by Paula Paige
“I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.” –Louisa May Alcott
We were straining every muscle, cranking on the already taut, but not taut enough jib line, tightening, or loosening the main, steering into soupy seas with a cross undercurrent. Our bow dancers were maintaining a close eye on the whisker pole, a device that weighs a hell of a lot more than its name implies. Water was crashing over the edges of the boat as we dipped into the seas, heeling over at what felt like an almost horizontal slant. There was no fear of tipping over, our boat was as sound as they come.
The modern sailboat is designed to feel like a penthouse apartment. And what it lacks in the craft of old fashioned sailing – where once there was celestial navigation, now there is GPS – it provides in comfort and the knowledge that it will never, ever tip over. OK, Southern Ocean storms notwithstanding. We were rounding the mark to port, we had room, we were ahead of the pack and feeling good. It was a gorgeous evening. It may not be the Vendee Globe, (a single-handed, round-the-world race) but our Wednesday night sunset races in Santa Monica Harbor let the mind wander to grander ideals, the imagination soaring past the horizon. And a boat full of women of varying ages, experiences, and life stories enjoy something that previously was not permitted.
First prize for one of these races is a plastic chips and salsa platter, so clearly we were not racing for the prize. But then again, bragging rights to the winners was always a satisfying way to end the evening. Overpriced drinks and BBQ at the sponsoring club are never very good, but the dancing has always been the best way to celebrate well into the night. Well, at least until 10 o’clock, when the noise curfew kicked in and all the begging in the world from our team would not convince the DJ to play just even one more golden oldie like Takin’ Care of Business. No matter, we had won, we were flying high on our spirits, our team enthusiasm and the knowledge we were going to get to do it all again next week.
I moved to Los Angeles in 2004. It was all I could do to remain in New York until then. 9/11 had changed everything. And I could not escape the constant reminders of what had happened to my beloved city on that sunny, blue, and awful September day. People unattached to it in any way claimed it as their own. It’s hard to explain to anyone who wasn’t there at the time, though I have always understood the desire to claim it – national trauma has a way of pulling us together. It gives us a sense of belonging we may not have had. We have a story to tell, even when we hadn’t experienced the tragedy, the weight of the constant mourning. After those successive years, I could not see any other way but to remove myself from the city and find somewhere utterly different.
There is no place so opposite to NYC than LA. I knew virtually no one there, had never really had a desire to be there, but it was the furthest point in the continental United States from N.Y., literally and culturally. But coming to L.A. after the phenom that is NYC was harder than I had anticipated. The short version, getting a cup of coffee on the way to work now took 20 minutes while the veritably stoned barista had to slow brew each individual bean, talk about his gig from the previous night to his co-workers and space out for a good 10 minutes before handing over a cup that, although quite good, didn’t warrant the length of time it took to get it.
In Park Slope I could take an easy two-minute walk, that’s if I was lollygagging, to the Connecticut Muffin on the corner. If you did not have your order ready when you walked in, you were not getting coffee that day. It was simple, black, sweet black, or black regular, (with milk). They took care of adding your sugar or cream into the cup. There was no oat milk or soy milk, almond milk or fancy fixins. Don’t even think of asking for a macchiato. They did not have an espresso machine. They made no lattes. Just coffee, pure and simple. And always good. Back across the street to the F train and a 45-minute trip into the city to work. Not so bad, really. I loved my time there. I had good friends, a great apartment, and Prospect Park a short walk from my front door. Why did I feel the need to leave? But I did so urgently and so I went.
I could not settle into L.A. I lived in seven different places in the first year-and-a-half. It was not pleasant or comfortable. I could not handle the slower pace. The constant sunshine. I was ready to leave. I was ready to run back to NYC then. But something shifted when two of my dearest friends arrived a few years into my tenancy. It helped. It made it bearable. I started to enjoy parts of the city I had not let myself enjoy. Six years later I was living in the east valley – if you know anything about L.A., aside from the traffic, you know it is the quintessential example of urban sprawl. Even the simplest of tasks took 20 minutes of driving. But I was more than 20 miles from the ocean and one day that seemed absolutely insane to me. To have been in a place that was a desert surrounded by the beautiful ocean and to be so far from it. I knew it had to change. In the back of my mind I always envisioned I would meet someone with a boat. It only took 12 years!
Life moved, I moved. I got closer to the ocean. I went to a meet-up, dragged a friend, who wore long pants, a parka, and a sunhat. That’s L.A., by the way. People wear shorts to the opera. (Insert Face Palm Emoji here.) The event was hosted by a local sailing school. It was really just a ploy to get you to buy a $7K ticket to a charter in Fiji or Bora Bora. Not my thing.
But while talking to the owner, he mentioned a woman he thought I should meet. She had just completed the Transpacific Yacht Race, Transpac, a single-handed race which transverses the Pacific from San Francisco to Oahu, and amazingly lived in the marina in L.A. He told me her first name, or I caught it. I was so star-struck by the idea, and so I went home and googled her and Transpac and was sent to one of her many artistic-themed websites. I blindly reached out through email and introduced myself. It wasn’t exactly stalking. She graciously offered to chat with me, take me for a sail and then welcomed me to a world of sailing I could have only dreamed of.
That dream started many years ago. It began to imbed in my soul when I was chosen to sing a duet of “Cool Change,” the Little River Band’s late ’70s anthem to finding yourself through connection to the vast sea. I can still sing that song word for word. It got under my skin and reared its lovely head over and over again as I scuttled toward adulthood. That longing finally caught up with me in Los Angeles. Where I could do something about it.
The following year after meeting Captain M, she decided to start a race team and invited me (and others) to join. I was beside myself. By that time I had taken a few of the American Sailing Association’s accredited classes on the basics of sailing. When I got the invitation to race, I took their racing course as well. What I remember most from those fun, in-the-channel-only races was how much we enjoyed we had trash talking the other 22’ foot boat we raced against while learning about wind, current, waves, and how not to accidentally jibe. What I didn’t know about was what the racing community was really like.
Turned out, Captain M called in a full women-only team. Not necessarily for any womens’ rights sort of reason, but that is how it played out. Quickly I learned that our team was unlike any other. The horror stories the other women told of mixed teams where they were belittled and humiliated sounded very unfun. We decided to run our crew in a completely different way – no yelling, no belittling, everyone asking for help as they needed it. Most of us were rookies, a few had been on other people’s teams, but we ended up that first season each doing something we had never done before.
What we did realize, and quickly, was that we absolutely loved it. And that we were very, very competitive. We wanted to win. We had a lot to learn, though, and we knew it. We were humbled by it. We learned the rules of racing better, we figured out who was best in what position – turned out, I could play a jib sheet like a guitar string, another passion of mine. Some made working on the foredeck look easy. And our courageous captain blossomed before us as she learned how to leave her fear and hesitation behind and take tacks and jibes like the pro she was. She could sidle up to another sailboat within inches when she wouldn’t have dared to before. But to win, we had to take risks and there was an unspoken agreement we would do what it took.
My parents retired to Marco Island in Florida 30 years ago. They fell in love with the place the first time they vacationed there. They bought a lot the next vacation and held onto it until they were ready to leave the miserable cold of Rochester. My father took an early retirement from Xerox; he’d hit the jackpot there. But being only 55 (the same age I am now), he wasn’t ready to stop working (though I’d be happy to). They both got jobs in Florida, part time things because they didn’t need to work. I understand how lucky they were, how lucky we were, but they weren’t ready to be idle and neither enjoyed golf or tennis. My dad was an avid runner, my mother enjoyed Judge Judy. But even more, she loved that plot of land at the end of one of the myriad canals in Marco. Loved the house they built with the water-facing side made only of windows. She would sit under the lanai for hours watching the slow ebb and pull of the current in the canal. Enjoy the occasional lost manatee while smoking her True 100s. Those fucking cigarettes. That’s another story.
More than once, but not so often as to be a regular thing, in fact, a very rare occasion that made one wonder what on earth was happening – a dolphin or two would find its way down the canals and to the end of the street, so to speak, cavorting in my parent’s backyard. My mother loved those dolphins. You could go down on their dock and see them close-up and wonder what they were doing there. It was a long swim from the ocean to the end of the canal, but they would show up and act as though they intended the visit.
My mother died after a long double bout of cancer. She’d survived the lung cancer that she’d been diagnosed with a few years earlier. She had a few years in remission. But it’s always the second cancer that shows no mercy. It raged in her taking over every square inch until she quietly muttered, “Enough.”
She wanted no funeral, no obituary, no fuss and bother and no burial. The funeral parlor generously offered a showing to our family and made her look lovely, even though she was to be cremated upon our departure. She was a no-nonsense kind of woman and was likely glad to be done with it all. There would be no fanfare.
The evening we planned to spread my mother’s ashes started out like most every gulf coast Florida night. It was November, so not hot, but warm enough that we all wore tank tops and shorts. In the first years my parents lived in their newly built house, they planted a banyan tree on the property that had grown to be one of the largest on the island, and possibly the entire state. It took over the side lawn burying its branches down into the earth and making them roots. We each took a handful of my mother’s ashes and in turn scattered her remains around the base of that tree, saying our private goodbyes to a woman we all loved in a variety of ways.
As we were finishing, the sky exploded in an ever-changing painting of pinks and oranges and yellows so magnificent I have still never seen a sunset so intense. And without warning, we noticed the splashing in the canal and saw not one or two but a family of dolphins clearly coming to send my mother off to the great beyond with their blessings. We rushed down to the canal’s edge and watched as they jumped and waved their fins, squeaking a final goodbye. They stayed long enough to let us know they had loved her too and would help guide her on her journey.
When I bought my sailboat, a dream I had had for many years, a dream that could not have been possible without the world turning in the crazy ways that it does, there was no better way to honor my mother. Her love for the dolphins was a powerful factor. Since she was Italian, the perfect name became Delfini. I recently sailed Delfini for the first time to Catalina Island, a magical paradise just 30 nautical miles from Los Angeles. I dedicated the trip to my mother, her picture, one my father drew of her in a drawing class he took after her passing, sitting in the middle of the cabin, keeping an eye on things.
Our ride over was a bit rough – but pretty amazing – winds at about 13-15 knots, with gusts hitting 18. For a sailor with a lot of experience, it would have been a great sail. But I’ve only been sailing my own ship for half a year and it was intense. My first mate, a non-sailor, picked it up quickly, but we were overpowered early on and my autopilot, the device that steers the boat itself, stopped working and we had to hand steer the entire six hours.
When we finally arrived in the Isthmus, we were exhausted, but giddy. The beauty of the place is breathtaking and we had just come through a trial by fire to end up there. We had two full days of constant satisfaction. We lived with no plans in mind other than to enjoy what we had accomplished and figure out how to row my motor-less dinghy ashore. Our return trip was not nearly as exciting to begin – there was little wind and so we were forced to motor back most of the way, taking out sails only as we closed in on Marina del Rey.
We had hoped for dolphins on the trip out, to no avail. But on the return trip we were greeted by pod after pod of them, clearly enjoying the good eats the ocean had to provide. We were completely surrounded by dolphins for nearly half the trip. They catapulted past the port side and jumped through the wake of the bow. They came around us and under us and played on for hours. It was the most magical part of the trip. I felt certain my mother had been watching over us the entire time and we poured a drink over the side for her, for Neptune, for all the sea gods and goddesses who kept us safe, tan, and happy on the journey.
It may have started with Herman Melville and his crazy infatuation with Moby Dick. I disgruntledly read that book in high school and then as if some switch was turned on, voraciously in college – taking more than one class in which it was the subject of much of the semester. I fell in love once again with the swelling sea, the meaty words of sailors, the intimacy of friendships at sea. There’ve been others, to be sure. Moitessier, Knox-Johnson, Cottee, James, to name a few. Slocum, of course. These sailors showed me what it could be. From the purely technical, to the wildly imaginative ways they MacGyvered a solution to a problem. To the sheer poetry of it all. They taught me so much about the sea. About what it is to be a part of the greater expanse of our world.
As for the racing, we’d ended that first season in fifth place. By the next, we were first. Then Covid hit and we were sidelined. We’re finally coming back to our races. We were the sitting champions and have been put in a new class with larger and more experienced boats, and we plan to hang on to our title with all our might. But even if we don’t, being on the sea every Wednesday evening with a hundred other boats full of sailors with the same drive, desire, and sense of adventure, is worth all the bruises, exhausted arms and wild hair that comes from a windy sail.
There are moments at sea where I have experienced what must be considered perfect bliss. You stare out over the expanse, the blue rippling water, the white caps of waves turning over before the horizon and see what is. In those moments there is nothing else. There is no desire to be anywhere else. It is you and the sea and this big hulking ship under you that promises to keep you atop the world.
PAULA PAIGE (Insta: #ponaramona) is a sailor and a keto-advocate, and she has now lived in Los Angeles longer than anywhere else, but still considers herself a New Yorker at heart. Music was her first love and she continues to sing for anyone who will listen. She’s excited about the past, present, and especially the future. Like a fine wine, she has moxie and develops complexity as she ages. Which she is doing rapidly.