I suppose the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. My husband, Mario, grew up in the California desert, dreaming of the Colorado mountains. I grew up in Maine, 13 miles inland, spending summers on a lake and dreaming of the ocean — specifically, of sailing. I was captivated by the fact that Maine’s famously craggy coastline is longer than California’s (3,478 miles to 3,427), by the freedom I perceived in those tall white sails, and by John Masefield’s verse, “All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.”
It began when I was eight. An over-protected little perfectionist who was the worst monkey-bar climber in the whole elementary school, I was drawn to library books about seafaring explorers. Later, I felt a kinship with the merchant mariners in John McPhee’s Looking for a Ship: like them, I was a doomed romantic, ready to grab my duffle bag and leave rooms, cities, and past selves behind. For years, I watched Rockland’s Parade of Sail, the tall ships wafting past the breakwater like impossibly beautiful ghosts.
In college, I took a sailing course for PE credit. Most of it took place in a butterfly-roofed building full of crew shells, where we learned how to tie a hundred types of knots. When we finally hit the water, in 10-foot dinghies with bright-blue hulls, the spring air filled with calls of “ready about!” immediately followed by splashes and cries for help. The booms indeed came around fast.
Jumping forward: Mario and I raised two kids. Over the years, I infected him with my desire to sail, but we never had the time or money to pursue it. Then, suddenly as an August thunderstorm, it seemed, we found ourselves empty nesters, not knowing whether to be irritated or excited by each other’s presence. We started talking seriously about sailing. Since we lived on Sennebec Pond — basically a wide spot in the Saint George River — we decided to keep an eye out for a used Sunfish, a 100-pound personal-size dinghy perfect for the pond and sailing novices like us.
One day, Mario came home from work and said he had bought a boat. A Sunfish it was not. He’d gone to the Penobscot Bay YMCA Boat Auction. He’d placed a winning offer on a 27-foot 1983 Catalina that bunks five, with a galley, a head, and an inboard diesel engine.
All I could think of when I first saw the boat was Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” I pictured myself haunting the cafés and bars of Rockland, the weight of a murdered seabird around my neck, heavy as my hubris, telling anyone and everyone, “Can you believe what my husband did? This is how we’re going to die.”
We secured a mooring at Knight Marine, in Rockland, half a mile from shore but within sniffing distance of Wasses Hot Dogs and uncomfortably close to the ferry lane. We bought an inflatable dinghy with plastic oars online. We had to clamber from this dinghy onto our boat via a slippery flip-down ladder at the stern — in full view of professional fishermen, seasoned sailors, tourists, occasionally the Coast Guard or Marine Patrol, and, often enough, a deck full of ferry passengers. Of course, my husband hopped around like a gymnast. Not me.
“You used to do yoga,” Mario prodded, as the mighty Atlantic heaved beneath my legs.
Instead of getting divorced, we took an adult-ed class in boating fundamentals, offered by the local Sail and Power Squadron. We scored the highest in the group on the boating-license test. The instructors pronounced us a fine team. We walked hand in hand to the parking lot.
“We learned so much,” Mario said, standing outside the high school from which our kids had graduated. “Time to sail away!”
I paused at the passenger door of his truck. “We learned how much we don’t know,” I said. “Time to take more classes.”
Bit by bit, my romantic notions ceded to reality. I was ever mindful that if you fall overboard along the Maine coast, you have eight minutes before hypothermia sets in. We invested in life jackets, waterproof charts, and flares. Salt air eats away at everything, so maintenance is constant, eternal, and expensive — there is truth to the adage that the word “BOAT” is an acronym for “break out another thousand.” The boat got its own Christmas list. Our wardrobe began to change: sunglasses on leashes, wide-brimmed hats tied under the chins, boat mocs or chunky four-wheel-drive sandals. Generally, we stopped buying anything that wouldn’t make it through a hurricane. I thought I might look like a Ralph Lauren ad if I had a sailboat; instead, I came to resemble a wayward extra from Lawrence of Arabia, in need of hair conditioner and aloe.
We spent more than a season getting to know our boat and to re-know ourselves: skittering around the convex deck, making sure the head and radio and diesel engine and Garmin worked, learning about alcohol stoves and admiralty flags and solar panels. We planned the trips we would take (Monhegan, yes; Panama Canal, no). Mario loved working on the boat, especially varnishing the brightwork. I found a stilled contentment in spending nights just drifting at our mooring, watching the sunset, moonrise, and sunrise, one after another, each cycle as repetitive and subtly unique as the waves lapping against the hull.
Finally, three months after tying up at Knight, we embarked on our first actual sail, from Rockland Harbor north to Lincolnville Beach — a modest, shoreline-hugging plan that would let us focus on tacking and jibing. The occasion was my uncle’s 80th birthday. He and my aunt, both experienced sailors, had been urging us to “just get out there!” Both our grown kids joined us, rowing out to the mooring in the dinghy, supposedly to help us prepare. Instead, they sunned themselves and blasted music and let our dinghy drift away with one bad knot. (Each blames the other for this.) Without a dingy, we motored over to the marina’s dock, so my aunt and uncle could step aboard. Still under power, we pointed the bow toward the Rockland Breakwater lighthouse and hoisted the mainsail.
I’ll never forget the moment Mario killed the diesel engine and voilà — at long last, we were sailing. Our eyes met. The steel grommets stopped clacking. The teakwood tiller rested solidly in my left hand. We felt at once tiny and like giants under the periwinkle sky and the taut white sail, the sapphire water racing underneath us. We sliced through the bright Atlantic in a kind of holy silence. We were traveling as people have since ancient times. We were off on brand-new adventures.
Ultimately, we retrieved our dinghy. We practiced our bowlines and learned to pay attention to the direction of the wind on our faces and necks. Today, with two summers on the Catalina under our belt, we continue to learn from a sailing community that has turned out to be anything but judgmental. This season, we’ll add a genoa sail and put a motor on our dinghy. We’ll stock ice blocks, net bags of fresh vegetables, and a fishing pole. The siren song of Maine’s islands is calling us.