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Autumn Phillips: Adventures at sea

Autumn Phillips

You spend so many hours daydreaming about the trip you are going to take or the mountain you are going to climb. You bore your friends with the details of your plans. You watch your savings account. You mentally pack and repack. When an adventure is on the horizon, you live in the future. I quoth thee this, the old saying, “There is no greater happiness than that felt while thinking about future happiness.”

But adventures are never as you pictured them, and true adventure — not the kind found on a cruise line — is a good portion misery. A true adventure begins by breaking your spirit. It wrings you out like a damp rag before building you back up again.

And that’s how it was for me, in early May when I left my ergonomic chair at the Steamboat Pilot & Today for a summer on a sailboat.

I stepped onto the deck of a wooden sailboat and out of the world I knew. I stepped into another country, where the language changed and the landscape was made of lines and canvas.

For that first week, we were just struggling to get the boat in the water — painting and varnishing all 72 wooden feet — and I was struggling to decipher the constant barrage of orders that I couldn’t understand.

“Autumn, go mouse the shackles,” the captain said. And I wanted to. I really did. But what is a mouse, and where are the shackles?

I remember most vividly that first 12-hour day of sailing. My delicate reporter hands ached from pulling lines. My legs were sore from fighting the motion of the boat. My mind was spinning from all the new knowledge.

I felt small, and I was exhausted.

It was dark when we docked the boat, and I crawled out on the bowsprit to furl the jib sail.

I reached for a fold of sail and yanked it toward myself. My hand slipped, and I punched myself, hard, in the face.

As the pain spread, I dropped the sail and started to cry. The water below my feet was as still as black glass reflecting the lights of the city, and I thought to myself that if I fell off the bowsprit right then, if I fell into the water, I might not save myself from drowning.

But I didn’t fall and I didn’t drown, and the weeks passed and miles of water passed under the boat. The skin on my hands hardened. I learned the lines, the language, the knots. My hair lightened, my feet bared, my skin darkened. The boat felt like home, and sailing became second nature.

The boat was called “Bagheera” — named after the character of the same name in Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.” We affectionately called her “Baggie.”

She was built in 1924 as a luxury racing yacht and sailed all over the world. During the summer, I met an old man who had sailed her in Michigan in the 1940s and a guy who had sailed her from Hong Kong to California in the ’80s. Baggie had a life of her own, and I was only a small chapter.

Because she was an old boat, we had to learn the ways of the old sailors. There were no electronics aboard, so when the fog set in like a gray walled room, we felt our way through the world with a chart, a compass, dividers and a set of parallel rules.

We learned to make tar for sealing stays, and strops and sing-song sailor sayings played through my head, like, “Worm and parcel with the lay; turn and serve the other way.”

In many ways, we were living a life that doesn’t exist anymore. Baggie was a beautiful anachronism, kept alive by the curiosity of tourists.

On my last day, I furled the main sail for the last time and stood on deck, alone. The tide was coming in like the back of a large black snake. I would move to shore and the ocean would continue breathing in and out of the harbor without any comprehension that I had ever been there or that I had gone.

“Bye, Baggie,” I said. Then I jumped onto the dock and walked away, wondering what I would do with these sea legs back in Colorado.


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