“You’re not going out with Josh alone today, are you,” the Admiral asked, referring to my eight-year-old grandson. “It’s blowing 20knots in the Sound, and raining.”
I said something about deciding what we’d do once we got to the marina, but if I’m honest, I knew that we’d leave the dock. Even eight-year-old sailors need to be ready for any kind of weather. And practicing in it close to home was the safest way to prepare for it.
A year ago, Joshua and I made a deal: He would enter into an able-bodied seaman training course that I designed, and if he earned a passing grade or better, he would get his first knife: a sailing tool with a sheep’s foot saw blade, turnbuckle key, and a marlinspike. I posted the checklist of skills that he had to acquire in the main saloon of our boat.
The day of my conversation with the Admiral was day two of the course: learning how to handle our 36-foot Hunter under power. The course gave Josh some time away from his two younger brothers, and enabled me to give him something that he can own: the knowledge that he can be trusted and the ability to sail. Josh had already taken two classes in dinghy sailing with the excellent Sail Sand Point school. He knew his points of sail and could handle his own Optima dinghy and Hobie Cat.
Our first training day had been in dead calm conditions, and he had acquitted himself well, especially in the area of situational awareness. Today will take it up a notch, I thought, as we pulled into the parking lot at Elliott Bay Marina. As Josh got out of the car, I noticed that he was leaving his rain jacket in the car. “I’m fine with my hoodie,” he said, in response to my question. I raised an eyebrow and zipped up my sailing jacket as we headed for the dock.
After going through our checklist and teaching Josh how to do an engine check, we cast off and I backed into the fairway. A quarter of the way up the fairway, Josh had coiled the forward line on the deck, and at my request, came aft. I handed over the helm, and told him to take us out of the marina while I watched for traffic. I sat next to him, the wheel a second away from my hand, but the result of the first day’s training was evident. He steered confidently, made 90 degree turns smartly and without haste, and left room for other vessels to pass.
It was gusty, once we got out. Josh reported 13 knots steady out of the south, gusting to 18, and I could see wave heights of 1-2 feet. We were at the tail end of an ebb tide, so we were being rolled around a bit, but nothing steep was in our way. Josh added throttle to make progress. He began talking to himself, verbalizing the way good helm-persons think: “OK, the waves are a bit tricky here. The wind is pushing me sideways, let me adjust. No, not that way– this way. There’s power coming at us from starboard. I don’t think we’ll run into them…..no, definitely not.”
Today’s lesson was about stopping the boat and holding her into the wind, under power. Josh had to keep the boat into the wind for as long as he could, while making 0 knots of boat speed. The first time he attempted it, we got to 0 knots, and lost steerage. “What’s wrong,” I asked, “why can’t you keep her in the wind?”
“We’re in irons,” Josh replied calmly, his Sail Sand Point training kicking in. “If I have no water moving over the rudder, I can’t steer the boat. And look- now the wind is pushing us off course, and I still can’t steer.”
We did this four more times, as Josh learned how to read the wind on the water and adjust for waves on a course. At the same time, I observed some particularly black clouds grouping up to the west of us. That cell appeared to move north in this southerly wind, but it could just as easily side-slip to the east and into us.
On Josh’s fourth pass, I watched a Bremerton-bound ferry slip into the darkness that had enveloped Rich’s Passage. As soon as he had completed the exercise, I gave the order to take us in to the marina. Josh took us through 180 degrees as I went on deck to set out fenders. I was surprised at how confident I felt, out on deck, with an eight-year-old boy at the helm of my boat.
Josh did a fine job of adjusting for windage while looking for traffic, and brought Selah behind the rock walls of the marina. In the fairway to our slip, I came aft, dropped the bitter end of the midships line onto the deck, and took the helm. “The wind just dropped,” he commented. “Well then, we’re just in time, my friend,” I replied, “Calm before the storm. Coil the midships line, and open the gate at the lifeline.”
As Josh coiled his line, I explained what was going to happen. I would slip the boat, stop her and as I stepped off, he would hand me the midships coil, go forward to the port bow line, and get ready to throw that line to me.
Everything went like clockwork. I bent down and secured the dockline amidships, as twenty knots of wind came roaring across the boat, the heavens opened, and a downpour soaked us to the skin. Josh threw me the port bow line, and I threw the starboard line to Josh, whose soaked hoodie seemed to accelerate his half-hitch cleating ability. I met my grandson back under cover in the cockpit with some towels from the dry locker.
We celebrated his achievement with a couple of beers- root for him, Corona for me. (“These must be popular,” Josh remarked as he looked into the fridge, “There’s only one left.”) Then we quietly watched the rain run off of the boat.
It was only on waking the next day that I realized what Josh had given me: the chance to share a boy’s adventure again.