Camp Windswept’s saving grace was no team sports. Well, that’s not really true. They did have soccer and basketball and softball. The point is you didn’t have to play them to keep yourself busy. You could spend almost all of your time sailing if you wanted, which I did want, even though that involved other guys but only a few and you could chose your crew and maybe most important is that it was actually fun and I wasn’t bad at it and sometimes even felt proud of myself especially the day they took us outside the breakwater into actual Block Island Sound when it was really windy and swells were at least five or six feet which, trust me if you’ve never been there, is pretty spooky in a sixteen foot sloop with three other kids under the age of twelve at least one of whom had to sit on the leeward side because there was no more room to hike out and no matter how hard you tried to point into the waves the wind and swells were so strong that they pushed the gunwale low enough to slosh significant burbling green water beyond the combing and into the hull and splash the leeward kid who was leaning forward and white-knuckled grabbing the slippery fiberglass centerboard trunk and it terrified both the kid and you because you had done plenty of man overboard maneuvers but never in these conditions not that you had ever sailed in these conditions anyway and you just smiled at him and shouted that this was awesome as your skin tightened from salt and the sun dried you sore and at the bottom of the trough all you could see was canyon walls of water and a sliver of sky above you and at the top of the swell you felt like you were suspended in air and could see the world below and when I finally painfully slowly managed us downwind and the tiller was so relieved that it practically whipped across the stern and almost hit the leeward kid and I grabbed it back hard even though I almost tumbled across the boat and banged my knee which started to throb and the swells were behind us and we thrilled to the sailors’ version of a Nantucket sleigh ride astride the crest of a swell holding it for as long as we could until it just dropped us into the trough and an upward roll of momentum abruptly brought us to the top of another wave and it almost felt like we would fall backward except momentum and the wind was so loud you couldn’t hear each other and it didn’t matter that your rawmeat hands could barely hold the mainsheet any more because the tiller no longer felt stuck in gum because the boat responded fast and because your confidence was back and so was that of the other kids in you or at least in the certitude of their continuing lives because even though you couldn’t hear them you could see from the way they were laughing and shouting which they definitely were not doing faces frozen when you were pointing upwind and the swells kept trying to broadside you and almost did and you barely had the strength in your legs to coerce the tiller just a little higher even though you had both slippery bare feet on it and you appreciated the fact that boat maintenance at camp was not great because the shellac was worn down and spotty and a little rough which at least gave your wet feet some kind of traction and you had terrible balance on the slippery fiberglass gunwale which made you certain you would fall down the middle of the boat which heeled at least 45 degrees and it felt like the tiller was going to snap beneath your feet so the near-hysterical relief of the downwind course which headed you back toward the breakwater and safety made you laugh out loud which you never ever did and you had a second to look toward the rescue boat where Tom the sailing master was actually nodding and saluting you while holding onto the wheel with one hand and the white sail and the cobalt sky and the green-tipped waves . . . .
You didn’t have to play team sports.
It was intuitive. But you had to think. Even on those windless hot flat white sun afternoons when they gave you salt pills at lunch and watched to make sure that you actually took them and maybe there had been a breeze of sorts when you started because it managed to get you down on the pond to where the breakwater and high fishing docks stole whatever light breeze there may have been from the Sound and the sun abused your skin and even more because you were barely moving you had water fights with the bailer out of boredom and after the refreshing wet the salt just stung and pulled your skin like you were being flayed and they yelled at you when you tried to scull with the tiller just to get a little bit of motion and Tom would shout that a real sailor sails not rows and you tried to maneuver to find even the lightest breath and then completely gave up but there was certainly no way they were going to tow you back to camp until you hadn’t moved for like an hour and the sun had dipped low enough that your sorry skin began to chill and you could hear the bell of the mess hall a couple of miles up pond for the thirty minute warning and they knew they had to get us back in time and we cheered as Randy with his Art Garfunkel hair and David Crosby mustache threw the line to the boat nearest him whose skipper greedily grabbed it up and we all sculled our way over toward him and tied up and waddled home like five baby ducks behind an oil-foul smelling ugly duckling and they threw us off as we approached the mooring and we had to scramble to tie up because how to control the momentum of the boat which now sliced the water without wind and keep from crashing into something and somehow Tom had got us back with time enough to run and shower before dinner and the cold water shocked and soothed your skin until it started to get hot and then it stung so bad that you rinsed quickly and wrapped your towel before one of the other kids could rattail you and you ran back to your tent which was shady but still a little close and you tried to pull your shirt down gently but you were in a hurry and it stung again.
There was glory in the pain.
Which glory abruptly ended a little more than a week past visiting day when a gale force wind blew through the deep gray sky and I was thrilled because you needed to sail the course solo in wind like this to get your Captain’s Stripes which was the highest level you could reach and then they’d let you sail out to the Sound whenever you felt like it as long as you brought friends which was a problem I wasn’t dealing with until I had to and I ran to the boathouse after breakfast and there were only three other guys there including Todd and one after another they all finished and I went last and it was only three legs for three miles and it was upwind and downwind and crosswind into the mooring and upwind went fine and downwind was fast and fun and I was hiked out almost in the stern without a shirt even though it was cold and rainy and I was sure I looked totally cool to the kids on the cliff who always came out on Captain’s Day of which there were only one or two a year because winds that strong were rare on the pond and I reached the end of the downwind leg sailing wing and wing with my mainsheet to port and I had to turn to port and because the wind was so strong I didn’t want to risk jibing because everyone knew that if you lost even a little control of the mainsheet the boom would whip across the boat and if it didn’t behead you the sheer force of it risked a capsize in a small boat like this so I used my head and intelligently figured that instead of jibing I could simply head upwind and tack and then head downwind again with my mainsail to starboard and just race back across the pond to the mooring but when Randy in the rescue boat saw that I was trying to point he grabbed Tom by the shoulder and turned him to look and Tom shouted “jibe” and I shouted “this is better” and Tom shouted “jibe goddamn it” and I did and He did because as the mainsail started to whip across the boat the sheet caught on the port corner of the transom so that the sail could not complete its journey but instead got stuck over to starboard far enough and full enough of wind that pressured the starboard gunwale slowly toward the water as I desperately tried to loosen the sheet to release the wind and the pressure but the line was so tight and my hands so raw that I couldn’t get it loose and it continued to press down until I could see the gunwale through one and two and three inches of green water and then dove ahead of the boat into the pond and swam clear of the mast and then back once it was down but before it dipped too low to right by myself which is the least I could do and looked up and saw them trying not to laugh but kids including the kids who had already completed the test including Todd were still up on the cliff watching and drowning seemed like a good idea right about then but first I had to right the boat and Randy had already thrown me a line.
There was no other Captain’s Day that summer.
Still, it was fun.