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Footloose and Boomless

I wanted to be able to drive through town, launch my own craft, and dance with the wind once again.

I couldn’t dismiss the thought that the little sailboat looked remarkably like a battered mixing bowl. Wide and round-bottomed, it sat weathered and sad in the mud alongside the seller’s house. The remnants of once-white paint flaked from its sides. It was undeniably cute, though; that, and the lure of the $75 price tag, blinded me to any possible shortcomings. I paid the man, and together we slid the dirty hull into my pickup bed. The sail had been clumsily wadded up around the mast; I tied the whole mess on top of my truck and drove home.

I slid the lightweight little boat out onto my driveway. It promptly tipped onto one side. I righted it and it tilted onto its snubbed nose and stayed there. Deflated and grumbling, I fetched some pool noodles from the back porch and propped it up; at least a mixing bowl will stand upright without help! I dropped the mast into its slot and untangled the supposed sail. It hung dejectedly like a limp, worn-out dish towel. That was all there was; there was no framework, no structure of any kind. The only “rigging” on the entire boat consisted of a one-inch shred of rotted cotton twine protruding from an ancient grommet like a tiny, desiccated tongue.

I stepped back and surveyed the roly-poly sailboat and its rag of a sail. For the first time I entertained a creeping suspicion that I had purchased a toy, or possibly some marine-themed yard art. There was no way this thing could sail. But I needed it to.

Years before, my son and I had taken up sailing in our bright red family canoe using a second-hand sail kit. Two clueless neophytes, we had learned together how to balance wind and tiller, capturing coastal breezes in a big, crisp yellow sail and skimming across our neighborhood lake. Locals ventured onto the dock to ask questions. Passing tourists stopped to take pictures. The long, sturdy canoe was quick and obedient. That was a real boat.

But with my son away at college much of the time, I was finding too many excuses to stay on the shore. Bystanders are often willing to help a skinny woman transport a 70-pound canoe from truck to lakeshore, but one can’t bank on it, plus there were the multitudes of clamps and straps required to transform a simple canoe into a sailboat. I needed a small boat, manageable for one person. I wanted to be able to drive through town, launch my own craft, and dance with the wind once again. I envisioned myself gliding alone across the lake in a sleek and compact boat, the breeze in my hair and the tiller in my hand. The vessel now propped in my driveway did not appear to be the boat in that vision.

Pushing doubts aside, I began to scrape, sand, caulk, and paint. By the time my son came home for a school break it seemed like it might be safe to see if it would at least float. We took it to the lake and slid it into the water. A small tear welled up in the bottom and slid toward the stern. Another quickly followed.

My son is at an age where his enthusiasm frequently eclipses any possible misgivings, or even what some would call common sense. He dropped the mast in place and threw a beach towel over the growing puddle in the bottom of the boat. He stepped briskly into my leaky mixing bowl with its dangling dishrag sail, pushed off from the dock, and sailed smoothly away across the lake.

I was familiar with “footloose” sails, attached along the upright mast but only attached at the ends on the bottom. Simple and efficient, they are common in small pleasure boats and even racing dinghies. That day I learned that there is an even simpler setup known as a “boomless” rig. Without any boom to support the bottom at all, the sail hangs like a flag on the mast. The sailor must open it to the wind. With the shred of twine replaced by a length of white woven cord, my son was able to lift the sail. That is all the little boat needed to slip away over the water.

Boomless rigs do not win races. They are not the most efficient way to sail. But it is a beautifully simple system, with nothing to swing around and smack the sailor in the head. If something goes awry, one simply drops the “mainsheet” (my little piece of white cord) and the sail is no longer a sail; in fact, it looks a lot like a dishrag.

I visit our nearby bay and watch the sailing yachts. Thirty or forty feet long, with two or three or four sails, they thunder along with the wind whistling in their rigging. Their sheets are wound around winches, reeled in and out with cranks. Down through the jetty’s jaws and out into the open ocean they fly, blithely throwing wakes from their proud bows.

I want to go slowly. I want to take a stubby wooden boat to the neighborhood lake. There are no halyards to raise the sail; it slips onto the mast like a long, blue sock. I want to hold the little white cord in my hand, feeling for the wind. I drift onto our small water in the merest breath of a breeze. I watch the delicate curls of water unfurling behind my stern. That is how I sail.

Perhaps when I was younger I needed to rush through life with the wind roaring in my rigging. I needed to hold my sails wide, seeking every bit of momentum that I could find. Now I no longer need to prove anything. I don’t even need to be very good at what I do. I just want to take joy in the doing, and it helps if there is no boom to smack me in the head if the wind should shift. You can have your yachts and your ocean voyages, as exciting as they may be. I’ll be out on the local lake, sailing a round-bottomed boat with a boomless sail.

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