My father loves four things in the world: my mother, my sister, me, and his sailboat. He spent his childhood on the water of Buzzard’s Bay, Massachusetts in dinghies, kayaks, and sailboats, occasionally gaining or losing one with each serious hurricane. It’s fitting, of course, that he proposed to my mom on his sailboat, his first pride and joy. His attempts to teach my sister and I how to sail began as soon as we were finally old enough to swim and strong enough to help pull in the lines.
Every sunny Saturday during the summer, we pile into our green SUV, a large cooler full of turkey sandwiches, iced tea, and fruit wedged in between my sister and me in the back seat. When we arrive at the harbor, I become the first mate of our little inflatable dinghy. After zipping up my puffy, bright orange life jacket, I slide into the seat opposite my dad next to the motor. With a yank of the handle, the motor starts to sputter and the propeller churns up the salty water below.
I rest my tiny hand on the tiller, turning it from left to right to adjust the speed. My dad’s hand always starts out just beside mine to ensure that I have it under control. He uses big words and sailing jargon that have eventually become second nature to me, but which had at first seemed like a foreign language. “Pull up along the port side,” he instructs as he points to the left side of the sailboat when we approach the mooring. “Tie us up to this cleat – you know, the way I taught you,” he says, gesturing to the little metal appliance on deck and reminding me to wrap twice and then loop the line. “We’re just going to use the jib today; can you help me pull it out?” he asks, handing me a line attached to the sail at the bow of the boat.
Once we leave the channel and let the wind propel us forward, I am my father’s reflection. He sits at the helm with his hand on the gleaming silver wheel, looking out onto the water silently as I sit beside him doing the same. Every so often he lets me take over, directing me which way to turn the wheel with a simple point of his finger. The loud, ceaseless voices of my mom and sister float along with the wind, yet my dad and I remain silent. Sometimes he points to a house on the water and tells me about who grew up there, what their parents were like, and how they used to play football in the middle of the street together. “You know that all the seagulls and cormorants flock to Bird Island because of the dead bodies buried there, right?” he even tries to convince me as we pass the little island with the lighthouse. I know by his gleaming eyes and joking voice to simply roll my eyes at him.
Even at the age of seven when I was swaddled in a puffy life jacket and I wore Land’s End water shoes; I felt a certain affinity towards the ocean. There’s something both exhilarating and peaceful about being on the water. Once you get far enough out, everything is just ocean and sky. It seems that there are no constraints; you could simply float along forever in the cradle of the waves. There’s excitement, of course, in the freedom of flying along with just the push of the wind, but there are always moments of pure serenity. I know that my dad sees this too; though we’ve never spoken about it, I can see in our matching expressions that he experiences the same peaceful thrill of the ocean.
We make it out just past Bird Island when my dad announces that it is time to come about and head back towards the harbor. While many of my friends sail farther out to Cuttyhunk or Martha’s Vineyard for the weekend with their families, my dad never wants to risk going too far. Even with our extra life jackets, GPS, and radio, he believes that one can never be too cautious. We make our way back to the safety of the harbor as the sun begins to set, its reflection bouncing along in the waves. In this moment with the sky painted a beautiful mixture of pinks and oranges, I’m perfectly content with staying close to home. Just like my dad, I don’t see any need to explore any further; everything I need is right here. My dad expertly glides the sailboat right up to our mooring as I hold onto the smooth railing. Together, we put the seat cushions down below and coil up the lines on deck. “Nice work, first mate,” my dad says, putting a hand on my shoulder and letting these few words say it all.
As the years have passed and I’ve learned more about sailing, my dad now lets me steer the boat to the mooring without his help. I’m old enough to be on the water without a life jacket and steer the dinghy without my dad’s hand guiding mine on the tiller. However, I still know that my dad is right beside me if we come across any problems or if I’m still not strong enough to pull in a line on my own. Although I’ve taken on more responsibilities and upheld my title as first mate, the dynamic of our sailing trips hasn’t changed. While my sister and mom pass the hours talking and telling stories, my dad and I prefer to remain quiet and watch the ocean as it fills the endless horizon, our identical green eyes mirroring the color of the water below.
Over time, however, part of me began to yearn for something more. The excitement of our sailing trips began to dwindle just enough for me to wonder whether I was missing something by never going farther than Bird Island. Even with the melodic waves keeping tempo on the sailboat’s hull and the calming warmth of the sun on my face, I felt an emerging need to do more, to go father. With that, I began to prepare for my biggest journey yet: a semester abroad in the south of France. On our last familiar sail in August, my dad let me take the helm for the entirety of the journey. After a few hours, I brought us into the mooring with ease and basked in the beauty of the ocean around me for the last time that summer.
Weeks later, I found myself in Aix-en-Provence, all the way across the ocean and far from familiar shores. At first, I was overwhelmed by the sense that I was entirely alone. I didn’t recognize a single landmark and I didn’t have my family by my side this time. My first instinct was to wonder if my dad had been right to always stay within sight of land, but a flicker of excitement slowly burned brighter within me as I looked around. There are no boundaries, nothing to hold me back from moving forward. The overwhelming feeling of liberation mirrors that of leaving the mooring and sailing out of the harbor, speeding ahead towards open waters. I am finally in charge of my fate, deciding every next step on my own. Gradually, I’ve learned to navigate the winding cobblestone streets of the city. I can now stop into picturesque little cafés and order in French, my American accent coming through only slightly as I carry on conversations in this foreign tongue that has quickly become familiar to me. Despite the initial nerves, it turns out that I’m truly okay on my own.
Being so far from home right now isn’t all that different from being out on the water. It is new and exciting and entirely boundless. It’s pure freedom. This excitement, as always, is accompanied by a comforting sense of peace in unexpected moments. I find it in little parks or when I pass the majestic fountain that has become the landmark by which I can always find my way home. Sometimes, as I walk along the harbors of the various cities to which I travel, I breathe in the salt air and for a moment I’m right back on the harbor with my family. I marvel at the beautiful sailboats and take a picture for my dad, knowing how much he would love to be here with me. For now, though, it’s okay that he’s not. After years of being the first mate, I’m finally taking up the role of captain.