There is part of me that likes the winter, the part that likes to hole up and cook casual dinners for friends, watching it snow while I watch old movies, curled up with Barkley on the couch. Mornings spent stalking an elusive whitetail, followed by an evening in front of the fire, lazing under a thick soft blanket with stories of the day and a couple fingers of Jameson's. But yet what I wanted today was just one more day of summer to get out on the water, with a boat. The free and clear call of running tides as the dawn breaks gray. A day to feel the sway and the splash, the kick of the wheel and the taut shake of the jib, the rhythm of the tasks that keep the wind in the sail, the choreography of brain and hands, wood and metal, that drive you towards the horizon.
During grad school I lived on the West Coast and seemed to divide my quality time between the sky, the mountains or the water. A vagrant gypsy life of the spray of laughter and sorrow, salt water, salt tears. After I had Brigid Jr, and handed her to her adoptive parents I sought solace in the blue, traveling from the the waters of the womb to the waters of the wild, as far out into it as I could. Flying, hiking, sailing. Environments so different, yet so essentially the same.
There is is probably a reason that many pilots are lovers of the outdoors, many owning boats. Boaters and pilots take great pride in their craft, and there is a sense of camaraderie amongst them, though they may not actively socialize when away from their favorite element. Many of my friends share this world and we all share one other thing, despite variances in gender, age or upbringing. We are people who just cannot thrive between clustered walls, walking asphalted trails to small offices, breathing in the fumes of yearning, working and dying earthbound, with nary a thought of the sky or the clouds or the sea. To stake us to a plot of earth, however shaded, safe and watered, is to watch us wither and die.
I lived for a time on a a tiny rented houseboat when I was a young student. Probably the best place I'd ever laid my head. The marina was small and I relished going to bed at night with the tremulous cadence of the water rocking me to sleep, the sounds of the cove, music to my empty heart. It was a quiet, sheltered place where no one locked their doors and people respected your things, and your privacy. Though I secretly smile when I think about the Simpsons' episode where Homer comes home with “Marge! Look at all this great stuff I found at the Marina. It was just sitting in some guy's boat !!"
In retrospect it was one of the more carefree times in my life, houseboat living between work and classes and flights with my students while tagging along with new friends and neighbors, one with a large Taiwanese ketch,; weekends of we pilots racing the locals up and down the waterways. The times were few and far between with our schedules, but the joy of those days still remains pooled in the backwaters of my mind, and I can take myself back there with just the sound of the wind filling a sail, testing it's seams.There is just something magical about the elements of water and sky, with their constant change in mood and shape, density and color. The great variances of their forms, like music, can either calm, uplift or excite; a power over the mind and thoughts of those who have the depth of soul to hear. But like the sky, the water too, has its dangers, its eddies, its currents. There are days where the whisper kiss of the wind turns into a whetted knife and you and your craft are simply a storm tossed play toy of the gods. As Sophocles's stated in Antigone: "Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man. This power spans the sea, even when it surges white before the gales of the south-wind, and makes a path under swells that threaten to engulf him".
I've seen that power, caught out in a unexpected storm, on wing or sail; where my tiny craft pitched and rolled in weighed indecision as to stay pointy end forward or not, debating as to which way was up and which way was down, into final blackness, while I frantically went through the motions of piloting it, hoping to at least get the opportunity for one last "%&#^" shouted for immortality before I left nothing but a splash of debris against the surface. It's a mistake you don't make twice, and when you size up your sky, assess your horizon, you think and remember. It's similar in many ways to climbing. It's easy to lose yourself in the drifting quiet, mesmerized by the tranquil stillness of the blue, the brilliance of the elements, and forget the strong, wild heart that beats beneath the lacy spray of white.
Like anything that tests you against Mother Nature, if you don't learn, you die. If you do learn, the danger becomes part of the attraction; not in a reckless fashion, but rather with the confidence you gain in knowing that you have choices and strengths. That with the right choices, whatever the sky, the ocean, the wild or life in general can throw at you, is not enough to destroy you, as you have the power that Sophocles wrote of, of man over the wind.
That is why after a weekend and week that were both emotionally and physically draining, I wish I could get out into the blue again, be it water or sky. One last turn to test my mettle before this long dark winter, to put my hand into it, leaving a wake trail behind me of all the worries and want and desire, to wash my mind free of all but the grip of my hands on the wheel, the clouds anchored above, guided by the flutter of wind against fabric.