Luffing

By Mary Heather Noble

When I think about my father, the picture that always comes to mind is him standing on the shore of Lake Erie against the distant Cleveland skyline.  He watches the wind socks on the pier waving in the breeze, their streamers a rainbow contrast against the blurry city beyond.  I imagine in his mind a single perpetual question: Is it going to be a good day for a sail?

His keen eyes dart from shoreline trees to the open blue, evaluating the pattern of waves on the water, calculating whether the wind is too strong, or just enough to sustain us for a sail.  If it’s too windy, there will be whitecaps — glimpses of silver white triangles flashing randomly over the water, and my father’s thick side-parted hair will lift off his forehead, the neatly combed strands fanning over his glasses.  If there isn’t enough wind, the trees stand still in the haze, and the wind sock hangs limp on its pole.

Most of the time it isn’t that easy to tell.  On most days, the lake is a perplexing combination of choppy and smooth, gusty and still.  It takes an expert’s eye to evaluate the conditions.  I always watch my father closely, wanting to read the elements the way he can, wishing I could know, too, from the water and sky whether something is worth doing.

*  *  *

At first, we have the whole family with us: me and my father, my mother and my younger brother.  We have a tradition of eating out for breakfast on the weekends, a consolation for the dinners out that we can’t afford.  We often stop at the lake on our way home from the restaurant, though the lake is never truly on our way home.  It’s rather out of the way, and when my father turns the car onto that certain route that always ends up at the shore, I can see, from the back seat, my mother’s shoulders tighten, her silent staring out the car window reflecting a sort of internalized dread.

He names her Careless Luff, after the way the sails can “luff,” a common mistake made by novice skippers….

“Let’s see if there’s an off-shore breeze,” my father says as he parks the car.  He says this in a high-spirited voice, as if that’s all he really lives for: a belly full of bacon and eggs, and a pretty nice day for a sail.

We trickle out of the car, one by one, and that’s how we approach the water, as well.  There is no waiting for each other, no gathering together and walking as a family.  My father heads straight for the pier with his long-legged stride; my brother and I race to keep up.  My mother lags behind, slowly making her way down the pier with a wide-hipped, reluctant walk.  As I get older, I begin to lag behind, too, and by the time I am nine, I will find myself somewhere between them in the middle of the pier, half wishing for there to be plenty of wind, the other half wishing for none at all.

My father built his first sailboat when he was a teenager in Arizona.  He kept it in my grandparents’ garage in Tucson.  My father is kind of like a sailboat in the middle of the Sonoran desert: he has always stood out from everyone else, never really folding into his surroundings, in a quiet, unusual way.

* * *

When we move to Cleveland, my father decides to buy a boat that is big enough for the family.  He decides that sailing on Lake Erie will become our family hobby.

* * *

He buys a Day Sailor.  She’s a good family boat, about the length of a car, with an orangish-red hull and a white fiberglass deck.  He names her Careless Luff, after the way the sails can “luff,” or ripple noisily back and forth when the boat is turned too far into the wind.  It’s a common mistake made by novice skippers, which, I guess, is what my father thinks he is.  I think that it’s a beautiful name, sort of wistful and poetic.  He has the words painted onto the stern in white cursive, the curves of the capitol-C and the double-F thick and bubbled, like a cartoon cloud blowing the wind.

* * *

The wind raises a problem for my mother.  It makes her very anxious.  Except for my father, we are all unaccustomed to riding on a boat; stepping aboard the Careless Luff is like stepping into another dimension.  The fiberglass deck slides away from the dock as soon as you place one of your feet on it, and a simmering panic begins to boil as the distance between the boat and the dock widens between your legs.  My brother and I usually jump, or are tossed in by my father, but my mother is not so adventurous.  She gingerly steps onto the deck while my father holds the ropes tight on the dock to keep the boat from wandering.  She shows neither grace nor humor in her transition from land to water, and once safely aboard, she sits down firmly in the boat and holds the edge as if she never intends to move — which is not how it works on a sailboat.  There is movement and shifting and sliding of positions to assist the skipper, his handling of the lines, the swing of the boom, the change of direction.  These are the basics of sailing, to which we are about to be introduced.

* * *

My father pushes off the dock and boards the boat; it rocks with every step.  My mother sits white-knuckled until he settles and starts the motor.  The buzz of the engine soothes us, the forward motion offers balance.  My mother relaxes her grip, and we steer through the urban channel toward open water, where we will raise the sails and fly.  We ride without words, past buoys and docks with seagulls and tattered flags, weathered men with fishing poles, portable radios, and coolers of beer.  We pass rusty mountains of iron ore staged by gigantic freighters docked in the port, and we can see the western edge of the Cleveland skyline.  The breeze ushers the putrid smell of fish and sewage and gasoline away, and the sun is shining above.  I turn and look at my parents.  The sun reflecting off the lake and into their squinted eyes makes it look like they are smiling.  And maybe for just a moment, I pretend they really are.

“Here,” he says, “If you’re gonna throw up, do it in one of these.”

But the break wall is growing nearer, and beyond it we can see the real waves — the vast and choppy Lake Erie — up ahead.  This is where the real sailing begins.  My father cuts the engine.  Water slaps against the hull, the sloshing sound echoes in the boat’s hollow cubby.  The waves toss us back and forth while my father raises the sails.  The boom bucks stubbornly against the tension of its ropes, its persistence yielding an annoying BAM-BAM-BAM until my father, with both of his hands furiously pulling the lines to hoist the sails, grumbles at us, “Hold that thing still, will ya?”  Soon the sails are up and luffing, and my father rushes around, attempting to trim them and steer the boat.  We crouch in the way of his frantic motion, and we don’t know what he means when he says, Prepare to tack.

“Ready about?  Hard-a-lee!” my father sings.  He pulls the tiller and releases the boom, and it swings hard across the cockpit like a baseball bat, making the boat heel in the other direction.  The ice cooler slides across the floor and the three of us — my mother, brother, and I — quickly scramble to the other side to avoid being dumped in the water.  My father laughs and hoots out loud as the sails begin to fill.  We are sailing, by golly, he says, and his elation at this completely eclipses the fear on my mother’s face.

* * *

It’s like this every time.  My father improves at raising the sails, so our transitions become less chaotic, but my mother remains afraid.  She cringes with the rocking — rocking from the waves, rocking from the wind, rocking from our movement.  And when the sails fill with a strong gust and tip the boat deep on its side, she grabs my brother’s lifejacket and clutches the edge the boat, wailing, Daaaaaay-ve?!, her voice rising an octave in alarm.  Sometimes she gets so upset that my father becomes angry.  “That’s enough, Mary Ann,” he says, gruffly.  She cries then, her hands all wet from the spray of the lake, her eyes all wet from my father.

We abandon Lake Erie sailing.  My father finds a reservoir about an hour away, with less wind and smaller waves.  It feels like sailing in a bathtub, but at least my mother goes.  I don’t know which of them believes they have compromised more; they both seem sentenced to the arrangement.

* * *

Preparation for our sailing trips is tedious and prolonged.  My father is very particular about how things are done, especially in matters involving his toys.  The gear must be loaded a certain way, the steps taken in a particular order.  It takes 45 minutes just to get everything ready.  And then when we get to the lake, it takes him another hour to set everything up.  It seems like other boaters back their trailers into the water and launch their boats in a quarter of the time, while my father loses himself in the testing of cleats, tying of sails, and coiling ropes into rug-shaped piles.  It isn’t that he doesn’t know what he’s doing; he knows exactly what he is doing, and that is part of the problem.

Nobody can help him, either, because our efforts don’t measure up to his standards.  So my mother, brother and I just sit silently on the dock, wind flapping the straps of our life vests.  By the time we’re ready to launch, my brother is hungry and I have to pee.  But these are trivial needs.  We’re going sailing, by God.  Nothing is going to stop us.

* * *

One weekend morning while packing the car for an outing, my stomach begins to feel sour.  I complain to my mother.

“Dave?” she calls to my father, “Heather’s feeling sick.”

Her observation is met with silence, and my father continues to hitch the trailer and batten down gear with bungees cords and nylon straps.  Eventually, between armloads of life vests and buckets of rope, he pauses to hand me a box of garbage bags.  “Here,” he says, “If you’re gonna throw up, do it in one of these.”

We load the car, and before leaving the driveway, I vomit into the black plastic bag.  My father stops the car, reaches back for the bag, ties it off, and walks back to the garage to throw it out.  I lean my sweaty face against the vinyl seat and close my eyes.  I hear my little brother rustling in the seat next to me.  I hear the garage door closing behind us, my father’s car door slam, and the car start up again.  Then I feel us move.

Daaaaay-ve,” I hear my mother say, her voice trailing out.

In truth, I like sailing with my father, once we are finally out there.  I enjoy the water and the sun, the gurgling of the self-bailing system in the rear of the cockpit, the sound of wind catching the sails.  When it’s calm, I wander up to the bow of the boat, spreading my arms and legs on the deck like a starfish, absorbing the warmth of summer.  And when it’s windy and more adventurous, I grab the hand-holds, brace my legs, and lean way back with my father to counter the boat’s heeling force.   I’m not afraid of capsizing.  I’m not afraid at all.

Mother’s Day, I am nine years old.  My mother no longer sails with us, so today it’s just me and my father.  It’s our first sail of the season, a bright blue day where it’s hot in the sun and cool in the shade.  I remove my bright yellow sweatshirt, only to put it right back on again.  My life vest gets in the way.

The new leaves on the trees are the color of moss and the shore smells like freshly cut grass.  My father and I sail the reservoir, and then check out the dam at the end.  Signs and buoys are posted: DANGER! they warn, DAM AHEAD.  SWIMMING AND BOATING CAN BE FATAL.  I already know from asking my father that ‘fatal’ means causing one’s death, but I can’t grasp the concept here.  Here, my father’s boisterous Ready about? and Hard-a-lee! are unmatched by the anti-climatic ushering of the boom across the cockpit, the absence of wind and waves.  To me, the thought of danger here seems overly-cautious and downright ridiculous.

I suddenly sympathize with my father.  His casual attitude toward danger is a knot between my parents: his driving too fast, jaywalking in traffic, teaching me how to bike with no hands.  I know that I, too, will clash with my mother on these matters, these matters of being safe.

Our confidence betrays us, though, because somewhere between the dam and the boat launch, just after I put my sweatshirt back on and have barely re-fastened my life jacket, my father botches a jibe too close to the shore, and the Careless Luff rolls over.  She goes turtle near the reeds, jamming the mast into the muddy bottom, pitching the two of us into the lake.

“Goddammit!” my father says.  He rarely swears, and the urgency in his voice startles me.  I barely have time to scream — the cold soon envelopes me, its biting grip seizing my throat and sucking the breath right out of my chest.  I paddle around in a panic, my life vest crowding around my neck.

“Heather, swim to the boat and climb up on top,” my father hollers.  I obey, struggling to get a grasp on the slippery fiberglass.  On top, I survey the damage.  Our buckets and towels, sponges and ropes sprawl all over the water, floating every which way from the boat.  I spot my socks and shoes.  I don’t know why — maybe I’m worried that my mother will be angry if I lose my socks and shoes, or that everything will seem fine if I have them — but I jump back into the water to retrieve them.

“Heather!” my dad shouts, “Get back on the boat!”  I do, with my wet socks and shoes in my hands.  Then my father climbs up on our fiberglass island, and we wait for someone to help.

* * *

Our rescuers approach our wreckage in a beautiful wooden sailboat.  They drop their sails and anchor; their English setter is pacing the deck.  With some coaxing from my father, I jump from our boat to their cockpit, and am wrapped in a stranger’s towels.  The dog is excited by all the action.  It scurries back and forth, back and forth, repeatedly rocking the boat.  I clutch the edge with quaking hands, feel a surge of my mother’s fear.

* * *

I think I am the one who calls home.  When we get to shore, my father dumps a handful of coins from his wet leather wallet into my palm and tells me to go call my mother.  His lips are all purple and his nipples are, too, but he turns back toward Careless Luff.  What do I say?  What does she?  I think there’s tension, worry, and tears.  It is Mother’s Day, after all, a day when my father and I should be buying flowers and baking a cake.  But instead, I stand in soggy shoes at a pay phone by the lake, trying to shield them both from each other.

Later, in school, I write a story based upon the experience.  In my embellished version, I am the sole survivor of the wreck, having failed to rescue my father.  My teacher has me read it aloud in front of the class.

“Listen up, everyone,” she says, settling down in her chair.  “This one’s really good.”

What does a teacher think of a nine-year-old girl killing her father off in a story?  I imagine her putting a little notch by my name in her grade book, wonder whether she’ll want to see me after school.

He names the second boat Blue Moon.  She’s a Laser, a slick and tiny blue racing sailboat.  He talks about having the name painted onto the stern with a picture of a little blue Smurf pulling its pants down and flashing its rear.  He commissions me to do the art work, but I’m troubled by how to draw a Smurf’s bare bottom with a tail.  I stall the task at hand, so Blue Moon never wears her name.

She’s barely bigger than a windsurfing board — and indeed, you get wet when you sail her.  She’s too little to board from a dock, so my father buys a wetsuit and launches her from the beach.  If you go sailing with him, you have to wade through the cold and the muck, the slime on the bottom of the lake.  It’s a warning, in a sense.  You know a little better what you’re getting yourself into.

Whenever my father pulls out the Igloo cooler and starts packing up a lunch, he’s getting ready to go for a sail.  He likes to use dinner rolls to make his sandwiches.  He cuts the roll in half, and using one half as a template, meticulously trims the ham and cheese around the edge of the roll, so that the contents of his sandwich comply with the boundaries of the bread.  When he’s squirting mustard onto the roll, I ask him, “Are you going sailing today, Dad?”

He nods.  “Wanna come?”

I sneak a look at my mother, who is lurking around the edges.

“You can go, Heather,” she always says, but I can never shake the guilt.

* * *

When we come back, it’s always late, sometimes even long past our dinner.  My mother asks me how it went.  I shrug, wary of what she’ll say when I like it, fearful of what my father will think when I don’t.

When my father goes out sailing, he commits for the entire day.  It’s like he thinks this trip might be his last sail, and he wants to make it last as long as it can.  It’s fun, this way of playing, but only if your stamina’s the same as his.  If you tire earlier, get hungry first, have to use the bathroom, feel seasick, or turn too red from the sun — you are out of luck.  My father is the skipper.  He is at the helm.  Put on a hat, have some water, or lean yourself over the edge.  For him, accommodation is a one-way street.

His last boat is his favorite: a Sonar, a little yacht he keeps docked at the local club.  He can manage it on his own, but has plenty of room for me and my brother.   “Three out of four ain’t bad,” my father says, casually referring to my mother’s absence.

He names the Sonar Cuddy Shark — a clever play on “Cutty Sark,” the 19th Century English clipper.  Most people who see her name probably think she’s named after the whiskey, but the hardest thing my father drinks is an eight-ounce Michelob beer.

He arranges to have her red hull painted with mirrored images of an attacking shark on the port and starboard sides.  When she sails, she’s supposed to look like a great white that is breaching the water.  The graphics aren’t that impressive, though, so in truth, she looks like a fish.  Still, my father is smitten with the design.

— Which abrades me because my father is smitten with everything involving this boat, and I think her embellishments ironic to the point of being absurd.   Cuddy Shark is a sailboat, which means that she is slow.  And sailboats can’t be vicious; they’re like recumbent bikes of the sea.  With those white sails flying above her, she appears to be wearing wings.  Not to mention the fact that she’s one of the smallest boats docked at my father’s club.  She may have angry eyes and pointy teeth, but she’s as threatening as a perch.

And the way my father coddles her.  After every sail, when he puts her to bed, he folds her mainsail over the boom just so, each fold hung equally on each side, the symmetry preserved by aligning the black marks he made on the sail the first time he choreographed his process for closing ship.  And he’s so paranoid about her suffering a ding or a scratch that he spends days upgrading her dock.  With extra fenders, pulleys and ropes, he engineers a system that will keep her from touching anything — well, anything but the water.  I stand on the dock and watch him, wondering why we haven’t earned this affection.

By junior high, I’m not sailing much anymore.  I have soccer games and track meets.  My father doesn’t come to any of them; he always wants to sail.  He takes my brother out with him instead.

My mother becomes a permanent fixture in the bleachers — my ally, my support.  Everyone else’s father is excited when his daughter chooses sports, but mine waxes his boat, refolds his sails, listens to the weather radio in his room.

My mother and I grow closer.  The strain of their marriage has made her lonely, withdrawn her from her peers.  She confides in me like a friend, and I see my father with different eyes.  I see the way he looks right through her when she is visibly upset.  I see the way he stiffens up when they accidentally touch.  I see the way she leaves their bedroom, with her pillow in her arms.  Still, when he asks me to, I sail.  I want him to think that nothing has changed.

Sunday morning, I’m in high school, and for once I don’t have a game.  It’s a morning for sleeping in.  My father comes into my bedroom and sits on the edge of my bed.  Heather, he says with his hand on my back, do you want to come sailing with me?  I bury my head in the pillow —  I do and I don’t want to go.  I want to please my father, but I am captive to this routine.

Why does this simple question always set me up for a betrayal?  If I don’t go, I’ve chosen my mother.  If I do, I’ve chosen him.

Another day.  We’re sailing on Lake Erie with a colleague from his work.  It’s blustery; my lips feel dry and the constant wind whips my hair into my eyes.

It’s Racing Day for the yacht club.  In wind like this, my father likes to sail near the race course to see how his sailing fares next to the racers.  But it isn’t competitive spirit that motivates my father to make this choice.  It’s something more complex, and feels a little bit like revenge.  I see it sometimes, his need to strike back, on the lake, on the highway, at home.  There is an unacknowledged hunger to teach someone a lesson.

I hate it when he does this; it feels desperate and dumb. It’s like being at the park and we’re that stray dog running around, getting in the way of the graceful, athletic Border Collies snagging Frisbies from the air.

I didn’t eat enough before we left, and all this racing is making me ill.  But when I ask him again to turn back toward shore, my father does not say a word.  I can no longer suppress the impulse, so I lean over the edge to spit.  This horrifies his friend from work; she’s worried that I might actually heave on the boat.

“Dave,” she says, “Really.  Your daughter’s looking green.”

My father looks directly at me, with eyes he reserved for my mother.  It jolts me back and I am shaken by a feeling of being trapped.  My blood is pumping hard, but the pounding is in my stomach.  He squints then, and sighs.  “All right, Heather,” my father says, reluctantly pulling the tiller.  “You win.”

—Which makes me wonder what he meant to avenge.

When we ride this obnoxious shark, people stare like we’ve walked into a restaurant with bare feet and cut-off jeans.  I want to hide my face when we’re drifting past the real yachts, with their preppy white hulls and cushioned decks, and names like Serenity and Summer Daze.  They remind me of my classmates, with their happy families and beautiful homes, and parents snapping pictures at their games.

But once we are out past the break wall, we start to look like everyone else.  When our sails are up and our spinnaker flies, you don’t notice the gaudy hull.  No one can tell from a distance that our family is falling apart.  That my mother sleeps in the guest room, in a bed that is smaller than mine.  Or that my father can recite a sailing trip that he took a decade before, but he can never seem to remember exactly which day my brother was born.

Sailboats move in zig-zags to get from one place to another, their paths like indecision in the face of pressing wind.  Every decision, when you sail, involves turning your boat into wind.  Raising the sails, taking them down, even changing your course, your direction.  Sometimes it’s hard, when the wind’s blowing strong, to suppress the wavering heart.  The vessel rocks in the choppy swell, the sails flap in agitation.  It’s been many years since I’ve been on a boat, but the luffing never stops.

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About Mary Heather Noble

Mary Heather Noble is an environmental scientist, mother, and writer whose work focuses on environmental issues and the intersection of the natural world, family, and place. Her writing has appeared in The Sun, Orion Magazine, and High Desert Journal. Noble is a student of the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing Program in Maine, and serves on the Board of Directors to The Nature of Words literary organization in Bend, Oregon. She lives in Bend with her husband and two daughters.

4 Comments

  1. Posted February 2013 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Wow, Mary Heather. This is amazing. Your imagery, details, everything, spot-on and moving. Congratulations!

  2. Marylin Schultz
    Posted March 2013 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    Your essay is enthralling! The family dynamics are so keenly observed and spread out before the reader, that we understand the crucial relationships.
    I grew up , the middle of three children with parents who seemed to suffer from an always unspoken tension. I tried my best to be the “peace maker; ” between siblings as well as parents. I could really relate to your essay! THANK YOU!

  3. Posted May 2013 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Finding that perfect balance in life so your sails don’t flap so hard you are accused of ‘careless luffing’ would be grand but don’t think that is possible with most families. We all try for perfection, but fail most of the time; no matter how old or experienced we become. Your father seems the perfect metaphor to express this truth. There is superb balance in your writing, however.

  4. Posted June 2013 at 1:15 am | Permalink

    I started reading this essay with distractions all around me, and despite the chaos, read it straight through to the end. This is a beautiful piece–so much being said about misplaced focus, family, alliances …

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