The family story goes that I was sitting in my high chair pounding, with a spoon, when my father walked in the door. I paused, looked straight at him, and burst out my first word with great enthusiasm: “Da Da!” “Da Da!” My mother says my father was positively dewy-eyed at this.
“Da Da!” I insisted, pointing past him — at the dog.
It’s tough to be a father.
Until I was 12, my father did not seem remarkable except for the unrelenting work he performed rebuilding the old Victorian we lived in. The Victorian had stunning woodwork, horsehair plaster, and no insulation whatsoever. My father spent years painstakingly restoring paint-damaged woodwork, tearing out lathe and plaster, installing insulation, wiring and plumbing, and hanging sheetrock. I haven’t done the math, but if the man claims to have hung an acre of sheetrock, I’d tend to believe him.
But when I was 12 or so, he unexpectedly bought a sailboat.
Prior to this momentous purchase, I had no idea my father knew his way around a sailboat, had a sixth sense about wind, or was a seriously competitive sailor.
My mother, alas, was no sailor. She suffered from motion sickness in anything but the calmest of weather. To survive any serious blow, she’d take the highest dose of Dramamine, tuck herself into a spare sail bag, and sleep through it all.
My mother lobbied, sadly unsuccessfully, for the boat to be named “Puke” and the dinghy “Bucket” so she could go out to Puke in the Bucket.
On rough days with wind, my mother was blissfully ignorant of activity on deck. On windless days, she was witness to my father’s competitive streak, which manifested with sufficient intensity to earn him the nickname “Captain Bligh.”
The most mild of men in everyday life put a deck under his feet, sails over his head, and a competitor in his sights and my mother, who may not have known a jib from a spinnaker but could read a rulebook, more than once threatened to abandon ship.
Racing rules specify you must cross the finish line with the same number of crew as you crossed the start with. My mother, who was a strong swimmer, had every intention of not only making it to shore but passing the committee boat on the way and identifying the ship she’d abandoned.
Short of boarding a competitor and pirating away a member of their crew, my father had limited options.
The rule, I should note, does allow the adoption of a competitor’s crew as your own for the purposes of crossing the finish line. You don’t have to cross with the same crew, only the same number of crew.
There are strict rules regarding one vessel touching another, so throwing a plank between two boats to shanghai crew would likely result in a foul. However, during extremely light air races, where boats are essentially drifting and making little headway, a crew member running from bow to stern and leaping off with force can create propulsion, pushing a boat forward, possibly even over the finish line. In theory, your crew should turn, catch up with your vessel, and be pulled aboard just before the boat crosses the line.
In reality, some races can be a bit more chaotic, with leapers hopping aboard following vessels. This gives something of an advantage to the boats in the middle of the pack, as they can send their crew off the stern and pick up crew off the bow. The leaders have to hope they can recapture their crew before drifting across the line, or hold on to them, and hope a superior position can’t be overcome with crew willing to go jump in the lake.
My father would have been in his late 30s when he bought his first boat. When I hit that milestone, I considered doing the same, but the advantage of having a parent with a sailboat is much of the romance is leached out of you at an early age. Easily the amount of time you spend breathlessly mastering wind with Kevlar and line is matched, and matched again, by the time you spend maintaining the boat. And let’s not get started on the expenses: a winch dropped overboard, a frayed halyard, a foot torn out of a sail.
I got sheep instead.
My father’s lack of enthusiasm for the sheep might have been subtly influenced by the announcement card we sent after our first lamb was born: “Congratulations, Grandbaa!”
Fatherhood is your kid saying “Da Da!” for the first time — to the dog. It is letting them take the wheel and shrugging off the damage. It is watching them solo with every confidence, whether you feel it or not. It is your kid succumbing not to the siren call of the sea, but, to quote Kipling, the “furrer-mould” of a farmer.
It is teaching your kid to tie a sheet off with a cleat hitch, so a decade later they can cleat a sheep, one-handed, without pinching their fingers.
Tamara Burke and her family were longtime residents of Stowe, leaving the Garnache-Morrison Memorial Forest as a gift to the community. She and her husband, the sheep, and a riot of golden retrievers now call Craftsbury home. She continues to work in Stowe. Email letters to firstname.lastname@example.org.