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Non Fiction

One Day Before the Mast

Petra Perkins

Sailing – before I tried it – seemed an idyllic way to escape the zeroes and ones of my computer job. I was drowning in details, project plans, software glitches and schedule pitches. Running away was too much trouble so I settled on temporary escapes.

When I imagined sailing I daydreamed… finding my perfect pace, setting cruise control, lying on deck slathered in SPF 8 dark coconut oil. I envisioned sliding through three-rum mai-tais on my way to palm-treed oases. The rest, somewhat hazy. I failed to consider the requirements of actually launching a boat. See, I just wanted to be there, not get there. The chatty herons at Chatfield Dam must still be gossiping about the day they shared their ‘ocean’ with a rare laughing hyena…

It was a cool Denver day. I’d purchased a small sloop and was surprised it came loaded with equipment -- a motor, motor mount, a chest full of winches, halyards, canvas (sails), sheets (ropes), more little doodads, and a trailer packed with its own esoteric paraphernalia. I didn’t figure out until after two beers what the bucket was for.

Setting up the mast is a non-trivial precursor to sailing. Before buying a boat I should have read Two Years Before the Mast by Charles Dana. “Before the mast” referred to living quarters of common sailors. It must have been bloody awful for those pitiful mates – endless rolling of waves, swabbing of decks, nauseous cooking on gimballed stoves, climbing the masochistic mast, in perilous straits, to repair little doodads up high. There’s no way I would’ve agreed to spend two years before the mast, much less the seven I actually ended up spending. (Yes, seven years -- the time it takes one’s body to completely regenerate its brain cells.) I’d simply craved vanishing to relax topside in warm sunshine, inhale pungent, fishy aromas, hear heron wings flapping, feel soft rhythmic waves slapping the hull. In other words: escape work.

Funny how when you try to escape something, you end up confronting it full bore. Like if you were a doctor and you went on vacation and everyone but you got sick. Well, here I was, planning my getaway across a one-mile lake and I had to first pass Marine Mechanics 101.

Step One: “Step” the mast. That’s where boyfriend Larry came in. Larry loves mechanical challenges even more than he loves women (therefore more than sex?). Whereas I was confused and unhappy that the mast didn’t pop up with the mere press of a button, he was ecstatic. It was like Christmas for him and he’d gotten an erector set. If I got an erector set for Christmas I would have bawled my eyes out; I would have demanded Barbie’s Evening Cruise Attire set.

He zoomed to-and-fro about the boat, like the energized bunny on steroids, ordering me, admonishing me:

“Hold this”
“Move that”
“Push up”
“Pull down”
“Be careful”

He had achieved nirvana, testing wires, nuts and bolts, learning the ropes. (I finally determined what “go piss up a rope” actually means.) I just stood mute, in shock, wishing I had my $2,800 back. I couldn’t imagine paying to do this every weekend of every summer, but it seems I had signed up to do exactly that.

I quickly figured I’d now have to rent a slip at the marina so I could park it, leaving the mast up permanently. And for that, I would need a custom boat cover. It was only my first day as Boatie and I’d already discovered what most people take at least a year to learn: Owning a boat is the same as throwing thousands of greenbacks into green water.

Am I not a quick study?

Larry had obviously taken command of my ship. After we’d spent a contentious morning erecting the masthead, he directed: “Get in the truck; back this rig into the lake; watch me in the mirrors.”

I obeyed, two out of three. I was weary of being the service robot and ready to take charge launching my fantasy. I jumped in the driver’s seat and reversed my 18-footer with its 25-foot swaying mast into Chatfield Reservoir, without a sideward glance at any hand-waving signals. My gaze was locked into the rear-view at my tiny yacht floating into the land-locked ocean on its maiden voyage. A truly magnificent sight: my symbol of imminent freedom from responsibility.

Immediately I flooded and floated Larry’s truck.

After hours of shouting/sweating/breast-beating/recriminating I realized I was drowning in details and already behind schedule on my palm-tree oasis escape plan.

I began cackling wildly, flapping arms and head through the open window, like some goofy bird from a foreign seaside jungle. I couldn’t stop. I fell screeching into ice cold water. I did not know how to swim.