On the screened-in porch of the red cottage, we all slid back our empty plates and waited for the thunderstorm to pass over Lake Pushaw, Maine. By the dock, the sailboat my grandpa had built at age ninety tilted back and forth on the swells. The sound of rain on the water was merely a soft backdrop as my mother and I caught up with Uncle Andy, Aunt Dolly, my cousin, and my grandparents. I eyed the boat and then the sun sifting through the distant rainclouds. I had asked my uncle to teach me to sail sometime, and I kept hoping today would be the day. Meanwhile, to bide the time, someone persuaded Grandpa, Uncle Andy, and me to sing the old fishing song they had taught me.
I saila de ocean blue
I catcha de plenty of fish
The rain, she comes down pell-mell
The wind, she blows through my whisk
Marianne is my good companion
Vive-la! Vive-la!Vive l’Italian! Hey!
By the time we had finished laughing, the rainclouds had just about blown themselves to the other side of the lake and now glowed peach in the sunset. There was even a breeze—not very stiff, but just enough to fill a sail.
“Want to sail for a bit?” asked my uncle, but he didn’t need to ask. I led him and Mom down the steps and onto the dock. We climbed into the Good News, hoisted the sail, and glided toward the open lake. It was an elegant evening with the sun hanging over the water. Still, it was hard to take everything in since my uncle kept us laughing with his impish grin and effortless humor. I liked to look at him as he sat bracing his feet to stay upright but handling the boat with such ease. He, like Grandpa, had always been a sailor in his own right. The mainsheet—the rope controlling the sail—stayed loose in his hand, and he would swing the boom one way or another, depending on which way he wanted to turn the boat. All the while his Mainer’s accent grew thicker as he teased my mom and made her giggle.
With that same nonchalance, Uncle Andy directed me to scoot over to the tiller and handed me the mainsheet. At once I felt the difference. My right arm felt a strong give in the tiller as it cut through the waves. I took the sheet in my other hand and felt it tug away from me as if alive. It was the wind, playing and pushing against the sail, but I gripped the rope just steadily enough so that between the two opposite forces the Good News held a straight course. I tested the tiller and, with a thrill, felt the boat respond, just as if I had flicked the reins against its neck.
I looked at Uncle Andy in amazement, then at Mom. I was honest-to-goodness sailing! Gently, I experimented with the right amount of push and the right amount of pull until I could feel the boat flying forward, caught between the lake and the wind. I turned it toward the sun, which was sinking ablaze on the horizon. Uncle Andy gave me the honor of being captain. He told me to say things like “Ready about,” and “Hard to lee.” The life of the lake pushed the tiller against my hand and sent vibrations down the mainsheet. Feeling it under my control, I relaxed. I stretched out my legs and adopted Uncle Andy’s easy pose, letting a satisfied grin slide across my face.
Eventually, I repeated, “Ready about,” and turned the Good News toward the eastern sky, where the moon and a rainbow appeared in the gathering dusk. We docked. Now the only ones left on the water were a pair of beavers, taking a sloshy evening paddle past the cottage. The three of us left them with the mosquitoes and turned our backs on quiet Lake Pushaw. The lapping of water on the rocks was simply the sound of the lake breathing as it fell asleep.