Sailing into the mystic realm of names

My mother always hated sailing, or indeed anything involving bodies of water larger than a bath. She claimed it was the result of a near-drowning as a child, but I’m not so sure of that. I think she just hated sailing, period.

My father, on the other hand, loved sailing. When they first met, his pride and joy was a sailboat named Samovar, apparently because it sailed like a tea-kettle. I think that meant it sailed badly, but he didn’t care, he just loved that boat and sailed it at every opportunity.

For a few years after they married, he continued to sail, but, faced with her flat refusal to set foot on board, or to allow any of their children set foot on board, he finally surrendered and gave up his beloved boat.

In one of those cosmic ironies that fate likes to throw our way, my current husband is an avid sailor. (Actually, he’s my only husband, but I like to keep him on his toes.) Since I married him ten years ago, we spend most weekends of the summer “messing about in boats,” as Water Rat said to Mole in The Wind in the Willows, and our annual vacations have been spent touring Lake Ontario under sail.

Shades of my mother, it transpires that I am no sailor. In fact I don’t really like it very much. I have no doubt that, if I pressed hard enough, he would probably give up sailing, just as my father did. But I reckon things could be much worse. I could have married a golfer, someone who would spend every weekend of the summer on the golf course. Worse still, he could have expected me to join him there!

So, given the alternatives, I tolerate the hours of boredom and minutes of terror that cruising on our boat means to me. At least it allows me to catch up on my reading every vacation, not to mention my sleep. In between those times, that is, when a sudden squall blows up out of nowhere and it’s all hands on deck to bring down the sails and scuttle into port.

Last year, in an effort to make the whole experience a little more enjoyable for me – not to mention him – we decided to buy a larger boat. The logic was that a larger boat would sail better, but I think I got baffled by the proverbial bulls–t on that one.

To make a long story short – and believe me it was a l-o-n-g story! – after trawling every website on the internet and visiting what seemed like every boatyard in Ontario, we eventually settled on a traditional CS36, which means it was built by the now-defunct Canadian Sailcraft, and it’s 36ft long. Even I had to admit that it had swan-like lines, although I did draw the line at comparing it to a magnificent stallion, which was how my husband saw it. Ironic, really, since he, like every other sailor on the Lake, insists on referring to boats in the female gender.

What to name our new treasure was a problem. Sailors are generally superstitious about changing boat names, but there was no disagreeing that we just did not like its (sorry, her) current moniker. I flatly refused to go along with some of his more fanciful ideas, like Wind Song, or Love’s Dream, or maybe I made up that last one. So, it was decided that I should name the boat, so long as it wasn’t too “weird.” Weird? Moi?

To cut yet another long story short, (I think I’m channelling the Ancient Mariner here), it was no go. Try as I would, I could not come up with a name we both liked, and so we continued to sail under the despised name for the rest of the season.

The boat came out of the water earlier than usual that year, so that we could visit Ireland in late September and catch up with old friends and family. My family, that is, since I’m the Irish one – which may explain the “weird” comment (see above.) While there, we took the opportunity to see some of the countryside, touring by car around the scenic South-West.

As we left the village of Dingle in Kerry, my husband pointed out a sign in Gaelic on the outskirts of the town, and asked me what it meant. “SLÁN ABHAILE,” I told him, “means SAFE HOME.” Then we looked at each other and both said, “That’s our new boat name!” And so it was.

Slán Abhaile raised eyebrows in yacht clubs and marinas from Hamilton to Picton, which was as far as we sailed this year, generating the same two questions every time: “What does it mean?” and “How do you pronounce it?” Since my husband still can’t pronounce it – that’s Slawn Awolya, Darling – I found myself drawn into conversations with far more people than usual on our trips. Not that good for the reading, but I’ve met some pretty interesting people, I have to say.

And I’ve discovered that at least 99% of the women on boats – or as their husbands coyly refer to them, the First Mates – like sailing just as much as I do. Most of them also hate golfing, which is why they were out there on Lake Ontario, catching up with their reading, sleeping, or knitting.

In between those minutes of terror, that is.

Published in Facts & Arguments, Globe and Mail, January 2004

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