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Monday, June 10, 2013

Hanging out in Denmark by John von Daler

               Ten lessons or so it took to teach me to sail well enough for a solo attempt. My teacher had guided me through the ups and downs and ins and outs and now I was ready. I was about 25 years old and we were in southern Denmark at a summer house on the coast. 
                The fifteen or so people of all ages who stayed at the house in those days hardly ever wore clothes. From grandfather to babies we just got used to having nothing on. Occasionally people would walk by on the pathway along the beach, but we never winced, nor did they. It was all very serene.
                After having been given the green light to sail all alone, I had been waiting for the right moment to swim out to the small sailboat with its two sails and little cabin.
                The sunday I chose was slightly gray and breezy. A boat race the day before had left demarcation buoys all around the little harbor, so I decided to sail down and investigate what a race could be like - without competitors. I swam out to the boat and shimmied up the side, unpacked the sails, hoisted them but left them slack, pulled up the anchor and then sailed into the wind. Two short crosses and I reached the harbor. Then I decided to be a matador and make bulls of the buoys.
                But one short pass was all that I could get. On my first attempt to sail the boat around a buoy, its rope caught hold of the rudder and the sails billowed out in the stiff wind that caught them. The boat stood there quavering but not moving.
                What to do, what to do. Lessons one to ten had not taken up this problem. I was fit and a good swimmer, so I decided to climb over the edge into the water beside the rudder and to reach down and loosen the rope that I could see was holding the boat in place.
                While holding on to the boat with my right hand I went over the side and into the cold seawater. I caught hold of the taut, wet rope with my left hand and pushed it under the rudder and up and away. The boat shot forward, free at last.
                Happily for this story, I was still holding on to the boat with my right hand. As the vessel plunged away I managed with one great swing to grab on with my left hand too. The rudder had straightened out beside me and the boat was sailing parallel to the coast as I hung fast like some weird pennant, naked and flapping in the air. A seagull sitting on a buoy eyed me as I flew past.
                On the coast sunday amblers and churchgoers were making their way down the path as I hurtled past without a stitch on. Seeing them seeing me, I used every last bit of energy to swing my legs up and over the side and into the boat again. Then I turned it into the wind and sat down to think everything through:
                1) When you can't steer the boat, taking down the sails, however embarrassing that may be, might be a solution.
                2) Wear a bathing suit and a lifevest when you sail.
                3) Tulsa, that great city by the prairy, has never produced very many top sailors. My life has not changed this fact.
                4) Norwalk, my other American home, seafaring city though it be, will never put up a statue of me stretched out horizontally from the back of a timeless sailing vessel: John von Daler, Danish sailor, lived in Norwalk from 1959 to 1966. He hung on.

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