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Home Education Magazine
November-December 1999 - Columns
Homeschooling Dad - Jellyfish to Starboard - Jeff Kelety
"Jellyfish to starboard," came the cry.
"Crab pots on the port side!"
"Red marker four up ahead!"
"Wow, I can see the bottom! We're not supposed to be able to see the bottom, are we, Dad?"
And so it went as we made our way carefully up the narrow channel that snakes its way between Rat Island and Indian Island then on around the hidden shoals of Kilisut Harbor. I had asked the kids to keep a sharp lookout on the bow during our first official cruise aboard the N?is. It soon became obvious that nothing was going to escape their determined gaze.
In the weeks following our acquisition of the N?is, a small but graceful fifty-year-old wooden sloop, we were fortunate to have had numerous sailing adventures. Most of them were in the company of our new friend and mentor Irwin Adams. A veteran of many years at the helm, Irwin is an able sailor with a gripping handshake, a wry sense of humor and a penchant for unwavering kindness.
In a moment that could only be inspired by equal measures of great heart and raw courage, Irwin had offered to teach our entire family to sail. It was as fine a gesture as I have ever been afforded and I have been extremely grateful for his sage and gentle tutelage. Time and again Irwin sat patiently by the tiller as I fumbled amidships with the N?is' many lines, confusing topping lift with out-haul and reef line with lazy jack. For Deborah, Irwin offered calm reassurance as she slowly but surely began to settle into the routine of releasing and trimming the sheets. During quieter moments Irwin taught the kids how to tie figure-eight knots and douse the sails. Never did his quiet demeanor express anything other than confidence that his charges would soon be firmly in command of the N?is.
On this day, for the first time, we cruised alone, with nothing but our charts and wits to guide us. A summer of reading and practice were behind us. Before of us lay our destination safe moorage in sheltered waters.
Now granted, the portage to Fort Flager on the northern shore of Marrowstone Island would not take us too far afield on this first solo voyage. After all, our home port of Port Townsend still lay plainly in view, rising serenely above the salty mists just across the bay. As such, we were never in any fear of losing our way. Nevertheless, the entrance to this narrow harbor has left not a few boats, large and small, aground. "Mind those markers," Irwin had admonished with some concern in his voice. "If you cheat and cut 'em, you're sure to come up high and dry. And be sure to hit her on a flood tide. Otherwise you'll be battling the currents rounding Rat Island."
The markers Irwin referred to are part of a system of navigational aids that are standardized for all three US Coasts and the Great Lakes. The key to this system is the rule: Red Right Returning. It means simply that sailors are to keep red markers to their right as they return from a larger body of water to a smaller one and green markers to their left. The rule is reversed when heading seaward. Theoretically, sailing directly from one marker to the next while steering to their left or right, respectively, will keep one's craft safely above the ocean floor.
Accompanying these navigational aids is the chart. A chart is like a map, showing the location of all the markers as well as ocean depths and other geographical idiosyncrasies of an area. As it turns out, we had kept a chart of our home waters framed in the kitchen ever since we moved to Port Townsend. It has received only scant notice in all the time it has hung on the wall. But in the days leading up to our inaugural voyage, the whole family at various times began to regard the chart with greater interest.
"What are those numbers all over the chart?" one or the other child would inquire.
"They indicate the water's depth at each point."
"Hmmm. Two feet doesn't sound very deep to me."
"No, it doesn't. But the numbers are in fathoms and there are 6 feet to a fathom."
Silence hung in the air for a moment, while small fingers dipped in succession.
"Oh. Twelve feet. Is that deep enough for the N?is?"
"Yup. She only draws four feet of water".
And off they went seemingly satisfied with this bit of insight.
The lessons in the kitchen confronted us for real now. With our chart carefully folded to reveal just the passage before us, we located each marker on the map along with its ocean-bound counter part.
"There's green number three," a voice rang out before the mast.
"Got it", I shouted from the helm.
"Look out, three crab pots to port!"
Crab pots, the bane of our trip. Tiny ubiquitous red and white floats bobbing barely above the surface, each trailing yards of line that could easily get caught in props or rudders.
"OK, we'll just have to thread between them and the marker. Make sure no lines cross our bow."
Three pairs of able young eyes continued to scan the water. Myles was the first to see bottom and shout it out. We had been careful to set sail on an incoming tide. The kids and I had reviewed the tide tables the day before and saw that low tide was set for 10:02 that morning. High tide was predicted at 5:58 p.m. We had set sail at 2 p.m. This clearly put us on the flood tide, but it was not so late in the day as to catch the tide at its highest point.
"Well, the chart says it's twelve feet at mean low tide. Let's hope it's right," I hollered forward. At this, Deborah looked up with a slightly furrowed brow. Charts are incredibly accurate, but the ocean floor is a dynamic environment, subject to change. So I just shrugged and kept an eye on the bottom as it passed silently beneath our stern.
After a few minutes we could no longer see the harbor floor. Relieved, we headed south to the last marker and our final destination, the broad sixty-foot dock that extended into the harbor off the foot of Fort Flager State Park.
The dock now lay just twenty yards ahead. This should have been the easy part. After all, we had docked the N?is in her home berth many times before this summer. But never, it occurred to me later, had we tried to dock while running with a four-knot current. And certainly never had we tried to come along side a dock populated from one end to the other with dangling crab pots, fishing lines and children taking momentary relief from the summer sun in the cold, fresh waters of the Puget Sound. Nope, absolutely nothing in our summer's reading nor our lessons with Irwin prepared us for the spectacle of a two ton wooden boat bearing down unrelenting upon frolicking families of summer fishermen.
The assemblage of parents and children on the dock met our gaze in silent fascination. But to my dismay, nary a pot was pulled from the water as we approached. Apparently these veterans of the pier knew full well that one approached this dock against the current not with it. Certainly, they must have thought, we weren't going to try to come alongside.
It was the dockside community's incredulity at our plight that averted otherwise sure disaster. Since no one on the dock was making way for us in the least, we were forced to sail on by in an aborted attempt to tie up. It was in that same moment that I came to the realization that I would need to approach the dock from the other direction. Salvaging the situation as best I could, I smiled with feigned confidence to those on shore and asked if anybody would mind sharing a portion of the dock with us.
We came about against the current and this time approached the dock at a gentle, respectable pace. As if to signal their unanimous approval at this proper turn of events, crab pots were hauled up, fishing lines reeled in, and children bustled back to their camp sites marking the end of their day at the dock. By such humbling passages did we arrive safely at our first port of call.
Surely in the annals of sea travel there have been more harrowing and demanding maiden voyages, many that have, at the very least, ventured beyond the sight of home. But for us, for our family, it was an adventure of epic proportions. To sail with the tides, to read and follow a chart, to experience the freedom and wonder of the sea, to dance thus in the ring of life, even for such a brief time, was a lovely thing indeed. We all felt a sense of pride and accomplishment.
Later that week, the exhilaration of our first cruise lived on. As Josh sat beside Irwin on the wooden bench that overlooks the entrance to the harbor, our six-year-old related the story. "We missed all the crab-pots," he began. "And I saw the place where I tipped over in the kayak last summer and we threw pine-cone bombs down the hill." Irwin nodded and listened intently with a broad smile on his face. His students had returned safely to port. That was the most important thing, he thought.
Tides, currents, mathematics, reading, geography, biology, fluid dynamics, astronomy, history. It takes scarcely a moment to peel back the surface of a day's adventuring to see that our simple voyage called out all these disciplines. This is what I love about homeschooling, about the time it affords for family connections and family discovery. It paints this basic truth: that the pursuit of any one discipline is inherently connected to all other disciplines. This is the unity of knowledge, the unity of our universe, and the unity that is meant for our lives. Lead with your heart, lead with passion, the rest will follow. Sailing, drawing, skateboards, drumming, cooking, calculus, physics, they are one in the same, essentially expressions of the heart, not the head. Be dreamers all, father, son, mother, daughter. Happy adventuring.
© 1999, Jeff Kelety
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