Traverse City Record-Eagle

Generation Why

August 3, 2010

Wisdom on the Water: Life lessons from sailing

Years on a sailboat teach me life lessons

From a young age, I have known the feeling of wind whipping my hair, of cool spray kissing my face, of breathing in brisk Lake Michigan air while curling my fingers around the tiller and guiding my craft through the waves.

The awe-inspiring balance between nature and mankind is profoundly evident on the water; as I work to harness the power of wind and navigate my vessel, I cannot help but reflect on how deeply my experiences while sailing have affected the person I have become.

When I first began sailing, I was 5 years old and extremely eager to assist with every aspect of the boat's operation. I scrambled to help my father, struggling to wrap my chubby fingers around the thick line, using every muscle in my tiny body to hoist the sails. Just as my strength began to give out and I couldn't raise the sails another inch, I would feel my father's capable hands deftly pulling on the line to help me reach my goal.

These shared moments made me feel strong, accomplished, and even a little bit grownup as I worked alongside him. It was hard work to raise a sail, but once I was finished, I could feel the boat's power and speed as it sliced through the water. I would then wobble to the bow to examine my handiwork, swaying on unsteady feet over the swell of the waves.

Finally, when I was sure that everything was in order, I would dip my feet over the side of the railing, giggling as the water splashed my toes.

When my mother heard my giggles, she would quickly remind me to be careful, to make sure I was holding on tight, to make sure that the buckles on my yellow Charlie Brown lifejacket were fastened tightly. The water's too cold, she would say, you'll get sick. But I just smiled, nodded, and stretched my little legs as close to the water as they could get without sending me tumbling into the waves.

When my toes inevitably did turn to ice and my teeth started to chatter, I would run towards the stern, where Mom would always be waiting with a blanket and an I-told-you-so smile on her ever-forgiving face.

At night, we would sit on the deck, watching the sunset and blowing bubbles. I was captivated by the fragile floating bubbles, and watched in wonder as they waltzed over the waves and darted on the breeze. I marveled at the iridescent rainbow that would appear when the fading light hit a bubble at just the right angle. Oftentimes I tried to catch these beautiful bubbles, hoping that I could capture their magnificence and keep it with me forever. To my disappointment, my impatient and eager hands always seemed to pop the delicate surface, and I was left only with a ring of soapy water dampening my palms.

I realize now that, even if I couldn't capture those elusive bubbles, the memories I gained, the lessons I learned, and the perspective that sailing has given me are what will remain with me forever. From a very early age, I learned to appreciate the values of teamwork, that putting work before play could be rewarding, and that beauty could be found anywhere, in any form, if only I had the desire to look for it.

Sailing today, I no longer totter on uncertain feet as I dash to the bow to check the sails. I no longer need to wear my old Charlie Brown lifejacket, and my mother has given up admonishing me whenever I lean to dip my toes in the breakers.

My voyages from port to port are always new adventures, complete with surprises, smiles and moments that I'll never forget. As I trim my sails to set my course, I will take time to appreciate the wind tousling my hair, the sun playing across my cheeks, and the sounds of the waves bubbling around the hull. And as I sit, enjoying the last few rays of sunshine dipping below the horizon, I will turn my head ever so slightly to catch the light as it transforms a wayward bubble into a shimmering rainbow.

Sarah Cunningham will be a senior at Elk Rapids High School.

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