Messing about in boats

Everyone knows the quotation, right? “There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” Yes, yes, Kenneth Graham, Wind in the Willows. Yes, you in the front row, five points for Ravenclaw. I’d never read the book – remember, I didn’t really read much as a kid – but I knew that quotation. What I didn’t know was that it was uttered by the oblivious boat man (okay “boat rat” – yes, another five for Ravenclaw) just before he rams the shore and spills himself and passenger flat on their rodent keisters.

But Rat is right, and the fact that, after this crash he goes on with his paean to boating without missing a beat is a tribute to Graham’s understanding of boats. Of what they do to us. Or of what they let us do to ourselves. Whenever I manage to get out on the water, I’m always – always, always, always – struck by the thought that I don’t spend nearly enough time simply messing about in boats.

Had that thought again a couple of weeks ago, a week before the craziness, when Zach and I got to spend a bit of time sailing together up in Berkeley. You remember Zach, right? Polie cargo dog – sorry, “Cargo Specialist” – who’s been everything from 911 dispatcher to tall ship sailor (certified Able Seaman, served as deckhand on the HMS Bounty for a couple of years). Lives on the Icelandic cargo vessel docked at Pier 50. Yes, you remember Zach – hard not to.

Anyhow, my friend Anthony up in Berkeley is also a sailor, and I really wanted to introduce the two of them. Actually, I really wanted to go sailing, and figured that introducing A to Z would be a good excuse to get taken sailing. But yeah, I did want them to meet.

Anthony was going out with some friends that Wednesday evening on a sunset sail, and told us to come on up. We skipped out of work a couple of hours early to beat the East Bay traffic, picked up some chocolate to share (always nice to have something to share), and made our way to the Berkeley marina.

I tried to do what I could to help as we motored our way out of the marina and raised sail. Mostly that seemed to be “stay out of the way” and “relax”. As Zach observed, 90% of being a good sailor is doing what you’re told. The other 10% is doing what you’re told. So I kept my head clear of the boom (you know why it’s called the “boom”, right?) stayed off the lines, and planted myself on the windward rail to enjoy the ride.

And y’know, September on the bay, with the city ahead of you and sun dropping behind the Marin headlands? Hard not to enjoy. We were heeled over 10-20 degrees on a steady port tack, north and west in the vague direction of Sausalito. Zach and one of Anthony’s students took turns manning the wheel, while the others were bringing up brie, roast red pepper sandwiches and Pinot from the galley. Wasn’t much to do but enjoy the ride.

Once we’d settled in, I found Zach sitting up on the forward deck, away from the bustle of conversation and tasty appetizers. He was looking leeward, looking out over the water with a forgetful smile and bottle of Fat Tire ale. It was a peaceful look so I hesitated before scrambling along the rail to join him – never want to interrupt someone’s groove.

I excused myself and plonked down beside him, joining in the gaze out over the water. Made some offhand comment about how it could be a whole lot worse, and still not suck. He nodded appreciatively and agreed.

“Life is good?”

“Yeah, it’s a good time to be Zach.”

I sympathized – it was a good time to be Pablo, too.

We crossed the wake of some other sailboat, long gone, and a curtain of spray jumped the rail to give us a light soaking. Zach looked over and gave me an ear to ear grin.

“Been a while since I’ve been out on the water. Was wanting some of that.”

My mind hopscotched back to Japan, half a lifetime ago, during hanami season. “Hanami” is “flower watching” – you go out and picnic in the parks under the cherry trees. You do spend some time actually marveling at the beauty of the impossibly white carpet of trees that line the parks of Tokyo – the first time I saw a cherry tree in full bloom, I thought it was some sort of outdoor art installation. But the real point of hanami is to sit and drink sake with your friends. You spread out a blanket and enough munchies to provide pretense of a picnic, then pull out the bottle with those little matched glasses and spend the afternoon toasting your friends and mutual good fortune.

Japan is full of wonderful little superstitions, so no national ritual like hanami would be without its share. The one that came to mind at this moment was this one: as the wind comes up in the afternoon, a Japanese park is – at times – swirling in a veritable snowstorm of airborne cherry blossom petals. It is considered auspicious for one of these petals to land in your sake cup as you hold it; all the better if you have just made a toast. It is taken as a sign that, in some way, fate has toasted with you and ratified your fortune.

So – that wave? Felt good to have to cold spray on my face. But also felt a little like the universe was commending our appreciation of the good fortune its had dropped in our laps. Acknowledging it with a watery high five, if you will. I realized I was grinning too. Yes indeed, it was a good time to be any of us. Especially those of us out on the water that day, just messing about in boats.

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