Sailing Your Boats
Note: In memory of columnist Ed Smith, the Northern Pen is reprinting a copy of one of his columns, entitled “Sailing Your Boats.” Smith’s columns had been published in the Northern Pen for 35 years, until his death in August 2017.
Growing up wasn’t something I ever wanted to do.
Which probably explains why I never quite managed it. It wasn’t something a whole lot of people expected me to do, either, but that’s a different story.
As soon as the prospect of growing up became real and inevitable, somewhere around twelve, I realized I wanted to stay right where I was and not get a moment older. The only thing attractive about becoming adult was that it got you out of both day school and Sunday school, and that was it.
Adults didn’t seem to have a lot of fun. They worried a lot and worked a lot and got married, none of which seemed very appealing to me. But above all, adults had no time to sail their boats. I just loved to sail my boats.
In the early spring, around about Easter, the rain and the warm sun on the snow caused large pools of water to form in the hollows of the gardens, and in the ditches by the sides of the road. And while our fathers scraped the bottoms of their skiffs, and readied their gear to heed the age-old call of the sea, we small boys heard the same call from generations now long gone, and answered it the only way we could—with our little boats and our little pools of water.
Making a boat was easy. A piece of two by six was best, if you could find it, about fifteen inches long. With the axe you shaped and flared the slender bows, and rounded off the stern. With a hammer and chisel you gouged out a hold in the centre for cargo, and with your pocket knife you whittled on a slender split until you had a mast that would fit into the hole made by a brace and half-inch bit. Then you made a little mould in a piece of wood, melted some lead in an old tin can over an outdoor fire, and poured yourself an anchor.
All you needed now was a small finishing nail to drive into the bow, a long piece of line, and a good long alder. With one end of the line tied to the boat and the other to the alder, you could, by walking the ditches and manipulating the alder, sail away to the seven seas.
When I was seven, someone gave me Robert Louis Stevenson’s Tales of the South Pacific, and even with the words I didn’t know and couldn’t understand, that book fired my imagination and drove my little boats. The ditches became great harbours and far-off waterways. The little brooks flowing into the small garden ponds were mighty rivers leading to distant oceans. And I was captain and lord of it all, and could go wherever I wished and for as long as I wished, or at least until my mother called me for supper.
I spent hours sailing my little craft to the far corners of the earth, even when other boys my age had grown out of it, and called me silly because I still wanted to. Day after day, I raced home after school to sail off to some distant shore where only I could go. Where only I seemed to want to go.
But my sailing days were numbered. I knew it and regretted it deeply. A small voice inside grew louder with each spring.
“You don’t have too much longer to sail your boats.”
And after age and the taunts of other boys had finally forced me from my ships and oceans, I’d sometimes see some younger boy with his little boat on the end of his alder and line, and say wistfully to myself, “He still has lots of time to sail his boats.”
I’ve said it often since. Almost forty years later, I still recall those long spring evenings of childhood, towing my plank boat through muddy magical ditches and slimy enchanted bogs where Cleopatra lounged on her barge and Ulysses urged his men onward. And on those warm spring evenings when the smell of wet earth promises new life, the call to sail my boats is just as strong as ever.
So why don’t I? Because the time to sail boats comes only briefly, and then is gone forever. We move on to other stages and other dramas in our lives, and if we do not sail our boats when the time is right, we miss it altogether.
There is a time to sail, and a time to remember sailing.
Sometimes a young couple with a small child toddling between them will remind me of the days when ours were small and at home where we could tuck them in and keep them safe, and I’ll say to myself, “Lucky people. They still have lots of time to sail their boats.”
But often, too, I see people so caught up in the business of making a living and making ends meet and working for this cause and that, that I feel like touching them on the shoulder and whispering, “Don’t forget to sail your boats.”
Sometimes I see overly-ambitious and career-minded individuals anxiously making their way up the ladder, working long days and nights and weekends and never taking a holiday, while their families not only grow up but also away, and I think, “Foolish people. You don’t have much time left to sail your boats.”
There will be a time to regret never having sailed at all.
Whatever boats you have to sail, I suggest you do it now, while you still have wood and line and alder, and the pools of water in the ditches and in the gardens have not dried up, and the magic is in the air, and it is still spring.
Because the time for sailing boats passes very quickly and is gone forever.