The Voyages of Peaches, Part One

From our balcony in Herzliya we look out onto the sailboats, those beautiful sea creatures that spread their wings to the wind and beckon of faraway places; and from thence onto the Mediterranean that laps at the breakwater a hundred yards from our door. Peaches, our beautiful Jeanneau 64, is at the end of the row. Always waiting for the next adventure.

We watch as the sea and sky present their daily kaleidoscope of changing moods and think of how it all began.

For me it began with a trip to Eilat and a sail on a beautiful two masted schooner. Yuta and her crew sailed us up the coast of Sinai. The day was hazy with the heat, the sun shone burnt orange on the mountains and a scent of spice was in the air. We anchored off Di Zahav. The name didn’t mean anything to me at the time but later when I actually read the Torah I found the name mentioned in Devarim (Deuteronomy) as one of the stopping points where the Israelites encamped on their journey from Egypt to what would become Israel. Another one of those “reality checks” that turned ancient tales and fairy dust to inescapable facts.

That night, sleeping on the deck on sail bags, looking at the profusion of stars through the rigging, I was hooked. One of the many things we’ve lost living in cities is the beauty of a night sky, but on the ocean, away from everything man made, the sky is black velvet with tens and tens of thousands of diamonds scattered about singly and in clusters. You can actually see the Milky Way and the constellations beg a story.

As soon as we returned to Cincinnati I bought a little Catalina 22, fire engine red and a sweet sailor. I learned to sail, got my captains license and dreamed of faraway places.

After Brookville Lake and then Lake Eire I figured I was ready for the big times, open ocean sailing. With my two older boys, ten and twelve, we rented a sleek C&C 36-foot sailboat in Ft. Lauderdale and had a captain sail us to Bimini, the closest of the Bahama chain of islands off the coast of Florida. It was only 50 miles away but it was across the Gulf stream. It was a beautiful twelve-hour sail. We docked at the Bimini Gig Game club, made famous by Ernest Hemingway. We visited the “End of the World Café,” where the walls, ceiling and furniture were covered with magic markered names and messages of other sailors. We added ours in spite of our inhibition of writing on walls, but hey, it was the end of the world.

We went fishing the next day, caught some nice mackerel, too big for the cooler. We anchored near an old wreck which we wanted to snorkel around. I cleaned and filleted the fish and threw the carcasses in the water. As soon as it hit I said, “guys, I made a big mistake,” “those carcasses will attract sharks. Looks like we can’t snorkel.” Instead we fished in the crystal clear water and waited to see if sharks would come. After a half hour and no sharks, I put on snorkel and fins and told the guys I would check things out. I started to go over the side when Avraham screamed, “Shark, shark!” I looked but didn’t see any sharks. “No sharks Av,” and put my foot on the first rung of the ladder. Avraham, his voice raised and octave, started screaming again “Shark, Shark!!” I figured it was better to be safe than sorry, so I climbed back in the boat and went over to where he was standing. I looked over the side and there beneath our boat was this huge hammerhead shark. I’ve never seen such a big fish in my life. I felt like picking the boat up in my arms and running for shore.

It was on the way back to Ft. Lauderdale that I found my “moment,” As Goethe said in Faust, “to find that moment where one can say, ‘stay thou art so fair.’” We set sail early as I wanted to get back before dark. I had invited a young man who had sailed before and wanted transit to Florida so I could have another adult aboard.

It was late afternoon, the sun was slanting off the waves striking shards of fire, like so many sparks in the water. The only sound was the wind, the water and the waves and the ever present working of the boat as water rushed by her sides, the mast creaked with the strain and the rigging sang and bowed to the wind. Everyone was sleeping but me. I was alone, the wheel in my hands, alive to the feel of the water, holding a true course. I had recently discovered Puccini’s Turnadot and as Pavarotti sang “Nessun Dorma” I was transported to a different world.

When we got home I immediately planned the next trip where I would “bare boat,” rent the boat and be my own captain. “Oh foolish beaver!” (my favorite children’s book). Man so easily deludes himself of his prowess, his great skills, his abilities. But, one doesn’t know until one learns.

My lesson came several months later. I took the boys on a school break, flew to Ft. Lauderdale, rented a 30 foot Allmond, a nice sailor that I thought I could single hand, just me the kids and the ocean. We set sail about 2 AM and I promptly took the wrong channel and got lost. After about an hour I found the right one and finally made it out to sea. Wasn’t a good omen!

At about six when it should have been getting light it was still uniformly grey with a thin drizzle of rain. I hadn’t heard of any weather on the forecast, but this was in the days when you could count on them to be consistently wrong. The drizzle turned into rain and the wind began to pick up. Pretty soon the sea was working up into some big swells as we headed towards this tiny speck of land in the Atlantic only seven miles long. Miss it and the next stop is Africa.

The Gulf Stream flows as an underwater current about three knots per hour (nautical miles). It’s like a river in the ocean flowing from the Gulf of Mexico, up the coast of the US and over to the British Isles. When the wind comes from the north it kicks up waves very quickly. In fact, unbelievably quickly. It wasn’t long before the wind was blowing the tops off the waves. Between the ever increasing rain and the spray from the waves, I could barely see.

I called down to the boys who were secured in the cabin, and asked them to throw up my snorkel mask. When Jacob looked out at this huge wave behind the boat his eyes widened like saucers. He threw me the goggles and ducked back inside.

The waves were getting really serious and the storm was building. We were climbing these mountains of water, reaching the top and surfing down to the bottom. I had long since put on my safety harness and chained myself to the pulpit (steering wheel support), but I was getting really cold as I was inundated by water at every dip of the prow. I was able to reach a sail bag and I got into it and tied it around my waist.

The roar of the storm, the force of the waves and the chaos of the ocean drained away any confidence I had and the self-recriminations and worry over bringing the boys set in. I may not have been religious at the time but I was surely praying for all I was worth.

Suddenly as I climbed this monstrous wave that was curling over my thirty-five-foot mast I began to lose control. If the boat was turned broad side into the wave it would broach and the seas would immediately overwhelm us. I made it to the top and in a split second decision spun the boat around in the direction the wind was forcing us and surfed down the other side. I let the wind push us. Immediately I regained control, and as the wind and water were no longer hitting me in the face. I started to feel calmer.

We ran with the wind for several hours until the storm played itself out. The sun came out, the boys ventured on deck and we looked around and breathed a sigh of relief, but where were we? There were no landmarks, no GPS, no clue. We hailed a passing freighter and asked the way to Bimini. He told us but I couldn’t believe we’d been pushed so far off course so I fudged a bit.

We finally sighted a small island. By its shape I was able to identify it on the chart. It turned out we were only a few hours’ sail from Bimini. Then the motor quit. The boys and I looked at each other as there was no way we wanted to spend another night on the water. I yelled “Hoist the main sail, we’re a sailboat guys, let’s get to it.” We hoisted main and jib, trimmed the sails and headed for Bimini. Now the problem was that it was a tricky harbor to get into. It had a narrow opening that you had to approach at 120 degrees sighting on a wreck on shore, be careful of the rocks to starboard (right) and the sandbar to port (left), and by around 4:30 PM the sun slanted off the surface of the water and you couldn’t see the coral and rocks below.

So we all blew on the sail, cheered the wind and as we got closer and closer I stationed Av on the starboard bow and Jacob on the port. We were coming close and I couldn’t see below the surface. Suddenly Av screamed, “rocks, rocks!” I cut to port and we made it through the opening. We glided down the long entrance to the harbor, let the sails fall, and tied up at the Bimini Big Game Club, very, very relieved!

I was never so happy to step off a boat. When we checked in to our room I looked at myself in the mirror. I had a coating of dried salt on my face, red rimmed eyes and looked like what I had been through. I swore we weren’t sailing back. The next day I called the charter company to send someone out to bring the boat back and we flew home. As a father it was very sobering.

The ocean is a harsh teacher, constantly reminding one how small and insignificant they are. My illusion of control was laughable. I was only in control as long as the leash I was on allowed, which at any given time was yanked to bring me back to earth. If I had known “Who” was pulling my chain I could have saved myself a lot of grief, but then I guess I had to learn the hard way.

That said, I’m an optimist, and you can’t keep a good optimist down. As we looked back on it, the shark grew at every telling, and the waves, well, they really were monsters, and we did survive. So that spark of self-confidence crept back, though much chastened and soon I was telling how I kept the boat at a 45-degree angle to the waves, how I managed to keep from getting swamped. I filed this away under the category of “if it doesn’t kill you it will make you stronger,” and it wasn’t long before Bimini was part of our sailing lore.

The Psalmist says: “The heavens declare the glory of G-d, and the expanse of the sky tells of His handiwork, Day following day brings expressions of praise, and night following night speaks of wisdom. There is not speech and there are no words; their sound is unheard…Toras HaShem Temima,” the Torah of HaShem is perfect.

In our very small boat in the middle of the very large ocean we see the glory of creation, the smallness of man, yet we were put here to see it, to experience it and to learn from it. To enjoy it as no other creation can. Such a gift is beyond comprehension. There is no masterpiece like it, and just as the Psalmist describes the sun running its course and that nothing can hide from its heat, just so are the judgements, the structures, the axioms and laws of the Torah perfect, forming boundaries, signposts and directions for our lives on this earth.

We are often challenged during our lives in painful ways, sometimes unasked for, sometimes we bring it on ourselves, but if we can find the strength and the faith, we can surmount them and even grow in ways unexpected.

It was many years before I would sail again as another, different storm enveloped our lives. But one day…

Part Two to come…