Love Boat

Sailing World - - Starting Line My Class, My Story -

Bar­bara had never sailed un­til a week af­ter we met in Oc­to­ber 1962, when I in­vited her to go sail­ing on my This­tle off City Is­land, New York. It was blow­ing about 10 knots, and a friend joined us for ad­di­tional bal­last. Bar­bara was ter­rific. She hiked out, worked the jib sheet, and was en­thralled with the spin­naker. She smiled the en­tire time.

Later, back on­shore, my buddy whis­pered to me, “She’s a keeper.” Ten months later, we were mar­ried.

Six years and two chil­dren later, Bar­bara sug­gested I buy a Sun­fish. I’d seen the mul­ti­col­ored sails rac­ing on Pe­conic and Southold bays off the North Fork of Long Is­land, but I had never set foot on one. So in Au­gust 1968, we bought the first of 11 Sun­fish our fam­ily would own over the next 49 years.

Months later, in April 1969, on a crisp spring day with a warm sun and 8-knot breeze, Bar­bara and I set off in our Sun­fish across Lit­tle Pe­conic Bay. We were dressed for the oc­ca­sion, and both of us were look­ing for­ward to our first sail of the sea­son. It had been a long time since we’d sailed to­gether, and if Bar­bara had any qualms, she con­cealed them well. We beam-reached across the bay, both of us en­joy­ing it im­mensely. We landed at Nas­sau Point, and I pulled our Sun­fish onto the beach so we could stretch our legs with a short walk. The air started to cool, and af­ter 20 min­utes, we opted to sail back.

The breeze hadn’t changed di­rec­tion or strength, so I guided the boat into the wa­ter and pointed its bow out to sea.

The wa­ter was 6 inches deep at the stern and a foot deep at the bow. Bar­bara set­tled her­self on the star­board, wind­ward side with her feet in the cock­pit while I held onto the trav­eler. The main­sheet hung loosely. As I turned around to reach for the boat’s dag­ger­board, which was ly­ing on the sand about 3 feet away, I heard Bar­bara sud­denly yell for help. A gust of wind was pro­pel­ling her out to sea on a run­away Sun­fish. I sprinted into the ice-cold wa­ter with the dag­ger­board in my hands. The boat was mov­ing faster than I could run. I yelled, “Bar­bara, catch!” and tossed the dag­ger­board to her as hard as I could.

The board smacked the rud­der and fell into the wa­ter be­hind the boat, but my cat­like bride snatched it and dragged it into the boat. As she sailed far­ther away, I went from waist to shoul­der deep in the frigid wa­ter.

“Put the dag­ger­board in the slot in the mid­dle of the boat,” I hollered.

The en­dear­ing Sun­fish, first built in 1955, has touched gen­er­a­tions of recre­ational and rac­ing sailors, and still tugs at heart­strings.

She did so im­me­di­ately. “Grab the rope that’s at­tached to the boom, and hold it loosely in your right hand,” I then yelled. She did. “Hold the steer­ing stick in your left hand. You’re go­ing to turn the boat around so it will head to­ward me.”

“OK,” said Ms. Cool. The boat was now about 30 feet away and sail­ing to­ward the hori­zon. “Keep the stick pointed in the mid­dle of the boat, and slowly pull the rope to­ward you.” She did, and the boat ac­cel­er­ated away. “On three, push the stick away from you as far as you can,” I called af­ter her, my voice trail­ing away. “As the boat starts turn­ing, move to the op­po­site side, and put the stick in your right hand and the rope in your left.”

She fol­lowed di­rec­tions per­fectly, and the Sun­fish came about.

As the boat started sail­ing to­ward me, though, Bar­bara’s foot be­came en­tan­gled in the main­sheet, and she slid out of the boat.

I thought for sure that this was the end of my mar­riage. I plunged into the wa­ter and took three or four strokes be­fore the Sun­fish sailed right to me. I pushed Bar­bara back on board, and with me hold­ing onto the side, we sailed the 20 feet or so un­til I could stand and wade ashore.

We made it home safely, in about a half-hour, but it was sev­eral years be­fore Bar­bara agreed to go sail­ing with me again.

That sum­mer, we joined Southold YC, where our chil­dren learned to sail and I helped co­found the “An­nual World’s Long­est Sun­fish Race, Around Shel­ter Is­land, New York.” I joined the U.S. Sun­fish Class As­so­ci­a­tion, and as our chil­dren grew older, we par­tic­i­pated in many re­gat­tas within 150 miles of Long Is­land. I’ll never for­get when our two older boys, Joe and Sean, were 13 and 12 years old, and we com­peted in the North Amer­i­can Cham­pi­onships in Bar­ring­ton, Rhode Is­land. They were rac­ing with about 120 other boats in the con­so­la­tion fleet.

Sean was 90 pounds at the time. At the lob­ster din­ner that night, we dined with sev­eral adult sailors, who talked about how they sat to lee­ward try­ing to blow air into their sails while some lit­tle kid was hik­ing out and sail­ing away from the fleet. That was Sean, of course, who ended up win­ning the race and fin­ish­ing in the mid­dle of the fleet with a score of some­thing like 416 and 3/4 points.

Af­ter the chil­dren had grown, I teamed up with my sail­ing buddy, Dr. Dick Heinl. We trav­eled to re­gat­tas as far away as Mis­sis­sippi and Texas, as well as through­out the North­east. Among those on the Sun­fish rac­ing cir­cuit, we be­came known as the “Thelma and Louise of the Vi­a­gra Set.”

Sun­fish sailors al­ways have a good time, and last sum­mer, Dick, at age 91, the old­est com­peti­tor at the U.S. Masters Cham­pi­onship, re­ceived a stand­ing ova­tion and a walker for his par­tic­i­pa­tion.

Over the years, Bar­bara ac­com­pa­nied me to re­gat­tas in Chicago, Up­state New York, Cape Cod and else­where. Even­tu­ally, she agreed to give Sun­fish sail­ing an­other try.

We launched off Southold YC and frol­icked for more than an hour, sail­ing on a beau­ti­ful and clear sum­mer day with a gen­tle 10-knot breeze. On the way back to the beach, I asked how she felt.

“This is fun,” she an­swered. “Just the way I like it.” “Then you’ll join me again some­time?” “Yes,” she replied. In those days, Southold YC had a small T dock ex­tend­ing about 10 feet into the wa­ter and then about 18 feet or so par­al­lel to the beach. My plan was to sail along­side the dock and drop off Bar­bara.

The breeze was fa­vor­able for what I wanted to do, and as we ap­proached, I no­ticed a few young chil­dren play­ing at one end of the par­al­lel dock. I ap­proached the other end. The wa­ter was shal­low, and I asked Bar­bara to lift the dag­ger­board half­way. She did, and as we came slowly along­side the dock, one of the boys jumped right in front of the boat. I shoved the tiller hard away to avoid the child, and the boom swung over and hit the raised dag­ger­board. Bar­bara and I were both sit­ting to star­board, and the boat cap­sized in about 2 feet of wa­ter. Bar­bara did a back­ward som­er­sault into the bay, stood up soak­ing wet with her hands on her hips, and glared at me in to­tal dis­be­lief.

She did for­give me, how­ever, in the form of a ter­rific gift for which I shall for­ever be grate­ful: my email name “joe­sun­fish.” Q

“As the boat started sail­ing to­ward me, Bar­bara’s foot be­came en­tan­gled in the main­sheet, and she slid out of the boat. I thought for sure that this was the end of my mar­riage. I plunged into the wa­ter and took three or four strokes be­fore the Sun­fish sailed right to me.”

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