Heeling

This story comes to us from Debby in Saugatuck, Mich., who provides a memory from her childhood sailing with her uncle.

One of the most exhilarating feelings in life is leaning way over the side of a sailboat when the boat is heeling. You measure your weight in wind and wave as your body becomes part of the craft. You thrill to the precarious danger as you lock your feet under the opposite gunwale and let your whole body extend outside the boat, inches above the rushing water.

One summer when I was nine or ten, Uncle Olds, my father’s middle brother, took me and Apple Jackson sailing in his 110. His blond, blue-eyed looks contrasted to my dark father, but they shared a taste for teasing. He frightened me.

Olds drank two giant glasses of milk at every meal and his eyelashes grew the wrong direction. While he lay on the green chaise on the terrace, Aunt Cathy would peer at him through some sort of magnifying glass she wore on her head—a medical baseball cap or pirate’s patch—and pluck out ingrown hairs. I watched from behind the big white pine. He died young.

Uncle Olds was gruff and silent. He hid a miniature camera in the palm of his hand. Without warning he would step from behind doorways and snap pictures of the family, catching us in awkward moments.

One windy day he invited Apple and me to go sailing with him. We went far out past the docks, past moored powerboats and diving platforms, out to the deep middle of the lake where snapping turtles and big pike waited for children’s toes.
 We sailed fast, heeling in the wind, spray cooling us, squinting our eyes, provoking squeals of delight and dread. “How far can the boat lean before it tips over, Uncle Olds?” His blue eyes flickered in my direction; a small smile softened his stern mouth. “How far?” I asked again.

Whoosh. Whaap. Plunge. The world turned black. We plunged under with the sail on top of us. Water rushed up my nostrils. I clawed my way to the surface.

“That far,” he laughed as the three of us worked our way around the hulking hull. The upturned boat bobbed like a huge animal, a circus elephant that had lost its footing and taken the tent down with it. Together we stood on the keel, grabbed the gunwale, and in a sort of reverse heeling we righted the beast back to its vertical dignity. We were ready again to dance through the water and wind. Ready to run that thin line between the heavens and the grave.

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