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Sail Away


Andrea is hanging by her fingertips, barely clutching the edge of the sailboat. She is hanging vertically in the air, nothing below her but the cold blue Columbia River. The wind has come up wildly and we have foundered. Our mast is dangerously close to skimming the water but it is Andrea I watch. My sister and I were millimeters away from the same predicament, but somehow we managed to lunge, grab, and brace our feet before the perpendicular launch. We too, hang over the choppy water, but backwards, leaning, throwing all our weight to right the sailboat and keep Andrea on board.

There is shouting and it is the men who are arguing with the captain about what should be done. The boat careens and dips and Andrea has her footing again, but she has no time to take a breather as we lunge for the opposite side, ducking under the swiping boom. The sailboat flails. Now it is upright but out of control.

Clinging, we watch as the mast once again dips toward the water. We broach and our hearts stop. The two men, experienced sailors, now a mutinied crew, spring into action, shouting orders to us. We suddenly are busy ants under attack, scrambling all over the vessel, each with a desperate task to untangle rigging, man the winches, and get us under sail again before we succumb to wind and tide. The spinnaker, torn and half dragging in the water, is pulled in. One of the guys climbs the mast to cut and splice a line, the wind whipping at him as we pitch and roll. At the winches, my sister and I grapple and turn. Our hands, even though protected with gloves are banged up. Everyone is wet, an ankle is turned, shins are scraped and bruised.

All this takes only a few minutes, but it seems longer. I didn't see my life pass before me, but time did stretch out where every detail moved in slow motion. Miraculously, we are all whole. And not adrift, nor dishonorably under power, nor overboard bobbing in the Columbia.

We are in a sailboat race in Astoria and it appears that we have lost. We were in the lead, meters ahead of the others, when we took our turn around buoy 8 and the ill-calculated decision was made to use the spinnaker just as the wind increased. Warnings were declared, but the spinnaker was new and the captain wanted to see it in its full glory. We got to see about 15 seconds of that glory. A glimpse, and it was beautiful, the rainbow colors billowing – now a soaked torn mess stuffed out of the way below decks.

Under sail again, as if nothing ever happened, we stream beneath the magnificent spans of the Megler-Astoria bridge linking Oregon to Washington, and sheepishly catch up to the other sailors.

"Great spinnaker!" "What a show!" we hear from the heckling crews on the other sailboats.

At the Wet Dog Cafe later we are teased and chastised and offer no excuses, no blame. We are chagrined but stoic. We drink beer and eat fish & chips.

This is my first sailing venture in Oregon, but the sailboat racing on the Columbia is my sister's weekly outing. Not, however, with this particular captain. I think she may decline crewing on that particular vessel again. We weren't exactly scared, but we were rather exhilarated. Luckily, my sister and I are not afraid of water, nor unfamiliar with boats or the adventure that ocean, lakes or rivers may bring. However, if this had been a first experience I might find it difficult to venture back on the water in a lifetime.

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