Saturday, May 21, 2011


Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.                                                                                           
Mark Twain

It always begins with a dream. Your mind wanders through various scenarios and "what-ifs." Sitting in front of a computer in a windowless office can exacerbate these dreams. I'm sure my dreams began with childhood books of far away lands, adventuresome travelers, and daring sailors. The dreams can be transient, or they can linger as longings and desires. For some the dreams fade away with the realities of commitments, age, money, and health. For others they build and fester until they burst forth in action. That's our story.

My dream began on a hot summer day on Star Lake south of Seattle. A 4th of July party at a friend's house with lots of kids jumping off the dock, shooting off fireworks, and generally acting crazy. What caught my attention was the little Minto dinghy bobbing at the end of the dock. I was intrigued by sailboats on the lake ghosting along on little zephyrs of wind. For an unsupervised 12-year-boy, it was easy enough to hop in the boat, untie the painter, and begin experimenting with the main sheet lying across the seat.

As I gained more confidence, I learned I could pull in on the sheet and the little 8-ft. dinghy would imperceptibly pick up speed. Everything was going great until I realized I had drifted nearly a quarter mile downwind and now had to get back to the dock. With a total sailing knowledge of zero, however, I had no clue how to get the boat to sail to windward. Running out of options and continuing to drift downwind, I jumped overboard, took the painter in my teeth, and began a very slow breaststroke back to the party. Jack LaLanne I wasn't, so I was totally exhausted when I returned to the dock. I figured there must be a better way.

Over the years my interest in sailing grew. My best friend in high school, Scott McRae, came from a sailing family and invited me out on day trips on their family's sailboats. Their first boat was a very tender 17-ft Thistle sloop, which Scott and I managed to nearly sink during a sailing regatta, but still ended up taking first place at the end of the day. Their next boat was one of my favorites, a 26-ft Thunderbird sloop. Made of plywood, its ungainly hard chine hid the qualities of an thoroughbred racing boat, with design features that were 10 years ahead of its time. You could heel the boat over putting the leeward winches almost under water and sail it all day long on that hard chine, like it was on railroad tracks.

I loved everything about sailing as youth: the speed, the heeling, the wind in my face, and the breathtaking views of Mt. Rainier at the head of the Commencement Bay in Tacoma, WA, our home waters. Day sails turned into overnight trips and week long cruises on Scott's T-Bird, including explorations around Puget Sound and the scenic San Juan Islands. We logged a lot of miles in that old plywood boat.

After college my wife Meryl and I bought our first boat, a sleek little Coronado 15, considered a poor man's 505. We raced this on Lake Washington on Tuesday nights with a fleet of about 10 other C15s. With rounded gunnels and a trapeze, the C15 could surf all day long in a 12-knot breeze. Learning how to adjust your weight on the trapeze was a self fulfilling prophecy: do it right and you stayed dry, do it wrong and you got very wet, very fast.

Sailing a dingy like a C15 was the one of the best ways to learn how to sail as every small adjustment was exemplified by bursts of speed or near capsizes. You learn quickly in a dingy. Racing was also a great teacher as you could look at your competitor's boat and compare your sail shape and trim to theirs, then make minor adjustments to see if it resulted in better performance. We were mediocre competitors in a very competitive fleet and the one time we got out in the lead we sailed to the wrong mark. We couldn't figure out why no one was following us. Another lesson learned.

In the years that followed we purchased our own T-Bird called Phoenix (the boat had been in a fire and was rebuilt), which we raced and cruised for more than twenty years. I could write a book about that boat and the local Seattle Fleet 1 group that raced every Wednesday night on Lake Washington and many weekends out in Puget Sound. Our first year of owning the boat we won a special fleet award for the most days spent aboard, 41 days during a 600-mile trip from Seattle up to Desolation Sound in British Columbia in a boat with no standing headroom.

Our 26-ft Thunderbird, Phoenix, feeling her oats while sailing upwind on Lake Washington.
What distinguished the T-Bird was the incredible group of sailors that made up Seattle's Fleet 1. On the starting line of any T-Bird race you'd be surrounded by former fleet, regional, and world sailing champions. The depth of talent in that fleet was amazing. The 50-year-old design still wins races on Puget Sound and other venues around the world.

As our kids, Christa and Brad, grew up and weekends became devoted to soccer games and diving practice, we eventually ended up selling the T-Bird on a very sad day in September. It wasn't getting the care and attention it deserved and I hated to see such a proud boat go downhill.

In 1999, riding the wave of tech company IPOs, we cashed in some stock and bought the next love of our life, a 1994 Catalina 36 that we named Endless Summer. It had a reputation as a great cruising boat and was very popular on Puget Sound. I still remember the day we cautiously back her out of the brokerage's dock at Signature Yachts on Lake Union on a sullen October day and headed towards the locks near Shilshole.

Our Catalina 36, Endless Summer, heading over to Blakely Harbor near Seattle for a summer weekend.
At 36 feet it felt like I was helming a battleship versus the nimble T-Bird. But hiding from the cold, biting wind behind a spacious dodge and going down below to make hot cocoa on the propane stove made us think we'd gone to heaven.

Over the next ten years we sailed the Catalina 36 everywhere we could. With Seattle's mild winters, our sailing season only slowed down during December, January, and February. With over 2,500 hundred hulls built, the Catalina 36 was as close to perfection as you can come in a production cruising boat that had good sailing performance, a large cockpit, and a cavernous interior for a 36-footer.

In addition, it had a worldwide sailing organization with a very active mail list and website where you could get excellent information on how to fix almost anything on the boat, and the camaraderie of like-minded sailors. We put thousands of miles under her keel, from short overnights to Blake Island and Blakely Harbor, to weeklong trips to the San Juan's and longer trips to Desolation Sound and Barkley Sound on the forbidding West Coast of Vancouver Island. We never tired of being on the boat, and always regretted having to head back to Seattle when vacation time ended.