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Everglades USA Exped – Day 17

Sailing the Florida Keys

My skin made pins as the jibing boom swung over the plane sending the belly of our hundred-ton sailboat lurching edgewise like a stout matron rolling over on her mattress from spine to side.

At the ship's helm, Mike stood bellowing orders in every direction. As the portside deck heaved high above the Atlantic, the starboard side plunged through the surface and a saline spume baptized the stumble-footed masses scurrying for refuge on the high-side. Pangaea was full tilt; her sails gorged with thick Florida air.

Even with my right hand wrapped white-knuckled around a cold metal winch, I felt my bare feet stagger out wide beneath my hips and my toes curl to grasp the wooden deck for equipoise. I was doing a foxtrot stutter-step beseeching solid ground. A sailing vessel, through its tacks and turns, effectively choreographs a kind of dance routine — the deck, a ballroom — as all aboard stride, swerve and sway with synchronized compulsion.

There we were, a small dance company of 20, tripping the light fantastic at sea.

“We’re sailing, babies,” Mike said from behind the wheel with a quiet, self-possessed smile.

Wind in his face and eyes wide as salad plates, he stood steering the vessel. His thick fingers spun the spokes gently through the pads of his hands while his sights set on the surging sails and rolling sea ahead.

One hundred and fifteen feet of aluminum darted through the Lower Keys — a 36-mile stretch of Florida islands between Key West and Marathon.

“We have to get those sheets out or we’ll miss the sunset shot,” Mike said beneath a sky the color of cantaloupe.

His callow, young deckhands hurried at the cue.

“Staysail out!” he called. Even with all hands on deck, no one was free to jump to the staysail position. I was nearest the post and dashed starboard. I dug my thumb into the red button marked STAYSAIL.

“Out, out, out!” Mike called. I pressed harder as if it would make the sail unfurl any faster.

“Stop, Mary! Now IN!”

I peered at the buttons, moving my thumb to the black button beneath the red one.

My thumb was still lame from a kayak paddle hammering into its ulnar collateral webbing for 120 miles. I rowed so hard for those six days through the Everglades, I thought that the plastic paddle wedged between my index finger and thumb might just pare the opposable nub clear off my palm and into the water. Fish food. [My thumb is still attached, though I can hardly feel it still, some seven days since our final stroke through the wilderness waterways.]

My eyes fixed on the button beneath my nail-bed. I glared at it as if I could telepathically will it to depress.

Mike’s hand fell on my shoulder. “Stop, Babes,” he said to me. I was hunched over the button, mounted on the control panel waist-high.
“Pick your head up. Look," Mike instructed resolutely. "Don't just do what I say. See what you are doing when you push the button. That’s how you learn.”

I raised my eyes and watched as the sheets rolled in, tightening around the long spool above the bow of boat. With the command of the button I let it out, cleaning the slack. I watched as the tension ironed the sheet, and then rolled it in tight, so as to finally stretch it out wide until the bare rod was in sight.

And therein lies my sea change within our sea change; a newfound awareness — full sail — on account of Mike’s irreducible ability to grasp every detail of a situation in light of its limitless possibility to teach a lesson.

How many times we look but we do not see?


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