Fourth of July weekend, all the family gathered at Grandpa’s cottage on Harsens Island in Little Muscamoot Bay. The cousins caught fish off the seawall while the uncles grilled burgers and the aunts sunbathed. There wasn’t a cloud that dared form and the water was a cool escape from the heat. It was the perfect day to celebrate American Independence and to spend some quality time with family from out of town.
The water at the seawall was only a foot and a half deep, and the bay was just deep enough for my dad’s red 1973 Catalina 22 to sit 20 meters out, glowing like a ruby under the hot summer sun. I had spent weeks resurrecting her from the back yard where she’d slept for the past two years, home to racoons and varmints. On the driveway, I scrubbed the mold off her and refinished the wood. Today would be my first time taking her out for a proper cruise.
I waited all day for the wind to pick up with hopes of sailing into Big Muscamoot Bay past the lighthouses and into Lake St. Clair, where the bigger boats play. When the willow leaves began to flutter ever so slightly, I made a sandwich, grabbed an FM radio, and held both above my head as I waded through waist-deep water out to the boat.
Aboard and free at last, I fidgeted with the taped antenna and turned up Detroit’s classic rock station and raised the sails, ready to conquer the day. With the anchor up and the sails flying, I quickly found I had overestimated the wind’s strength as the boat side slipped into the phragmite. “No worries,” I thought as I lowered the outboard and motored further out, “the wind will be better farther out in the lake.”
A half-hour passed to the hum of the 5-horsepower outboard splashing in and out of the water, harmonizing with the waves. The wind had dwindled to complete stagnation and I decided to cut the sailing expedition short. Still, it was nice to sit on the bay and rock with the waves. I dropped anchor for an hour and then headed back in, figuring I’d detour up the canal behind the cottage, to grab some things from my car. But as I rounded the corner from the bay into the canal towards my car, the boat abruptly stopped before jerking forward, and in that instant, I thought I’d left the swing keel down and run aground. Then the mast crashed down into the cockpit, landing inches from me. The powerlines I had hit ripped from the neighbor’s house and shot sparks across their lawn and into the water. A middle-aged man then came storming out of the house, screaming every profane word there is, as the siding on his house went up in flames. I sat petrified watching his entire family joined in to beat the flames with towels and fill buckets with water from the canal. The fire department arrived shortly afterward to disable the dangling powerlines. Luckily, no one was hurt, but the relationship between the neighbors has never been the same.
My dad used the old pontoon boat to tow the wounded Catalina to the swamp behind the cottage, where she sat for the rest of the summer. Her stays were broken, her mast collapsed, and her mainsail torn. Guilt and embarrassment brewed in my stomach like leftover Coney Island. For the rest of the weekend, I felt something like the amplified sorrow of having stepped on the family pet’s tail. Worse, that old cheap daysailer was my only escape from society, my only freedom. Subject to jokes I thought would never end, my one uncle pulled me aside to say, “Don’t worry kid, I sailed my boat into powerlines when I was your age too, lit the whole damn neighborhood on fire.”
And he was right, his point being that we live and learn as sailors and there is always next year to sail again.