A Sunfish sailor in Old Mission Harbor.

A Sunfish sailor in Old Mission Harbor.



Sometimes I think Traverse City must be the capital of small-boat sailing. And among its many other wonderful qualities, September has the best sailing weather of the year.

The winds seem to freshen, for one thing. (And they seem to be a bit more predictable – even in my home port of Old Mission, which is famous around here for its fickle, ever-changing breezes.) The air is undeniably cooler, but the water’s still warm enough for wading and getting splashed.

But I think one of September’s finest qualities is the quality of the light this time of year. The sun is lower in the sky now; it turns the water into a glittering field of diamonds, even at midday, and casts a gentle -- almost regretful – radiance over everything. Because everybody knows that things could change at any moment, that today could be the last good sailing day of the season.

So the other day when I was casting around for something to do, I thought about taking a long hike through the forest or even getting one of the kayaks out to do a little paddling, but I knew there would be time to do those things in the fall (perhaps even in the winter). The wind was rising in the trees, fluttering the leaves that would soon be turning colors and raining down, so how could I pass up the chance to go for a sail?


Gliding over the glitter in East Grand Traverse Bay.

Gliding over the glitter in East Grand Traverse Bay.

It’s not a big boat, my little Sunfish. Some sailors don’t consider it a boat at all, in fact -- more of a glorified paddleboard with a sail, rudder and daggerboard attached. But I love its simplicity, its low price, and the fact that it reduces sailing to its basic form: just you, the wind and the water. When you’re holding the tiller in one hand and your mainsheet in the other, you can feel even the smallest changes in your environment. And if you don’t react appropriately, the consequences are immediate; you learn fast, or you get wet.


For some reason, though, I never seem to remember that where I live, the wind usually stops for an hour or two at midday and takes a siesta before changing direction. It happens to me almost every time, but I never learn. I’m either incurably optimistic or incurably stupid.

So there I was, heading out into the teeth of a strong south wind that heeled me over almost as soon as I jumped in and gave me a great ride as I tacked out of the harbor. The water gurgled merrily under the bow, the daggerboard hummed in its slot, and the little boat felt like it wanted to leap into the air. And for the next half-hour or so that’s now things went.

Until the wind died.

Not just down to a thin breeze, either. It was dead, flat calm. And there I was, out in the middle of the Bay. It was too far to paddle ashore, and there was really nothing to do but sit tight and wait for things to change. I knew they would, of course. I just didn’t know how long it would take. One of these days maybe I should pack a book with me.

Well, a guy can always work on his tan. And I’m reaching the point in my life where a little enforced idleness is starting to look like a good thing. In fact, as I looked around me – at the green hills and bluffs, the smooth blue water and the high September clouds combing themselves across the sky (where there seemed to be plenty of wind, by the way) -- I thought to myself, “There are worse places in the world to be stranded.”

And of course, one starts waxing philosophical in these situations. Because here’s the deal: we spend most of our lives and a huge amount of our resources in an effort to establish and protect our personal autonomy, our independence and our sense of being able to exert some control over our lives – but in the end it’s all an illusion. Here I sit, becalmed in the September of my own life, and I can’t ward off the inevitable approach of its winter any more than I can make the wind blow.

Not that we don’t try. We can work up technological fixes, but they’re temporary at best. (I may pack a paddle next time, though.) We can try to “visualize” a world where the winds do our bidding, but that won’t make it happen.  In the end, it is not the world we must learn to change, but ourselves.

In the end, reality will have its way with us. Our choice is either to make ourselves ridiculous with our defiant Promethean poses or accept that our place in the universe is fairly modest. The fishermen of Brittany (no slouches when it comes to crazy courage) have a traditional prayer. “O God, thy sea is so great, and my boat is so small.”

And it’s not so bad, really. You relax… take time to look around you… try to remember the words to a song that’s lurking on the edge of your memory… watch the gulls doing their acrobatic act in the high September sky… and of course, after an hour or so of enforced idleness, the wind did return. It was a fine wind, too: brisk and cool and headed in just the right direction. Good things come to those who wait, right?