn’t, and years later the Tornado was the strongest class at that club.

But Dad, who delighted in being ahead of the curve, was on to his next coup. He wanted to cruise on a catamaran that lived up to the multihull’s speed potential. However, in the mid-1970s such extravagant demands were not satisfied by the production boat market, so he rolled up his sleeves and built a 27-foot Sunburner. It was designed by the New York firm Harris & Heacock and had an open deck, a rotating mast, a fully battened main, centerboards, kick-up rudders and accommodations in the hulls.

As a surgeon, Siegfried had excellent fine-motor skills. What he didn’t know, which was a lot, he learned from reading and picking experts’ brains. Near our hometown, he secured a building site — on a property that belonged to one of Wolfgang Puck’s relatives — and set to work. Poor Mother. Sailing the Shark and the Tornado, she’d learned to tame her fear of high speed and flying spray. But now the boat business was seriously invading her home, as sailing kit piled up in the living room, which had begun to look like a chandlery. She put up with it begrudgingly in exchange for the promise of cruising, which was a novel experience and way more exotic back when there were no marinas or charter bases dotting the coastlines.

Life’s lessons under sail

It was a proud day when the boat was launched in Aprilia Marittima, near the northern Italian beach town Lignano. I remember my first bout with mal de mer, the long crossings to the Yugoslavian coast and the trek south to the Kornati archipelago. Skinny-dipping on remote islets, going on excursions by dinghy, and barbecuing fish and cevapcici on deserted beaches were simply par for the course. Only later did we realize how privileged we’d been.

On the flip side, I remember our often recalcitrant auxiliary outboard that quit at inopportune times. I also haven’t forgotten the night the anchor slipped in the confused swell of a crowded harbor in a building storm. It was my job to row out into the darkness in the rubber ducky to reset the hook while a dozen strangers helped fend off the boat, which tried to leap up onto the pier. Then there was this episode that ended with yours truly in the bosun’s chair high up the mast, cutting down a shredded chute that had wrapped around the forestay. And I won’t go into the details of a man-overboard maneuver that involved a guy in the drink wearing nothing but Ray-Bans, holding on to a lime green porta-potti that was oozing its contents. It was all part of growing up, and now it’s the stuff of family lore.

Such were the thoughts that eddied through my mind as I sat there, softly rocking on the mildly undulating swells of the Pacific, a brine as salty as the tears that were streaming down my face and as blue as the Adriatic, where we enjoyed debonair days on a sailboat, courtesy of the two people who just commenced their final voyage on Earth. Looking down into the cobalt blue depths one last time, as a recording of the nurses’ choir from their wedding wafted across the water, I noticed how the silvery comet trail of their ashes was bending westward. Now the ebb was in charge of Siegfried’s and Rosmarie’s destination. And right on cue, two seals surfaced, looking at me as if to say: “It’s OK. We’ve got them now.”

Martha caught the breeze, and we left in our wake the carnations that marked Mom and Dad's last known position on this earth.

Back aboard the schooner, after a short respite, the captain called for the main to be hoisted. We put our backs into it, sweating and tailing the halyards until Martha caught the breeze, leaving in our wake the carnations that marked Mom and Dad’s last known position in this world. As their descendants, we can only hope to be on watch for a little while longer. It is our duty to enjoy every moment of it so we, too, may leave with the certitude of having lived when it is our turn to follow them on that last trip into the blue. (With gratitude to Capt. Robert D’Arcy, his wife, Holly, and the crew of the schooner Martha.)

Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.

October 2014 issue