When I was a boy, twelve or so, my dad took me out on his sailboat for the first time. Considering he’d had the sailboat longer than I’d been alive, I’m aware that it might seem strange that he hadn’t taken me out on the boat sooner. The thing was though, I hadn’t showed a speck of interest toward sailing. I hadn’t showed any interest toward anything, really, except video games, ever since my parents bought the original Nintendo for Christmas for me one year. No doubt trying for some father-son bonding, my dad played one video game on that old Nintendo, a game called Dragon Warrior that had completely engrossed me. My dad played Dragon Warrior for maybe a month. He finished the game and then declared: “Video games are stupid.” He never picked up a controller again after that.
The day my dad took me out on his sailboat for the first time, I remember him standing looking out the kitchen window toward the mouth of the bay and saying how it looked like perfect sailing weather. I was hurriedly eating breakfast at the dinner table, thinking about my video games. Now it was Super Mario World on the Super Nintendo that I was obsessed with. Because I had no desire to go sailing, I didn’t say anything to my dad, just pretended I either hadn’t heard him or didn’t care to comment.
My dad called one of his friends though, who drove over maybe forty-five minutes later, and without asking me if I wanted to, my dad pretty much told me, while I was in the middle of playing my video game, to put my shoes on, that I was going sailing whether I wanted to or not. Silently, stubbornly, I turned off the TV and did as I was told.
The three of us walked down to the dock below the house together. My dad and his friend—a construction worker named Al—lowered a small rowboat into the water and then we all got in. As my dad started rowing out toward the middle of the bay, where his sailboat was anchored, he said to me, “You know, Jimmy, I was about your age when my dad gave me my first sailing lesson.”
He seemed pleased, or at least relaxed. Being out on the water had a good effect on him. I nodded, but, still in pout mode, didn’t say anything in return.
Once the three of us were on the sailboat, after lugging the rowboat onto the stern, my dad raised anchor, and then he and Al got the main sail and the jib sail and whatever else ready. Then we started for the mouth of the bay and the channel beyond. In front of us, the channel slowly opened up in both directions. Because of the wind, quite a few whitecapped waves were in the channel. I was hardly nervous though. I was still too pouty to be nervous. That and I trusted my dad to know what he was doing.
It was right after my dad called my name and was about to start giving me the sailing rundown, I’m pretty sure, that the perfect sailing weather suddenly soured. It was weird, to be sure—”a freak storm,” my dad would later call it. Right after we’d left the mouth of the bay and entered the channel, these thick gray clouds, almost black, and furrowed like I’d never seen clouds furrowed before, just started flooding the sky at an alarming rate. It was similar to a curtain coming down at the end of a theater act, except instead of coming down the clouds moved from left to right and right to left.
“Jesus,” Al said, watching the spectacle take place.
My dad said nothing, just stared stoically at the changing sky, like he could change it with his mind.
As the sky steadily darkened, the wind picked up even more, started howling. Then these fat raindrops started falling. The waves gained a frightening shape. In consequence the sailboat started rocking wildly from side to side. Around now I grew nervous, scared. Pouting became a thing of the past, made way for fear.
My dad started yelling at Al, telling him to do this or that with the ropes, and then my dad yelled at me, but with the wind in my ears I couldn’t make out a word he said. I retreated down into the cabin to escape the freak storm. The circular portholes were completely submerged underwater each time the boat rocked to one side, and each time the boat straightened out I was very thankful but also very afraid that the next time the boat rocked it would tip over completely and that then we’d all be done for. I remember thinking and feeling like I was going to throw up the whole time, but somehow I didn’t.
The contents inside the cabin quickly made a mess. Cabinets kept opening, slapping shut, their hinges creaking. Plates and mugs and silverware crashed to the floor and slid from side to side with the boat’s rocking. Paperbacks were scattered about, their pages yellowed with age. The sailboat was almost like a house I’d never been in before, or a museum. I saw a framed photograph sliding around on the floor and, without quite knowing what I was doing I reached for it and brought it to my face. What it showed were my parents as young people, smiling, looking happier than I’d ever seen them look in real life. My dad had an arm around my mom. His hair was shaggy and blond, while my mom’s was dark and shimmery-straight. They were both tan. My dad had his shirt off. My mom was wearing a bikini. I noticed a palm tree behind them and figured the photo must’ve been taken in Hawaii—my parents had sailed to Hawaii before I’d been born, in the very sailboat I was now trapped on and feared I’d die on.
The cabin door swung open suddenly and my dad started down the ladder. The photo slipped from my fingers back to the cabin floor.
“You all right?” he asked, concern written on his face.
I shrugged. “I’m fine,” I lied. I held back the rising tears with everything I had. The boat kept rocking wildly from side to side.
My dad looked at me like I was a puzzle. “You’re not scared?”
“A little,” I lied again.
“Well, we’re turning around. We’re heading back for the bay now.”
My dad looked at me a little longer. “You sure you’re not scared?”
I shrugged but said no more.
My dad glanced at the mess all about the cabin floor before turning around and climbing the ladder back up to the deck. It must’ve been only a few minutes later, though it felt like longer, that the sailboat wasn’t rocking so wildly. I followed my dad up the ladder to the deck and discovered we were back in the sheltered arm of the bay now and that we weren’t going to die after all, not today.
Back at the house, it was the strangest thing—the freak storm started to pass. Just as we’d watched the sky darken earlier, now we watched it lighten again, watched the sun come back out, blue sky and everything.
“In all my years,” Al said. He took off his hat—a trucker cap—and put it to his chest.
“I’ll be darned,” my dad said. He was a man who could say such a thing without irony. He turned to Al. “I don’t know. Think we should go back out?”
Al shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. He didn’t seem too eager. Neither of them did.
It was time, I felt. I looked up at my dad, who was still looking out toward the channel. “Let’s go,” I said. “Let’s do it. Let’s get back out there.”
My dad turned his head and stared at me. Al did too. I looked right back at my dad. I watched him shake his head, slowly. Then he smiled. I thought the smile gave the one in the photo a run for its money. That photo—it had been a wakeup call.
The three of us started back toward the dock from the house again. This time my dad put an arm around my shoulder. It felt strange at first, his arm there. That kind of closeness was something neither of us was yet accustomed to.
T. E. Cowell lives in Washington State.