Alice's Voice

The Day I Learned to Sail

The image of an Optimist Dinghy came quickly to my mind. 

The last few blocks of my morning walk are usually a transition from daydreaming to the day’s to-do list. Not this morning. Instead, I was bewailing my manifold sins. It was a Friday and rather than the list ahead, I went backwards making a list of the things I hadn’t accomplished. There were three days “lost” due to a dental interruption and so I chose to unravel rather than rebuild. How will I ever move forward if I can’t get through my weekly list? 

Then a positive thought dropped into my head. God must have something magnificent planned if I’m being put off so much. I am aligning with a Divine timeline. That can be the only reason I am so hampered and obstructed on the one I set. 

Ok. I don’t have a lot of positive thoughts without effort. I can’t recall ever having the forward-thinking, God loves me, all will be well, kind of thoughts. Not without a full eight-hour silent retreat at a monastery or a spa. I stopped on the sidewalk and looked down at the hopscotch chalked between me and my house. 

I wondered if I was becoming an optimist. So foreign was this concept, the only frame of reference was an image of an Optimist Dinghy. The Optimist Dinghy is essentially a lightweight bathtub with a sail stuck in the middle. I imagined that I could climb right in and become a real-life optimist. 

Optimist Dinghy with a child who really can sail.

When I was fourteen I took a two-week sailing summer camp near our home in Stockholm, Sweden. Lots of Swedish children sail the archipelago in Optimist Dinghies. The Sea History Museum had a course for the children of diplomats and ex pats, so my sister and I joined to learn to sail. 

Sailing would be a generous term for what I learned in the Optimist Dinghy. The summer camp was ruined for the orderly Swedish instructors by a group of ‘those’ Americans. Not me. Not my sister. We’re not “those” Americans.  We’re the people-pleasing, charm-the-host, Americans. I’m talking about the kind of Americans that take over a space when they enter. In this case the group was three ten-year-old boys. 

The Optimist Dinghy came equipped with a large scoop and a rectangular sponge that fit in the scoop. This was used for bailing out and sopping up water that gets in the very easily water-logged vessel. The boys took to the water and immediately filled the scoops, soaked the sponges, and launched a water battle. I had the choice to join in the battle or try to get away.  Since I couldn’t yet sail, getting away wasn’t that easy. I spent two weeks tacking and shielding my face. 

At the end of the summer, our family visited the Bring family at their summer home. Everyone we knew in Stockholm had a summer home. A little red stuga on a rock in the archipelago. Activities include: berry picking, mushroom picking, aquavit drinking, and sailing. Not necessarily in that order. 

A typical Swedish stuga

Jan Bring, a tall man with bushy red hair and even bushier eyebrows was always practical. When we ate a herring buffet at his house, a meal my brother, sister, and I could barely choke down, he offered a type of herring in a tomato sauce. “You’ll like this one.” It looked like some sort of insane version of SpaghettiOs. I took a bite and being the people-pleasing type of American said, “Yes, this is good.” 

“Ah, so good,” he said and dolloped a large helping on my plate. 

The Brings had a sail boat, medium-sized, but it was a real sailboat. On this occasion, Mr. Bring decided that because we had taken Optimist Dinghy lessons, we should sail his boat. Alone. 

My brother, me, and my sister.
Behind us is the Bring’s sailboat,
or as my sister calls it, the deathtrap.

Our mother, normally prone to hysteria and anxiety, watched with her hands over her eyes. Jan and my father, both Navy men, stood on the rock watching as we came out of the cove. That’s when they saw the much larger boat with some 15 – 20 people all enjoying their aquavit, previously hidden by the rock, flying towards us. 

The choices were tack left or right. If left, the wind could die out of our sails and we would either sit dead in the water or, if we were still moving, hit them broadside. Tack right and we would either take a direct hit or the wind could fill our sails and we would speed past their bow into open water. 

“What will they do?!” our mother screamed.

“They will either sail or they will not,” said Jan Bring. 

I tacked right. The sails filled and we flew past the hull and into open water.  

It turns out that climbing into an Optimist Dinghy and learning how to tack even the under duress of a soaked sponge being thrown at you will give you what you need when it comes time to sail.  

When the negative thoughts assailed me the other day and a wildly optimistic thought dropped in, I did something I wasn’t sure I could do — I tacked right. I embraced the optimist, hoping my sails will fill and carry me to open water. After all, I will either sail or I will not. 

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