“NO!” I replied emphatically.
“Here, take the wheel!” he replied as he moved forward from behind the wheel.
I stood in the middle of the cockpit reaching for the jib sheets as we prepared to come about. We had made numerous tacks, working our way up the St. Lawrence River towards Lake Ontario. John felt he was getting the hang of it and was not waiting for my command. He was coming about before I was ready. With two jib sheets in one hand, I grabbed the untended wheel and fell off the wind until ready for the tack. Fortunately, the water is deep close to the cliffs on shore.
John lives in an assisted living section of a home for the elderly in Syracuse, N.Y. He is very much “in the present,” but his short term memory is failing; his long-term memory is solid as the riverside cliffs. Within ten minutes of his angry departure, he took the wheel again, steering like an old pro. John is friendly, outgoing and appreciative for any kindness. Perhaps the only positive of short-term memory loss is the fact that one lives in the present. The past fades quickly; the future is out of reach.
At age 87, John had been day sailing a few times but this was his first time cruising. He served on a ship in the Pacific in the U.S. Navy during World War II and was comfortable on the water. The two-day cruise from Henderson Harbor in the northeast corner of Lake Ontario to Clayton, N.Y., on the St. Lawrence River was his introduction to a larger sailboat, my Dufour 34, on a large body of water. I had been sailing on Lake Ontario and the Atlantic Ocean for over 30 years, most of the time out of City Island in New York City. As a septuagenarian, our ages illustrate how sailing is a sport that can extend well into the elder years.
John has lived a rich life. He was born in Switzerland of German parents, came to the United States in his youth, and worked as a toolmaker. He met his wife at an Iowa college, a talented, professional violinist who played for a time with the Denver Symphony Orchestra and taught many children how to play the violin through the Suzuki method. Later, John went to seminary and served as a Methodist minister in parishes in New York State.
The cruise was part of my commitment to introduce “strangers to the joys of sailing” and to share my good fortune in owning a sailboat.
Most of our faith traditions propose that we “be hospitable to the stranger.” Many are strangers to sailing and cruising. As you consider crew, don’t overlook those in their elder years and the mentally or physically challenged. Their delight and joy in being included and on the water is its own reward.
The forecast for our cruise was favorable: sunny, winds out of the southwest, a beam reach and then a run down the St. Lawrence. There is not much current at the headwaters of the river, which is some 20 miles wide. It feels like an extension of the lake as water from all the Great Lakes funnel into the river for the journey to the Atlantic Ocean several hundred miles to the northeast. The sail felt invigorating and beautiful.
I planned to tie up to the long town dock in Clayton and have dinner ashore. When we arrived, there was only one open space I could squeeze into. It was about a third of the way down the dock which meant motoring through the narrow alleyway between docks, making a tight U-turn through wind and slipping into the space. But I needed someone on the dock to catch lines; the wind would blow me off more quickly than I could maneuver the boat into its space, rush to midship, and jump to the dock with bow and stern lines. John was quarantined to the cockpit. He was in good physical condition but not steady enough on his feet to go forward. I didn’t want to deal with a man overboard.
After motoring for a half hour with no one appearing on the dock or from the tied up boats, I decided to pick up a mooring, but first we had to check into the gas dock to get an assignment. We docked easily with the wind pushing us against the dock. As we left the dock, unnoticed by me, the bow line was not totally on deck.
The line snaked into the water and underneath the boat as we moved away from the dock. Soon it found the prop shaft and wrapped itself around it. The engine labored. The wind was still stiff. Again, I didn’t want John on the bow so I would motor up to the buoy, and then rush forward to grab the mooring line. But the wind pushed us off faster than I could get to the bow. The engine was working harder by the minute. I wasn’t sure how long before the entangled line would thwart all forward motion. But on the fourth try, I succeeded.
When I was forward, I checked the bow line. It led from the starboard cleat into the water and back towards the stern. It was as taut as a tuned guitar string. I worried that it might have bent the propeller shaft, making the boat vibrate radically and be costly to repair. It could mean the engine couldn’t be run, leaving us only sail power for the return trip.
Donning a swimsuit, gathering a mask and a sharp knife, I slipped overboard and under the boat. Indeed, the line was wrapped tightly around the shaft several times, but was not entangled in the prop. It took an hour of repeated dives to cut the line off the shaft. Dinner ashore was aborted. Dinner aboard ended up a strange mix of packaged and canned food.
The next day the wind blew out of the southwest at 15 to 20 knots, right on our nose.
We beat up the river towards Lake Ontario. The U.S. channel is wide here. John steered and I handled the jib sheets as we came about, tacking back and forth across the river, We sailed around Carleton Island and between Canadian Wolfe Island on the starboard, and the U.S. shore on the port. He did extremely well, holding the boat close to the wind, and we made good progress, until the episode when he handed the wheel over to me. It would not be the last time John made a steering decision.
As we turned southeast on the lake in early afternoon, the wind was with us and we had a fast ride back to Henderson Bay. However, we were racing a thunderstorm, hoping to get to our home mooring before it hit. Both the main and working jib were flying. We got into the bay and were heading south by southwest when the wind hit from the west. I turned the engine on, put John on the wheel and told him to head into the wind so I could bring the sails down. Wind speed hit 50 mph on the anemometer dial. Fortunately, we were inside the bay and the islands to windward sheltered us from the waves.
As I went forward, the jib flapped violently. The jib sheets were attached by snatch blocks, fasteners that have a pin and hinge to open and close. Both jib sheets whipped loose. The jib sail flew free, whipping unmercifully. I feared it would be in shreds before I could bring it down.
Finally, I pulled the sails down, undamaged. From the foredeck, I yelled to John to steer in the direction I was pointing. It was south by southwest, a heading to take us to Henderson Harbor Yacht Club and our mooring. I took the jib off the stay and tied it down. As I moved aft to tie the mainsail to the boom, I looked up. Clouds filled the sky but in the west, the horizon was a brilliant, sun-lit white. We were headed straight west and a causeway that linked the islands. There was no immediate danger; the shallow water was still fifty yards away.
I shouted from the foredeck. “John where are you headed!?” He replied with great confidence and a look of sheer joy on his face, “I am heading for the light!” He had forgotten my instructions and our destination. Or maybe he was responding to a skipper with higher rank.