The Beauty of Substitute Stars


I’d been sailing aboard Isla for weeks. She was my first boat, her captain my first sailing instructor. They were a good pair who fit together as naturally as port and starboard.  Both were sturdy, dependable, unpretentious and made for cruising.

We didn’t just sit around,Tom, Isla and I. We cruised from the beginning, undocking and docking at Tom’s equally unpretentious home on Galveston’s Teichman Road. He was an old-fashioned sort who believed boats were meant to go places, and that anyone setting foot on a boat needed to know everything there was to know about getting a vessel from Point A to Point B without running aground, sinking, losing crew or disrespecting the sea and other sailors.   Being able to communicate with Cajun Captains in the ICW and knowing how to tear down an engine were as important to him as being able to program a GPS although, in those days, there were no GPS sets to program. In fact, there were far fewer electronic gadgets of any sort on most pleasure craft and none at all on Isla, unless you counted the VHF radio.

With my old-fashioned captain, I learned old-fashioned sailing. In West Bay I used a hand-bearing compass to plot position and orange peelings to calculate speed. Wending my way around Teichman point and into the Intracoastal Waterway, I learned patience and control waiting for the tender to raise the Railroad Bridge.  Once through Pelican Cut, I put Isla mid-channel by using the range markers or scooted to the edge, away from the steady procession of barges and ships. I was having fun.

Inbound, Bolivar Roads ~ Louis Vest

In Bolivar Roads, the intersection of the Intracoastal and the Houston Ship Channel, I put book learning to the test as I struggled to identify lights and sound signals. We picked our way through the spoil banks edging the channel and I learned the importance of local knowledge.  From my vantage point in the nearby ship’s anchorage, I watched ferries, barges, pilot boats, freighters and fishermen flood across the water.  

Eventually I looked less at ships headed north and more to those headed south, through the jetties, toward that blue water stretching away to the horizon. It wasn’t precisely blue, of course. This is the Texas coast, where near-shore waters are shallow, river-fed, easily churned up and muddy.  Nevertheless, coastal waters are deeper than bays and vessels there are less constrained. You can set out to sail and not turn around. You can go places.

One day I asked Tom, “Can this boat go there?”  “Where?” “There. Through the jetties. Offshore.”  Only the faintest smile crept around his eyes. “You want to give it a try?”  I did. Turning over the possibilities, he said, “We could make a run down to Port O’Connor. That’s long enough to give you a taste of night sailing, but not so long we’d need to commit a whole week.” Amazed by my own daring, I agreed on the spot. Finally laughing aloud as he walked forward to secure a line, Tom called back, “Just remember. They say anyone who goes to sea for pleasure will go to Hell for a pastime.”

S/V Isla ~ Pelican Island, Galveston

Despite his cautionary tone, Tom was willing and so was I, so off we went. Like the Owl and the Pussycat our provisions were minimal but sufficient. Basic navigation tools included charts, hand-bearing and ship’s compasses, binoculars and dividers. We had a copy of the Rules of the Road, a tub of homemade oatmeal cookies and two copies of Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms ~ just in case one went overboard. To keep ourselves from going overboard we had jacklines, and we carried the usual complement of emergency flares and life jackets.  We had sunglasses and foul weather gear, sunscreen and gloves. We had extra line and sail patches, a bag filled with tools, an assortment of shackles and a 55 gallon drum lashed to the mast. The barrel was filled with sealed and secured containers of extra fuel. Only later did we discover the barrel would be as useful as the gas.

Leaving Galveston astern, we worked our way south and west, down the Intracoastal to Freeport. We ate dinner in a local marina, talking over the weather and the evening’s plan. When we cast off our lines, making our way through the jetties and out to sea, it was an hour before sunset. The skies were clear, the winds moderate but steady and the seas running 2-3 feet.   There’d been some talk of a possible frontal passage, but its arrival was projected to be farther down the road.  By then we would have arrived at our destination and, since we planned to come back via the ICW, even rough weather wouldn’t be much of a concern.

 Intracoastal Waterway, Freeport, Texas ~ George Hosek

Years later on other passages I’d have the chance to discover how cloudy nights in mid-ocean can be claustrophobically dark.  Coastal cruising in Texas waters is quite different.  Even without a moon or stars, the night is alive with lights. In season, the shrimp fleet plies its trade. In every season container ships and tankers blink and glow along the edges of the safety fairway, their patterns of red, green and white light reminding nervous sailors: “I’m here. I’m big. I might be headed your way.”  Red lights on shore-bound radio towers make terrific landmarks for those closer to the coast, and always there are the rigs and platforms, handy if unintentional aids to navigation. 

When their lights go out, smaller platforms can be dangerous. They crouch unnoticed in the dark until something – a low hum, the sound of slapping waves, the cry of a startled bird – alerts the sailor to their presence. But the big platforms, the ones that seem to wade in the water like  bizarre, technological bathing beauties with skirts pulled up above their knees ~ those are the ones that offer comfort and guidance to sailors making their way across horizonless waters.

Offshore Oil Platforms at Sunset

Around midnight, before going below to sleep, Tom said, “Think of the rigs as substitute stars.  Use them with the compass to help hold your course.  In the grand scheme of things they may not be as dependable as stars, but they’re nearly so.  They don’t just disappear. If you can’t see the stars you know they’re covered by clouds.  If you can’t see a rig you’ve been watching, there’s a reason.  Maybe you went off course, but maybe there’s a ship between you and the rig. You’d want to know about that.”

With that bit of cheerful advice he disappeared, and I was alone with the sea.  A little taut, a little nervous, I watched the stars, the compass and my chosen platforms until my nervousness disappeared and so, one by one, did the platforms. Certain I was about to slam us into the side of something belonging to Maersk or Hapag-Lloyd, I nearly panicked until, one by one, the rigs reappeared. 

For the next hour rigs twinkled like fireflies, disappearing and reappearing apparently at random. When an unbearably chipper Tom popped back on deck to see how things were going, all I could say was, “I’m not sure…”  Listening to me babble, he said, “Well, let’s take a look.”  A minute later he began to chuckle. “C’mere”, he said. “Let me take the helm and you turn around and look behind us.”

In my anxiety about the disappearing rigs and my eagerness to steer a perfect course, I’d missed something. Not only had the wind come up, it had come up substantially. We were running dead downwind ahead of a frontal passage that had decided to show up early. The seas had built and we were the ones who were disappearing and reappearing again:  down into the troughs, then up to the crest of the continually building waves.  The rigs hadn’t moved an inch. At the bottom of the troughs, the rigs were “gone”. At the top of the waves, they were visible. I’d never been surrounded by so much water, or been so relieved. I wasn’t going crazy or blind. I was sailing the ocean, and my substitute stars were aligned.

As the sun rose behind us, the effect of the frontal passage and the rising winds was clear.  Waters that had been relatively smooth, with regular waves and easy swells, had grown lumpy and confused.  We’d traveled  faster than we’d anticipated, and Port O’Connor lay behind us. On the other hand, we’d held a good course and were perfectly situated to turn into Port Aransas.  As we turned across the wind and waves toward land, the wet and wild ride was as exhilarating as anything I’d ever experienced.

Passing Cavallo – Offshore, Port O’Connor, Texas

Standing at the mast, I heard Tom shout, “Climb up on that barrel and see if you can see land.”  Hoisting myself up by a mast step, I clambered onto the barrel and scanned the horizon. Shimmering and low, a collection of beige squares floated above the horizon.  Squinting a little, I made out a thin, reddish line above them.  “Roofs,” I thought. “Tile roofs. It’s Port Aransas!”  Nearly beside myself with excitement, I shouted, “Condo, Ho!”  Apparently puzzled, not certain what he’d heard, Tom yelled back, “WHAT?”  “Condo, Ho!”  “Well, good grief,” he said. “I’ve never heard that one before.”

In what seemed no more than an instant we were at the entrance buoy for Port Aransas.  As we made our way through a new set of jetties, tired, slightly giddy and already talking about where we’d find showers and fresh seafood for dinner, we decided to circle around for a water-side look at the old Lydia Ann lighthouse.

“You know”, Tom said, “that light doesn’t mark the channel entrance any more, but it’s still working.”  The lights of the towers, the stars and the steady, dependable platforms that had guided us through the night flashed across my mind.  “That’s good,” I said.  “We need all the light we can get.”

Port Aransas Lighthouse ~ Lydia Ann Channel


Comments are welcome ~ to leave a comment, please click below.  Special thanks to Louis Vest, OneEighteen on Flickr, for permission to use his photo of the inbound “New Alliance”. His Photostream can be found here.

17 thoughts on “The Beauty of Substitute Stars

  1. In life, what is our substitute stars if God is our guidance?


    Perhaps we can think about it like this… According to the Bible, God gave us the sun, the moon and the stars, setting them in the sky for our benefit and use, But sometimes, the moon is dark, and the stars can’t be seen. Then, there are other gifts from God we can use: substitute “stars” like the rigs and platforms.

    Of course, I’m writing here only about sailing the ocean, not sailing through life. In that bigger context, your question is important. What does guide our life? How to we learn to identify “the bright and morning star”? Are there any substitutes that can be used when life is dark? Everyone has to answer those questions for themselves, but no one could have asked a more important question!

    Thanks so much for stopping by. You’re always welcome!


  2. We have one of those oil islands off our coast, and I’m just so used to seeing it that I don’t really see it anymore. I never really gave any thought to how it could warn a sailor that they were getting close to shore (it’s 1.5 miles off the coast).

    I do liken your story to a time I swam in our one mile Rough Water Swim. I’ve done it twice – the first time the ocean was like glass – just as smooth as can be. The 2nd time I did it, the ocean was rough. My husband was a paddler for me (on a surfboard paddling close by), and I would stop and look up – trying to see the buoys that marked our route, but I could never quite see them. So I’d ask him, “Am I going the right way?” and my more important question, “Am I last?”

    The answer was yes to the first and no to the second!


    We never really used the platforms to indicate distance from shore – most of ours are farther out, for one thing. But they’re terrific for double-checking position. There are wonderful little things called block and rig charts – all of those “oil islands” have names and numbers, and you can find them on maps. (You can find a list of some of them here: Now there are GPS coordinates for them too, of course, but when I began sailing we had nothing more than a rolled chart with a grid and numbers. It came in handy more than once. If you aren’t sure you’ve plotted your position correctly you can sail up to a rig, get its number, find it on the chart and know exactly where you are.

    They help in steering compass courses, too. It’s difficult to do using only the compass – some folks have a real feel for it, but most don’t. If you set your compass course and then also sight on a rig, a star, and so on, you’ll steer a steadier course.

    I’ll bet you’re glad you weren’t scheduled for a rough water swim in your latest round of waves! That’s a terrific analogy, though. And I love the questions. Tomorrow’s the Houston marathon – every year there’s a reporter whose name I can’t remember who interviews the next-to-last finisher. Not the first, and not the last – the NEXT to last. Some of those interviews have been really interesting. I’ll try to find one.

    Thanks for stopping by and giving me a new phrase – oil island. I’ve never heard that before ;-)


  3. What a great story! I’ve never sailed, and as much as it appeals to me, I would have been scared stiff in these circumstances, at least until I re-discovered the focal point!

    I loved the ending sentences here…
    The lights of the towers, the stars and the steady, dependable platforms that had guided us through the night flashed across my mind. “That’s good,” I said. ”We need all the light we can get.”

    Sometimes it’s the steady, dependable platforms that provide the most important guiding lights.

    Thanks for this :)


    I’ve laughed about that trip many times. During the trip itself, I nervous, but not scared. A couple of years later, with more experience and a clearer knowledge of how many things can go wrong, thinking about it would terrify me. And then, as my competence grew, it went back to being just one more trip in my memory, not at all frightening in its details.

    And you’re right about those platforms. Before I started sailing, they were nothing more than unattractive hunks of technology that marred the view of the horizon. Once I got to know them, their lights were as comforting as a child’s nightlight – tiny in the darkness, but dependable.

    I’m really glad you enjoyed it!


  4. It was a complete surprise that you were down in the valleys of the waves! How frightening. It’s a perfect example of how when you’re learning the ropes of anything complicated, you can get focused one aspect and miss the rest. After a while “at the ropes” it becomes second nature to pay attention to each of the features of the scene. Then whatever presents itself – even something new – you are ready because you’ve had something like that before.

    It’s like our plumber friend Lar said to Don when he was helping in our old house, “Don, you could do all this.” But Don said, “Yeah, but I haven’t. It’s your years of experience that tell you what tool to use and what to try.”


    I’m smiling so at the story of Don and Lar. Many times over the past years someone has said to me, “If I came down and spent a day or two working with you, would you teach me to varnish?” I’m always happy to give advice and demonstrate techniques, but some things can’t be communicated directly. Every artist develops a “feel” for what’s right, what works – even plumbers and varnishers. Doing the same thing, under different conditions and with different variables, is the only way to develop that feel.

    It’s the same with sailing, of course. After being with a boat for a time, you start to know her – the movement, the sounds, the quirks. I’ve slept through a near gale, but been awakened by a single drip, or a slight change in the sound of a pump. It’s not unlike a relationship. First you fall in love with a boat, and then you spend years getting to know her. Eventually the storms arrive or you find yourself in shoal water and then that knowledge is critical.

    I’m glad I surprised you!


  5. When I first started working on the Gulf on a supply boat we called the block charts “Coon Ass LORAN”. The LORANs we had on board in ’77 were of the earliest kind. They didn’t give you a Lat/Lon reading. Rather they were TD (Time Differential) lines and even these weren’t in numeric form. You had to match up two squiggly lines on a screen to get a reading.

    Not only was that difficult to do, it was beyond the comprehension of the average Coon Ass Skipper. So, if there was any doubt as to where we were, we’d just find a wellhead, write down the number as we passed and look it up on the block chart.


    I’ve seen those old LORANS that used TD lines. When I started learning the system in ’87, it was Lat/Lon. My awareness of LORAN does go back to the seventies, though. I used to stay in a hostel in an area of Monrovia called Paynesville, where both the Omega and LORAN towers were situated. I didn’t have a clue what the systems were about, except that they were used for navigation.

    Interesting that I just noticed last week the end of LORAN has come. It’ll be officially terminated February 8. I can’t say I’ll really miss it, as I haven’t used it in years. But it was part of those early sailing days, and I’m a sentimental sort. I wonder if there will be any LORAN-C termination parties?!


  6. Oh, I was surprised–and frightened!–by the revelation that you had been in and out of the wave-troughs all that time (no, I am no sailor; and yes, I still have nightmares about The Perfect Storm movie). Your adventure reminds me of a time I was driving a particularly nasty stretch of interstate highway, steep and twisty through the Poconos, in a fog so dense I couldn’t see the lines on the side of the road. But I could see the tail lights of the eighteen-wheeler in front of me, and I followed that trucker until the weather cleared. Don’t know if he knew he was “towing” a little car behind him. So I imagine those big oil rigs to be like that, and now am grateful for them. Thank you.

    Also, how does one calculate speed using orange peels?

    Dear ds,

    You may now remove all images of the Perfect Storm from your mind – at least as far as I’m concerned! I’ve been in heavy weather, but nothing like that. And remember Karen’s comment above about swimming and trying to see the buoys. The closer to the surface of the water you are, the harder it is to see things around you. The waves and troughs in this story were hilly country road, not State Fair roller coaster ;-)

    One interesting side note about the movie The Perfect Storm. The sailboat named “Mistral” in the movie actually is “Satori”. She was a good, stout boat and survived the storm. (If you search for “Satori” and “Perfect Storm”, you can pull up a good bit on information, including videos.) Satori’s had at least three owners since that storm, but she lives at Portofino Harbor here in Clear Lake now – just across the marina fairway from a boat I’m currently working on. I’ll take my camera to work with me this week and get a photo for you. A good boat’s a lot tougher than most people, when you get right down to it.

    As for that orange peel business – I laughed and laughed when I saw your question! I wondered who would pick up on that – I always can count on you to be my careful, curious reader.

    One of the first things I learned was the absolutely basic speed/time/distance formula. If you know two values, you can calculate the third. So, let’s assume a 36′ long boat. That’s one value. Now, have someone drop something that floats – like an orange peel – from the bow. Have a second person, standing at the stern, click a stopwatch the moment the peel hits the water. When the stern passes the orange peel, click the stopwatch again. Say it took 30 seconds for the full length of the boat to pass the orange
    peel. There’s the second value. Do the math, and you have the speed of the boat.

    Now granted, it’s not going to be precise, but it’s a great way to have some fun teaching the formula to someone with math anxiety. I learned more algebra and geometry during my first three months sailing than I did in my entire school career. The only thing I learned in college math was to play bridge ;-)

    More about that fog business below, in my response to Oldsalt. I like fog, but experiences like yours leave me a nervous wreck. The analogy between those tail lights and the platforms is apt.

    It’s always such a pleasure to have you drop by – I hope your year’s begun on a crest and not in a trough!


  7. Comment on ds’s contribution…

    I lived a great deal of my life in areas with lots of fog, and coastal Louisiana is one of them. That area catches it in the Fall and Spring because of the temperature changes sweeping across the water and wet swamps. I won’t go into the explanation of how fog occurs but as someone who has spent the better part of their life on boats I can tell you that heavy weather with high winds and seas are a piece of cake to operating in a heavy fog. THAT’S scary.

    As a child I grew up on Cape Cod, another place where pea soup isn’t just a delicious meal served in a steamy bowl. I’ll never forget the time my mom was driving us back from a trip to Boston late one night. We hit the fog around Hyannis, about 30 miles from home. You could barely see the end of the hood of the car. The way she made it back to the house was to open her door and watch the white line in the middle of the road as we crept along. It took a LOOOONG time to make it but we got there.


    I can feel you creeping along from here. Your mom was resourceful. I love fog if I’m in a nice secure place, watching it roll in. Driving in it is far worse, not to mention being out on the water. The only weather that ever kept Isla at her dock was fog.

    I started sailing in the summer, and it wasn’t a problem But around November 1, as soon as the horns started sounding on the channel markers, I learned about reciprocal courses. It was amazing how quickly fog could roll over the bay, and life was a whole lot easier if you’d been paying attention to your course. There aren’t any white lines or tail lights to follow out there.

    As a whole lot of Texas sailors used to say, Oat Willie’s famous “Onward Through the Fog” doesn’t necessarily apply on the water!


  8. Now I understand why the tide of relativism is so devastating to someone who has the experience of navigation. We do need an absolute to mark our course and align our direction. Your sailing experience is valuable indeed, Linda. I’ve never expected offshore oil rigs can be described in such poetic language… and I’ve seen quite a few of them being in oil-rich Alberta, albeit on land, not at sea.


    Well, as one who’s run aground a time or ten, I can attest to the importance of absolutes! Those channel markers are there for a reason ;-)

    On the other hand, things aren’t necessarily as they seem. A good storm like Ike can rearrange depths almost at will. Barges can push a marker into the wrong spot. A chart can be out of date and not show things as they are. The possibilities are endless. That’s one reason good sailors do their own navigation. DS made a good decision to follow that 18-wheeler. She could be almost 100 percent certain he knew where he was going and would stick to the road. Decide to follow another boat, assuming they know where they’re going, and you can find yourself in a heap of trouble.
    Been there and done that, too. But only once ;-)

    On the other hand, there’s another saying I absolutely love: “If you ain’t been aground, you ain’t been anywhere!”


  9. The first thing I thought of while reading this, Linda, was that I need to show this to Astrid. She was a sailor in her past life and could teach a thing or two about it. The island Texel north of us here in Holland is one of her famous stomping grounds…with the allure of the sea all around. As I read your response to Ruth’s comment, I suddenly saw your hands and saw Astrid’s. I bet the two of you would be two peas in a pod. :)


    The images I found of Texel were just luscious! Windmills, water, a wonderful shoreline and – sheep! That sheep you added to Shutterchance – was that a Texel sheep, by any chance? It certainly looks like one.

    Astrid a sailor and a woodworker? Hmmmm…. I wonder what we’d find to talk about! It never really had occurred to me how many similarities there are between sailing and varnishing, once you get below surface differences. Interesting.

    I’d never taken a look at the Netherlands in cruising terms. When I hear “North Sea” I think oil platforms (!) and bad weather. I saw that chain of islands on the map, stretching off to the NE – I suspect Texel’s there. More exploration, later.

    You must be unpacked now, and perhaps even free of the shipping containers and such. A good week to you!


  10. What a wonderful read. I could feel myself there with you in the dark, feeling our way and praying that we weren’t off course or about to hit something!

    Hehehehe… When you said, “We picked our way through the spoil banks edging the channel and I learned the importance of local knowledge.”, I had a sudden flashback to Mark Twain, describing his apprenticeship as a riverboat pilot in his book, ‘Life on the Mississippi’. If you have a copy, re-read the chapter, ‘A Cub Pilot’s Experience’.

    Mr. Bixby: “My boy, you must get a little memorandum-book; and ever time I tell you a thing, put it down right away. There’s only one way to be a pilot and that is to get this entire river down by heart. You have to know it just like A B C.”

    I’d read in Thor Hyerdahl’s tale about Kon Tiki about dropping things over the side and timing them to calculate a craft’s speed. As you said, you can use anything that floats but I don’t think Thor used orange peels!


    The man whose photo, “Inbound, Bolivar Roads”, was used in the post is a Houston Pilot. His Flickr photostream is just wonderful, because he provides some real commentary along with the photos. A recent photo included this bit of explanation:

    A lot of piloting is local knowledge. We don’t just use the official buoys and don’t always run down the middle of the channel. There are a lot of local landmarks that get used in ways not related to their original purpose. In this case the inbound ship has passed just above the Jesse Jones Bridge (BW8) and steadied up on the reach to Green’s Bayou. There’s a prominent red light on that course that the old guys showed me when I was an apprentice. That’s what most everyone still steers by, 24 years later. See the comments for a different view of the red light.

    Be sure and look at the photo of the “mark” he provides in the first comment – it’s just a hoot, and it’s somewhat amazing it’s still there after all these years! It’s amazing how quickly you can orient yourself with a few of those landmarks around.

    I love that an account of calculating speed by “toss and time” shows up in Kon Tiki, too. Sailing is sailing is sailing – I suspect that’s part of its appeal, and most of the reason that even sailors who’ve never met before never will run out of things to talk about.

    I’m so glad you enjoyed the story!


  11. I really enjoyed this, thinking as I read it that it might be the first chapter in your book… you know, the one you are going to write, someday.

    Reading the posts, I picked up on the ones from ds and Oldsalt about the fog. I have never been at sea in fog, and certainly never been in a little boat, just large ferries.

    The account from ds reminded me of a return journey I made to college in the late 60’s. Boyfriend at the time said he would take me the 50 miles, to save my dad doing it. We set off with stars guiding our way, but before we were half way there fog from the hills rolled in. It became so dense we had to drive along the middle of the road, boyfriend watching the centre cats’eyes, and I watching for on-coming traffic. I had to shout “car” the second I saw on coming lights, and he would move smartly back to his own side of the road. The journey was endless, the fog enveloping all senses, and even though we had the car heater on, it chilled to the bone. We did make it unscathed, even though we came upon several vehicles doing the same as we were, travelling down the centre of the cats’eyes, and heading straight for us!

    Today, with better fog lights and sat-nav showing the bends and curves in the road, the journey may not have been so scary… but then again, it might!

    I have just one question:- as you finished your trip in the wrong port, could you still return via the ICW, or did the return journey mean more open sea?


    Hmmmm…. books. Yes, I’ve heard about those… Like everyone, I suppose, I have a couple of titles knocking around in the files, but feel no compulsion to do anything with them yet. :-)

    OldSalt started thinking a bit more about fog himself, and has a terrific post about it today. There’s a quotation from Ray Bradbury that stopped me in my tracks and made me think, “I want to DO THAT!” You’d really enjoy reading it.

    I used to drive a stretch of road – Texas 35 – back and forth from Galveston Bay to Victoria, and always very early in the morning or late at night. It was given to fog, and it was scary as could be. Sometimes it could be extraordinarily beautiful, too, if there was a full moon and not too much ground fog. But it still wasn’t any fun to drive.

    We were able to stay in the ICW on the way home. It runs all the way to Brownsville, so we could have picked it up in a couple of other places farther south ~ Port Manfield, affectionately known as Port Manana, or Port Isabel. I’ve made a little map you can find here. The red star on the right is Galveston. The blue star is Port O’Connor and the yellow Port Aransas. The green line is the trip down, through the ICW to Freeport and then out into the Gulf. The red line shows the intracoastal on the way home. Of course this is the roughest approximation possible – but it gives you an idea of the route.

    Thanks for the question – I learned a couple of things making the map!


  12. There’s a corollary, Linda, to your comment “If you ain’t been aground, you ain’t been anywhere!”

    A young reporter was interviewing an old waterman one day and made the comment, “I bet you know every rock, boulder and sandbar around here.”

    “Nope,” the old man replied, “but I know where they AREN’T.”


    Wonderful! And there we have two sides of a particular sailing coin. “If you ain’t been aground…” is a nice word of reassurance for folks who are terrified of leaving the slip because “something might happen”, while “I know where they aren’t…” is a wonderful testament to a lifetime on the water.


  13. Your substitute stars (what a great name!) remind me of how Madeleine L’Engle would say we always need a point of reference. She would use telephone poles; when you’re in the train, she’d say, you can’t tell if you’re moving or standing still sometimes. So, the telephone poles, and the ‘swoop’ of the wire in between can tell you.

    I guess we don’t have telephone poles around much anymore. I guess I could get lost easily even when the stars are visible. But, it’s good to have a point of reference. It’s good to have someone like Tom who can help point things out like that.


    One of the marvels of Madeleine L’Engle’s writing is how beautifully applicable it is across life. This is a perfect example. I used to watch those wires “swooping” when I’d travel in the car as a child. It just now strikes me – do wires swoop now, anywhere? Around here they’re nice and taut, and might not give much sense of movement at all.

    Tom is a terrific guy who still makes his living on the water. My essay on the first lesson he taught me was broadcast on Houston NPR. You can find the text and broadcast of that here.


  14. Linda,
    What an adventure and how wonderfully you’ve told it. I can see you hoisting yourself up and clambering onto the barrel.

    Tom sounds like quite a reliable guy. I’ve only been in boats with those who know their secrets, and have great respect for the sea. I’m familiar with the kind of guy Tom is. There’s nothing better than someone who thoroughly knows what he’s about.

    I have to ask about the orange peels. Splain please. Do you drop them at the bow and time them to the stern? I know I should know this.


    You DO know about the orange peels – you’re exactly right about what we called “tossing and timing”. Ds was curious about it too – here’s what I wrote for her:

    “…One of the first things I learned was the absolutely basic speed/time/distance formula. If you know two values, you can calculate the third. So, let’s assume a 36′ long boat. That’s one value. Now, have someone drop something that floats – like an orange peel – from the bow. Have a second person, standing at the stern, click a stopwatch the moment the peel hits the water. When the stern passes the orange peel, click the stopwatch again. Say it took 30 seconds for the full length of the boat to pass the orange
    peel. There’s the second value. Do the math, and you have the speed of the boat.

    Now granted, it’s not going to be precise, but it’s a great way to have some fun teaching the formula to someone with math anxiety. I learned more algebra and geometry during my first three months sailing than I did in my entire school career. The only thing I learned in college math was to play bridge…”

    Tom was reliable – not to mention experienced and knowledgeable. I thought about your dad and his compatriots when I was writing this. I’ve no doubt they would get along just fine on a boat ~ or on land, for that matter.

    On the other hand, Tom ruined me forever for a certain kind of boater. I just pulled this from my scrapbook. You may get a smile from it ;-)


  15. Linda,

    I hear the joy and excitement in your words as you retell your story. It is easy to imagine being in the boat with you, to feel the roll of the stirred up sea and the wind and salt spray on my skin.

    How grand that you should have such a fine “old-fashioned” teacher as Tom. He sounds so grounded for one who believes boats are made to go places.

    And best of all — orange peels, oatmeal cookies and Dire Straits — what more could one want for a fine high tea on the high sea?


    We did have a lot of fun on that boat. Eventually I started sailing and then teaching sailing on a Morgan 38′, but that catamaran was custom made for cruising Texas bays.

    You do have to guard your cookies carefully, though. Tied up at Matagorda Island’s Army Hole once, we lost our Pepperidge Farm stash to a gang of marauding raccoons. I’m sure they had a fine tea that day!


  16. Thanks for the lesson Linda and the link to the cartoon. Very funny.


    Not everyone in the world would think that cartoon hilarious, but I had a feeling you’d like it ;-)


  17. You know, when you write about the sea, it just carries me away. What a gift.


    I’m so glad you feel that way. After all, that’s what the sea is supposed to do ~ carry us away.

    When I was on my way from Hawaii to Alaska, I listened again and again to Enya’s Orinoco Flow. When I listen to it now, I truly can feel the movement of the boat through the waves. That’s the magic of music, and the magic of words.


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