Bay tripper

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Passing the sailing torch … or not

Passing the sailing torch … or not

This was my chance to begin indoctrination of my only grandchild, Claire, to sailing after trying for years with my three sons, which didn’t work out quite as planned. But I soon discovered that a 4-year-old might be a bit young for my mind-bending intentions, especially when sailing interferes with nap time.

I must now wait a few years, since Claire has relocated because of her family’s new posting from Frankfurt, Germany, to Pretoria, South Africa, in late July. (My son Mark — Claire’s daddy — is a diplomatic courier with the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service.) When she returns to their new U.S. post in 2009, she will be 8 years old, weaned from her close attachment to mommy and naps, and ready for my sailing lessons with parents left behind on land.

To get sailing firmly implanted in her mind, I bought her a mermaid doll, a book (“Molly the Sailor”), and instructed her to call me “Captain Jack” when we went out on my Sailmaster 22, and to answer, “Aye, aye, sir!” instead of “Yes.”

When I asked her to repeat those orders, she said, “I don’t feel like saying that now.” That was the first blow. OK then, I would try again after Uncle Eric’s and Aunty Mary’s pool picnic that weekend, where we would feast on Chesapeake crabs. “I don’t like crabs,” she warned.

Not a good start. But she spent most of her visit that Saturday afternoon in early July (no naps) playing with another child in their pool, which was a positive sign. At least she likes water, I figured.

Prior to her arrival at my house for a brief visit, I had doctored a double-page photo spread of British sailing phenom Ellen MacArthur single-handing her 75-foot trimaran around the world in a record 71 days. I carefully cut out a wallet-sized headshot of Claire and Scotch-taped it over MacArthur’s head. It fit perfectly.

“Who is this little girl sailing this big boat?” I asked, showing her the spread. “That’s me!” she said in her sweet, little-girl giggle.

Prepping herself for the introductory Sunday sail, she promised, “I will be very quiet because the water is very deep.” But I didn’t want her to be quiet. I wanted her to take the tiller and ask a lot of questions about the wind, the boat, the rigging, the sails, and where we were on Chesapeake Bay.

In more than 35 years of sailing I have never had a little tot on any of my boats, and I was a nervous wreck about it. Would she wear a PFD or would she balk because no adults were wearing one? What about nap time? (She rises at 6:30 a.m.) Did we have enough apple juice? I had purchased a Porta Potti for the occasion and had it rigged, ready for use, since she drinks a lot of juice. Of course, mommy Betsy was there, and so were daddy Mark, and her “Uncle Bofus,” my youngest son, Scottie.

She was lifted onto the boat from the dock, and immediately grabbed the varnished shroud rollers and held on tightly. That was OK because that’s exactly what I do when I step on board.

Next came the PFD, the smallest I could find. She accepted it without explanation and didn’t ask why she had to wear it. (I worried about that since she had mentioned that “sharks live in deep water.”)

OK, so far so good.

When others stepped onto the boat, it lurched, and a startled look came over her face as she braced and grabbed with both hands for something to hold onto. White-knuckle time. Sun block was applied and a sunbonnet affixed to her tiny head. Juice was next. She sat by a gimbaled beer can holder and played with it, but did not ask what it was. Maybe she thought it was a toy.

We motored out into the Bay, and I raised the mainsail and unrolled the jib, but there was little wind and much powerboat slop. A half-hour into this planned indoctrination and with the outboard engine shut off, she said, “I’m tired.”

Nap time. Why didn’t we think about that earlier?

She asked to go below to lie down on a bunk. I placed a pillow under her head, rather than a seat cushion, and removed her shoes and PFD for comfort in the hot cabin. This is a good place to get sick, with wakes knocking the boat about.

Mommy went below and comforted her. There goes the cute shot of her with the tiller in hand. I had disobeyed a primary rule of yachting photographers to shoot when you have the opportunity to get something, because the chance may not come again. She was restless and irritable, and soon was back in the cockpit with her head on mommy’s lap and whining. Time to admit defeat and head in before mal de mer took hold.

Back at Mike Kelly’s dock off Mill Creek, which we had used for the occasion, we hopped in a prepositioned SUV for the short drive to Jimmy Cantler’s Crab House on the creek for another crab feast. Claire ordered chicken and french fries. (Remember, she doesn’t like crabs and is, in fact, afraid of them, which is understandable because they do look scary — even when steamed.)

After the feast, I asked if she wanted to return to the boat.

“Noooooo,” she said. So they dropped me back at the boat, and I sailed around for a few hours before returning to my dock in Annapolis.

The next morning, she was up and about early and playing with her dolls.

“Are you ready to go sailing again?” I asked, hoping for an aye, aye, sir.

“Noooooo,” she said.

I asked what she remembered about her first sailboat ride. “I was water sick,” she said. That was very observant, I thought, because she had never heard the term “seasick.” And then she showed me her little scratches and insect bites.

“Are you wearing those same clothes again?” she asked. I had forgotten I had had the same polo shirt and shorts on for two days. I asked her to pick out my change of wardrobe, and off we went for lunch at McGarvey’s Oyster House in Annapolis, where her daddy worked as a busboy a long time ago.

It was noon, which means nap time, and soon she was asleep at the table with her head on mommy’s lap.

She was gently awakened, and off we went to Madeline’s, a clothing shop for smart little boys and girls, where I bought her sunglasses and a sundress.

“How about some sailing?” I asked, thinking she would say aye, aye and acknowledge acceptance of my bribe.

“Noooooo,” she said.

So I went out … alone as usual.

After South Africa, their next four-year posting could be Miami, where I will pay for her enrollment in a junior sailing school in Coconut Grove. When she returns to Annapolis at a more mature age, we will go sailing alone together, and I will at last get that photo of her at the tiller of my boat.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.