GERALD MCCONNELL Sailor

 

 
 
LEARNING TO SAIL AND OTHER LIFE LESSONS
 

By Kevin McConnell

The hull rested keel up on the center of the dock during the fall and winter months that it hibernated. We didn't climb on it or play under it. It was our back yard monument to summer. It was a wooden sailboat painted black and white, a Penguin, popular on U.S. lakes in the 1960's and probably unidentifiable by today's sailors. I was only 5, but I remember a large intimidating vessel.

It had a white soft sail with the black image of a Penguin at its highest point and was larger than its cousin the Sunfish. The Penguins on Packanack Lake raced in a birdlike style around the buoys set up by the lake's club each weekend. In my eye, my father's Penguin was king.

In Wayne, New Jersey, Packanack Lake was an ocean to a little kid. I would play at waters edge with submarine and battleship models in the crystal clear water. Occasionally, I'd hear a referee whistle echo across the lake and I'd watch the Penguins round the closest buoy. The lone occupant shifting from one side to the other as their booms fluffed and caught the wind on the new tack. It would be years later that I'd understand the "game within the game," so much so that I would end up taping all of ESPN's coverage of the America's Cup.

My father (Gerald McConnell above) taught me to swim in our back yard via our manmade beach. I wasn't very happy in the cold water of spring. I was more terrified of the water than anything else. Looking back I'm not sure why I would go with my father out in the Penguin weeks later. On the first tack, I would hold any part of the sailboat I could as we'd take a 20 degree list. I would wonder why the water, now rushing by the edge of the boat, didn't rush in and sink us. How relieved I'd be once back on the dock.

We had a large back yard with a small sandy beach to the left and wooden dock in the center that was painted a brilliant white. A large hedge bordered both sides, and many trees made it a great yard with a view of the lake. The clubhouse that sat across the lake hung perfectly centered like a picture on our living room wall. The smell of spring on the lake in Wayne is something I'll never forget.

We had a small dinghy in the back yard, untouched for years. My father set it up so I could row it out a few yards and back. One day Dad got out a mast and sail for the miniature boat. I was astonished when I realized it was rigged for me.

He coached me as best a father can coach his small child. "Hold on to the sheet that controls the sail with one hand and the stick that connects to the rudder," he instructed. He then said something about tacking and running, but the fear of all that water rushing over the edge was all I could see in my mind. He pointed the dinghy out with the wind over my shoulder and pushed me away from the dock. He had about a hundred feet of line tied to the dinghy so I wouldn't go far. I'd tug ever so slightly on the sheet and the dinghy moved under sail.

Back and forth in front of the dock, I tacked slowly, building more and more confidence with every tack. My father wading in the water waist deep, pulled me up to him and asked me how I was doing. I halfheartedly agreed that I could go it alone. He took off the line and pushed me off.

This time heading straight out across the lake and further from shore, the wind was stronger than it had been near the sheltered dock. Forgetting how to slow the dinghy, I pulled harder on the sheet. The dinghy picked up speed and listed hard. I could see water splashing over the edge. I was scared.

My father, not being one to lose track of a child out on a lake, was yelling for me to let go of the sheet. In my panic, I couldn't understand. I had a rope in one hand and the rudder in the other. He yelled let go of the sheet, let go of the line, all I had was a rope. I looked for a sheet? I didn't see one. I couldn't remember how to turn. The dock behind me grew so small and the water seemed to be swallowing me up. My father's commands were no longer echoing over the lake. I don't know how or where it came from, but I pulled the rudder hard and the boom went over my head and as I began to point towards the dock, wind filled my sail and I felt good and warm; relieved and confident. My father was suddenly at the side of the boat. He had swam, what seemed an incredible distance to a 5-year-old. With one arm out of the water, hanging on the side, he asked if I was OK. With his coaching I brought the dinghy to the beach.

I never felt that fear again in the Penguin. I learned to like the water, respect the water, but I never again feared it. Years later I joined the Navy and went to sea as a Quartermaster, navigating great oceans. And when rough weather put a wave of water across our open bridge, five decks up from the water line,

I remembered the Penguin. Today the house sits empty. My father still owns it, but enjoys living in Manhattan. A successful publisher and former freelance illustrator, he's one of thirty illustrators to have ever won the Society of Illustrator's Hamilton King Award.

The last time that I know of that he was out on a sail boat was Christmas `93, a 65 foot ketch out of St. Thomas. We were both on it the year before. The Penguin, long since scuttled, still sails in my heart.

- Originally Published 1994, The Stuart News

 

 

 

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