2017-09-12 / Home & Family

Learning to sail and to let go

A wife’s perspective on life in the military
Sarah Smiley

We mothers like to hover. Even those of us who preach about not hovering, well, sometimes we still hover. It’s hard to resist at times, despite what we know about letting go.

For me this summer, “letting go” came in the form of watching my older boys learn how to sail. Yes, on the water, in the wind, and with me watching helplessly from the shore. (Oh, I tried to sail with them once, but I immediately tipped the sailboat and was never invited back.)

Early this summer, friends of the family made an offer. They had a Sunfish, a small monohull sailboat, that hadn’t been on the water in a few years, and if our boys were interested, they’d loan it to them for the summer. My boys were definitely interested. The lake we go to has sailboat races every Sunday, and my boys wanted to be part of that. (Spoiler: a Sunfish cannot win against a Hobie Cat.)

The boat had belonged to our friends’ late son who had been a military pilot. He died young while serving in the U.S. Navy. With that bit of knowledge and history of the boat, my boys committed to racing it, win or lose (it would mostly be “lose”), every Sunday.

There was just one thing: My boys didn’t know how to sail.

So most days with even a hint of a breeze, they were on the water learning how to harness the wind with the Sunfish. I sat on the dock and watched them, all the while thinking about our friends’ son, the owner of the boat, and his mother.

The first time my oldest son raced the Sunfish alone, I trailed behind him in a motorboat. When I say I trailed behind him, I mean that I kept my distance (sort of) but stayed close enough to yell out really unhelpful advice. I just could not stop thinking about everything that could go wrong, and, well, he looked a bit like Truman at the end of the Truman Show, and that’s a very powerful ending. When my son eventually tipped the Sunfish, I was glad the motorboat was there to tow him back to shore.

My son felt otherwise: “Why did you trail me? That was the most annoying thing ever! I could have swum to shore!”

The next weekend someone else from the racing group offered to take one of my sons on his Hobie Cat while the other son sailed the Sunfish with his grandfather. Since my dad had eyes on the Sunfish racer, I was free to hover at the Hobie Cat while the seasoned racer taught my son how to rig the sails. Someday, I know my sons will tell the story of how they learned to sail, and it will always include this generous racer whose voice exudes calm and patience.

But my son gave me a look that day that said, “You can go now,” as I stood awkwardly on the dock and asked whether he’d need a jacket. Finally, I got the picture. My boys are growing up. They don’t need me as much as before.

However, that didn’t stop me from getting on the committee boat, which is the official finish line of the race, and watching everything from there. And that’s when I saw up close how the Sunfish crawls to the finish (think: Spongebob’s “Two ... hours ... later ...”) and the Hobie Cats zip along to the end.

But I also saw something else. My boys, under the instruction of their mentor, were capable and dedicated. They shifted their weight and their sails effortlessly. They tacked and — and, well, they did a bunch of other things that looked really cool but for which I have no eloquent words because I don’t know anything about sailing. And no matter how many hours had passed, if the boys were in the late-pilot’s Sunfish, they were determined to finish the race.

As the summer went on, the boys continued to practice with the Sunfish and they took turns helping race the Hobie Cat. I watched their confidence grow as I let myself relax.

The last sailboat race was this weekend, and there was a party afterward. My sons were some of the youngest participants by many years, and they also had the distinction of losing nearly every race for the entire season. But it never mattered. Those races, that Sunfish, and the older racers who had taken my boys under their, er, sail — it had all been about something more, something bigger. Because of the generosity of others, my boys gained a lifelong skill. But they gained also by learning from those of another generation and honoring the memory of someone who, like them, learned to sail at the lake.

My young sailors are forever better for it, and someday I know they will pay it forward. I’m just glad I finally got out of the way to let it happen.

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