Leaving Terra Firma

By Ellen Sollinger -

My dad became obsessed with sailing in the autumn of 1976. He had purchased a new 15-foot Sunbird sailboat after renting a smaller craft the past summer. Dad called the new boat a “starter boat,” because he and Mom had dreams of sailing around the world on their own sailboat some day. They had read the story of Robin Lee Graham, the teen who circumnavigated in his own 24-foot sloop named The Dove.


“But, Dad, what if you or Mom gets sick out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean? You can’t just swim to a doctor’s office, can you? Or if there’s a big storm and one of you goes overboard?”


“Don’t worry, Ellen,” he said confidently. “We’ll be completely ready before we leave terra firma.”


In preparation for their circumnavigation, he learned everything he could; he studied how a sail catches the wind and propels the ship forward; how to tack or “come about” if the wind was directly in front of the boat; and how to “run downwind” when the breeze blew from behind. He taught himself celestial navigation used by the ancient Polynesians and practiced finding his position using a sextant like the ancient mariners did. He studied the complicated knots to anchor and secure the boat, and he memorized all the parts of a sailboat, like the boom, jib and keel. Once, I heard him do a whole jazz riff with wooden spoons drumming on the kitchen counter, using the musical sounding, “boom, jib, boom, jib, keel, keel, keel, yeah……”

The next summer, I was home on break from college, and dad was anxious to take me and Mom out on Lake Ontario. It was July the 4th weekend and the lake was dotted with sail and motorboats as far as the eye could see. In his new "Tilley" hat, the required mark of a true sailor, dad showed off his new craft like she was a prize filly. Her red hull glistened in the summer sun, her tall mast reached up into the bright blue sky, her puffy white mainsail flapped in the gentle breeze, and her jib billowed out in front like an air balloon.


The brisk wind swept us out onto the lake. Soon all we could see was dark gray-blue water. The wind filled the sails and the air was fresh as the boat bounced over the tops of the waves. It was exhilarating!


“Isn’t this fun?” Dad yelled at me over the wind.


“Yes!” I yelled back, feeling the cold spray on my face.


After some time, the wind picked up. I noticed the boat tilting hard to the left.


“Is the boat supposed to be doing this, Dad?” I hollered, grasping the side.


“The boat is heeling. Perfectly normal.”


He described how the wind on the sails, the weight of the keel, and the added stability of the centerboard under the water created the exact angle to achieve maximum speed but also kept us safely upright.


“It’s like a cork with a nail pounded into the bottom.”


“What?”


“We can’t tip over, see...” he said, holding an imaginary cork in his hand. “...because all the weight is in the keel under the water.”


My fears began to abate, and the rush of wind past my ears, the sting of the water on my face was as thrilling as a carnival ride. I looked out at the water as we sped on and dad pointed out the many sails of the 4th of July regatta flashing white against the horizon. A few times, some larger sailboats participating in the race glided past us.


Then, out of nowhere, a gust of wind blew my dad’s “Tilley” hat off. To grab it, he let go of the line he’d been holding.


“Oh my God, Chuck,” Mom screamed as the boat slowly rolled over, knocking all three of us out. The cold water shocked me. A mouthful rushed down my throat. I was suddenly trapped underneath the boat. Swimming furiously, I saw the blurred form of the cockpit, mast and water-logged sail turned upside down, pointing towards the deep. At the surface, breathless and shaking, I gasped for air. My parents were holding onto the edge of the boat and I joined them. There was no hope of righting the upside-down boat.


“Oh my God! Christ, Chuck! What do we do now?” Mom shouted, her curly hair all askew.


“Someone on all these boats will spot us,” I yelled.


We bobbed, hung on. The wind strengthened. Waves became whitecaps. My jeans were heavy, bare toes unmoving and stiff. My muscles seemed paralyzed. My whole body became numb. Terror coursed through me.


Somehow, I managed to wave toward boats in the distance but it exhausted me. No use. My fingers slipped off the edge of the hull. I grabbed as tight as possible.


“Hold on, Ellen,” I told myself. How deep is the water? What if I lose my grip? The silence between my parents scared me.


My mind played tricks on me. Mom’s face as she held onto the hull was gaunt, ashen. Her hair was pasted in curls against her brow. Her fingers were stick-like bones. She mumbled, as if to no one, slow and guttural. Am I going crazy?

Dad looked bloated, his cheeks and nose reddened, his voice shrill as he murmured confused instructions.

“It’ll be okay,” I said, feeling my job was to calm things down. “Just think, how nice it will be when we’re rescued. Home. Warm again. Hey, there’s a good bottle of red wine waiting for us, I think.” But my words sounded far away. Maybe I didn’t say them, just thought I did.


During the two agonizing hours we were alone in the freezing water, unseen by anyone, I felt angry at my dad. He put us in this dangerous place. I thought my dad was infallible. Wasn’t he supposed to protect us?


Finally, I saw a large sailboat headed in our direction.


“They see us!” I shrieked over the wind and waves. Excruciatingly slow, they inched closer and pulled up beside us.


“You folks look like you need some help,” they said, sunburnt, smiling, with beers in their hands. They reached down to haul us, one at a time, into the sailboat. Mom and Dad were lifted to safety first. As I looked up at them, still gripping the side of the capsized boat, I saw their bodies malfunctioning just like mine. A young man placed his hands under my arms for leverage and hoisted me into their boat. Uncoordinated, I was unable to assist in my rescue. They wrapped us in towels, warming our shivering and shaking bodies. We pulled away from our inverted sailboat, its red belly glistening in the sun like a dead whale.


The trip to shore was steady, but agonizingly slow. The sun warmed us as we sat silently, in shock.


“What happened?” one of the men asked.

Dad tried but couldn’t articulate an answer. Mom was wrapped like a mummy, staring at her bare feet.


Back at the marina, the three of us stepped out onto the dock.

“How about we treat you to a nice steak dinner?” Mom offered, always the social one.


“Naw, you woulda done the same for us,” the older man said.

“Thank you,” my dad sputtered, pumping each man’s hand. “Thank you … so much.”


The drive home was somber and silent. We were mentally and physically exhausted. No one mentioned the dangerous incident, how it had come to pass, whose fault it was. No one spoke of the reality that we could have all become hypothermic and drowned.


In the weeks and months that followed, I hoped my parents would give up their dream to circle the globe in their own sailboat.


But the next summer, they purchased a 22-foot Morgan day-sailer, followed the next year by a 27-foot Hunter sloop. The year I earned my master’s degree and got married, they bought an ocean-going 36-foot Tiburon ketch named VIKI in Saint Croix. They sailed VIKI north on the inland waterway and spent their final year of teaching living on her while docked on the Buffalo River.


When my son was born, they were heading south again, to the arc of the sparkling Caribbean islands and then on to South America. By the time my son was walking and talking, they traversed the Panama Canal. When he started kindergarten, with the capsize of the little Sunbird far from their thoughts, my parents fearlessly pointed the bow of VIKI west and sailed out into the vast Pacific Ocean.


Ellen Sollinger Walker is a retired classical pianist and psychologist living in Clearwater, Florida. She is the author of Just Where They Wanted to Be: The Story of My Amazing Parents (2nd Edition), a memoir/travelogue chronicling her parents’ ten-year circumnavigation in their own 36-foot sailboat (available on Amazon.) She also writes short fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry.

Ellen has recently finished her first novella. The Hardest Thing to See is a story about unrequited love (with a twist) set against the background of the classical music world.

Ellen's short stories have appeared in The Dillydoun Review Daily and Change Seven Literary Magazine.

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