Conditions on Puget Sound worsened from drizzle and breeze to heavy chop and high winds. The forecasted rain had developed into a storm. Since the race was only half over, my father and his crew had no choice but to stick it out, keep rounding those buoys, and make it back to the finish line. Giving up or going forward would require all hands. And there was one additional problem: among his crew was an incapable infant me. So my father did what any good crew member would: He put me in my car seat, tied the car seat to the mast below deck, with a bungee cord as my baby sitter, and finished the race.
My attachment to boats, wild and innate, grew from that day forward.
A kid learns quickly on a sailboat; the ocean a great teacher. Always wear shoes on deck, my father would scold, but I couldn’t resist the rub of the bumpy fiberglass decks beneath my bare feet. Being on the water was too primitive an experience for shoes, anyway. The smell of chalky ropes and my father’s leather sailing gloves hanging up to dry, a mix of rain and salt water, intoxicated me. Colorful spinnakers fat with wind, the force of a swinging boom during a tack, waves crashing into the cockpit — it was overwhelming, but it was home.
Nothing is like making a sailboat run. When the wind is still and the waterline along the hull rests, you forget your boat is a vehicle, a machine. But bracing on the upended side of a running sailboat, feet hooked into empty cleats for leverage, finessing sheets eased out like reins, feels like the taming of a wild animal. At ten, experiencing this awakening for the first time on my own, I lost control of my boat and capsized. During my first solo voyage, I sped past the other kids in my sailing class in their boxy Optimists, my El Toro a superior boat, sleeker and much faster. I understood my father’s addiction then, the feeling of controlling and being out of control at the same time.
Nights at the marina after races my dad would plead with me to be patient, just one more beer, honey. It never mattered if he had won or lost; just celebrating the basic operation of a sailboat was laudable enough. Of course we drink after we sail, I thought to myself, returning to my coloring books and waiting for my dad to finish one last bottle of Bud.
And of course we drink beer after work, I thought to myself when my father would pick me up from day care at four o’clock on a sunny summer afternoon, sunroof open, listening to The Doors on a Northwest radio station, with mysterious brown paper bags filled with popcorn and ice cream sandwiches for me and sixers ready to go for him. These routines—the booze and boats, and the booze and me—never seemed destructive or hazardous at the time, but the opposite: I felt like I was being trusted with the elements of adulthood.
Those same summer nights at the dock my dad and his brother would boil the crab they caught in their traps, drinking gin martinis and sizing up the other sailboats in the marina. Mischief would often erupt, with someone throwing a hot dog bun and starting a food fight, or my dad and his brother getting out their guitars and performing for the other wharf rats hanging around. Occasionally I would find other kids on the docks and we would play with the mussels and anemones attached to pilings, but usually I didn’t want to miss out on the fun my dad and his friends were having. I would stay within his orbit, begging for gin-soaked olives or offering to open his next beer for him.
Often I forget he was once my best friend. Before the inexplicable phone bills, his “volleyball partners,” the kids belonging to other women who were in my life one week and gone the next, and the gin, he was my favorite person, more of a big brother than my father. His feet showed me how to kick a soccer ball, his legs how to ride a bike, his hands how to let out a sheet on a sail. The scent of Bud and sweat beneath foul weather gear gave me comfort when he would duck down below deck during a regatta in driving rain; he’d give me a kiss and assure me the finish line was near.
When I was young my boat was an eight-foot wooden tender, with room for two and a simple triangle sail. At the time, the prospect of being both captain and the crew seemed impossibly sophisticated. After all, the boat had a name, even a spirit of its own; the little boat felt alive. In responsibility comes ascension. When the only thing between you and the water are the planks of your boat’s hull, you learn to understand every creak and moan. When the ropes are what keep you from drifting away, you learn to judge the split second when taut becomes slack. You raise that boat up.
I keep a picture of myself as a ten year-old sailing the El Toro, a blinding white sail against a rare blue sky on a clear Pacific Northwest day, my shoulders and head visible from the cockpit, cheeks ballooned in a blazing smile. I used to capsize that boat too often, not understanding the physics of sailing, the rules of our relationship. To right it, I would stand on its wooden keel, grasp its side, and use my weight to tip its mast above the waterline.
The first rule of sailing is you never leave your boat. The captain goes down with the ship.
These routines—the booze and boats, and the booze and me—never seemed destructive or hazardous at the time, but the opposite: I felt like I was being trusted with the elements of adulthood.
It’s strange, how many lives a boat lives. Boats are bought and sold and bought and sold, sail a decade in the Pacific and then in the Atlantic. Barnacles are scraped from hulls, sails are patched, new spinnakers sewn, fresh lines rigged. It’s strange when it’s your touch making it all run, strange how it feels like it could never belong to anyone but you, but one day it will belong to another crew perhaps already assembling elsewhere on another coast.
In my early twenties, during a phone conversation with my dad, after the weather and the family updates, he slipped in that he had repainted my El Toro, renamed it after my stepmom’s deceased mother, and given it to her as a gift. I understood that a garage fills and empties with each marriage and divorce, tides dispersing its contents.
Before this stepmom came promises of sobriety, and my father was fun to visit in those days. Since I’m not drinking I crave sweets, he explained to me, so we split a pint of ice cream. I love other women, he told me on our living room couch one Sunday when I was thirteen — my mom was I don’t know where. I thought about the women from the dock, the women from volleyball, the women from the bars after volleyball or the dock, and it made sense. Even though my family had been divided by divorce, waters seemed calm, my father steady without the drinks.
While I still lived in Seattle, I like to think he stayed sober for me, or at least projected the image of sobriety for my sake. But in college and after, when I had moved across country to New York, he all but abandoned this charade. Holidays put the drinking on the display: I hold a memory of him passed out on the grass with his then-wife on the Fourth of July — it’s broad daylight and they’ve already hit their limit. Christmas comes and he’s supporting himself on the kitchen counter in order to stand, telling me something in words twisted and incomprehensible. My stepmom, disappearing to the bathroom of a restaurant, presumably to puke, before we’ve even been served our entrees, already wasted from happy hour.
We were still visiting the docks then. My uncle continued to host late-night parties on his sailboat, where all the adults from my childhood loomed with bright red faces and voices of gravel. Tequila shots and talk of diabetes, and I mourned the summer evenings when I plunged my fingers into the center of sea anemones, resisting their sting to make them shrink up; when I could suck salt out of the tips of my wet hair; when I watched my father with his guitar and envied the fun he was having. My dad no longer had to beg me for more time because I had my own car, and fled as soon as everyone was drunk enough not to care that I was leaving.
A couple of years ago, in Brooklyn, I waited the arrival of a hurricane. After my training on the ocean, I knew how to stay safe in squalls. While readying my apartment for the storm, my phone rang. As the keeper of so many secrets, the only way my father can manage communication is with bombs and bombings of realities that are steady and fine. This time he was calling to tell me he was leaving my stepmom, he was homeless, he would be moving onto his sailboat.
My uncle had lived on his own boat for twenty-five years, but something about this news registered as a demotion. My dad wasn’t moving into a new home; he was without a home and moving onto a boat. Onboard, the boat leaked. He was wet most nights. There was no refrigeration, so he subsisted on granola bars and avocados and lost fifteen pounds. It’s fine, honey, he promised me. I just need more time until I can find a place to stay.
People live on boats all the time, I told myself. He’s living a monastic lifestyle, I told my friends in an effort to glamorize the itinerant nature of his situation. Maybe on some level, living on the boat was a choice he was excited about.
I understood that I would forever be scared of the things I loved the most, and that boats sail upon oceans, bodies from which you should never turn away.
Sometimes I was able to call it what it was — my dad didn’t have a house, he didn’t even have something he could call a home; my dad was homeless. But this felt like a betrayal of the sailboat where I had spent many nights. I had eaten Thanksgiving dinners in its galley, laid on its decks watching fireworks, and sailed it in the ocean where it kept me safe. If anything, to me, it was more of a home than an actual house had ever been: it was alive.
Still, my father felt exiled to a leaky tower and I was lost. During that time, I often would walk over the Pulaski Bridge that spanned a waterway near my house. I would look to the water, examining the live-aboard sailboats lining the slough below, and wonder whose father might be down there, the smell of diesel in his sandy hair, daughter on the line, begging her for to give him just a little more time. Time, something I needed the most, because with each confession out of my father came the dissolution of a memory that I thought was concretely mine. There would be two realities from there on out: my own and his, the ruler of my mythologies.
In sailing there’s a maneuver called “coming about” where, to avoid losing momentum, you steer your boat directly into the wind. This move saves your sails from luffing and keeps your vessel moving. Though it would be a while before we both understood how to live again in rooms, in apartments and homes, after the hurricane in Brooklyn, I eventually made my way through graduate school and my father — despite the specter of alcohol that haunts and looms in a permanent funnel cloud off on the horizon — found a new house and a relationship that seems to keep him focused on things that are good for him, like his garden and his music.
Maybe he keeps his drinking reeled in now, as he tells me he does. But I still cower from holidays and gatherings at which, quite often, booze can still get the best of him. There’s just no move to steer him away from that particular swell, so I gave up fighting and now only brace for it when I sense it’s coming.
I know now my sailboat was the first thing I ever really cared for. I was terrified of it and the responsibility required to make sure it was always all right. Sometimes I would stare at the little boat, its pert mast pointing skyward, and wonder what it wanted from me. Other times, on the water, we were one. In time, I understood that I would forever be scared of the things I loved the most, and that boats sail upon oceans, bodies from which you should never turn away. But I still miss the nights at the dock, the way I remember them — as the most perfect place to be a kid with a dad at the end of long summer days.