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The Sound and the Silence

(I wrote this some years ago. I dust it off now because the Malabar X has got my sailing juices flowing again, and because ... well, just because I like the piece.)

By Charlie Haeffner

“Can I go on it, Dad? Huh? Can I?”

“Okay with me,” I said, “but we gotta ask Mike. And David ...”


“You gotta go with me.”

“Awwww, I can handle it alone. Really I can. No sweat.”

“No way,” I said. “We ask Mike. If he says yes, then we’ll go out.”

We were at a party at Keuka Lake -- a half-hour to the west of our Odessa home --
thrown by my boss, Mike Gossie. For some of the party-goers, the chief attraction was a
speedboat and the attendant water-skiing and inner-tube riding. For others, it was the
Gossie jet ski.

That last was the focus of my teen-aged son’s fervent wishes -- something he’d long
wanted to experience.

Grumbling at the restriction, he asked Mike, got permission, and we headed out onto
the choppy waters of Keuka -- me driving at first, then trading off with David out on the

When we retruned to shore, David shepherding the vessel in, he was clearly of the
opinion that the ride had just been a warmup.

“Can I go out alone?” he asked. “It’s easy to drive.”

He had handled himself well on our ride, so I no longer had serious -- middling, yes,
but not serious -- reservations. It wasn’t my craft, though.

“Check with Mike,” I said.

“Yes!” he responded, and went in search of our host.

Minutes later, with Mike’s blessing, David was out on Keuka alone, powering the
vehicle over and through the waves, in his glory.

I watched from the Gossie dock, still harboring -- despite myself -- a bit of parental
concern. But even as I worried, one part of my brain was veering away from the sound of
the jet ski, away from David’s thrill-seeking, away from the sound of the power boats that
he was carefully avoiding as they passed by. That part of my brain was seeking a solitude.
Solitude. That’s what was missing.

Solitude ... peace and quiet.

Everything out there was so loud.


My thoughts turned inward, turned backward, swam against the tide of noise.

There was something ... something I had once loved, something about the water,
something that was quiet ... that offered solitude.

What was it ...

A vessel of another kind.

Of course.

No engine, no jets, no noise to speak of. An inherent beauty in its silence.

The sailboat.

Hmmmm. None out here on Keuka, I thought, scanning the horizon. Very few on
Seneca, either, nearer our home. Cayuga had more, I knew, but I rarely got over there ...
over to Ithaca.

Sad, really, I decided. Sailboats used to mean so much more in my life; used to reflect
the times in which I lived, the world in which I moved.

Ah, sailboats ...


The year was 1966.

It was a scorching hot summer, hotter than the drought year of ’88, hotter than the
notably uncomfortable ’95. The temperatures along Lake 27 in northern Michigan, where
my family had a cabin, were way beyond scorching. Perhaps memory is playing tricks, but
I remember a couple of days when the thermometer hit 122.

We couldn’t move. It hurt too much.

Our sailboat -- a small model, a Sunfish -- sat anchored in the still water offshore,
waiting, as my brother and I were, for a breeze. For days it didn’t come.

Then, one night, it did. And carried through into morning. It gave some relief, yes --
nighttime temperatures dipped to the 80s, daytime to the 90s -- but above all it meant we
could sail. By the time my brother and I had rousted ourselves from bed that morning and
realized the favorable change, though, we had already been stymied -- not by the weather,
but by a horrible accident.

Across the waters of the lake lay a camp -- a Catholic boys’ camp. And on that
morning, while we slept, one of the young priests at the camp had decided to go sailing; he
went out alone. Somewhere near our cabin, not more than 100 feet directly offshore, his
boat capsized and he went underwater.

Nobody saw it happen, but the camp officials, alarmed when he did not return, soon
had police on the scene, and scuba divers were searching for the poor fellow.

That was the sight that greeted us when we set foot outside that day, on the way to
our Sunfish: a police boat, divers, the priest’s small Sailfish sailing craft -- now righted --
and a megaphone through which a deputy announced to us that all use of the water was
suspended until they could determine what had happened to the priest. His fate, though,
seemed reasonably certain.

And so it was. The diving continued for hours, the breeze gradually dying, until late
afternoon. We sat most of the time on the small wooden dock protruding from our
shoreline, watching, waiting, fascinated and full of dread.

Then ... a diver popped up and motioned to the deputies in the boat.

They motioned back, and within minutes the divers and deputies were lifting the
lifeless body of the priest up and into the patrol boat.

The deputies said nothing to us, merely nodded gravely as they started their engine
and turned in the direction of the boys’ camp.

The lake by then was becalmed, but it didn’t matter. We wouldn’t have budged for
any amount of wind. We just kept sitting on the dock, looking out over the water,
pondering the vicissitudes of life ... and wondering.


The year was 1968.

A girl visiting relatives across Lake 27 swung by our cabin on a Sailfish twice, giving
my brother -- two years my senior -- the proverbial eye.

On a third pass, despite her evident sailing abilities, she flipped the boat over a few
yards from our dock. Struggling mightily, she tried to right the craft (not too difficult,
really), but just couldn’t manage it.

My brother watched from where he was sunning, bathing-suit clad, on a chaise lounge
on shore. I wasn’t sure whether he was amused or entranced. Then, without a word, he
rose, walked to the water, strode in and swam out to help her.

Moments later, the craft righted, he invited her in for a drink. I watched all of this
from a hammock near the cabin, shaking my head at the lengths and convolutions to which
people will go in pursuit of something or somebody.

As they passed me on the way to the cabin door, the girl looked my way and, reading
something disapproving in my eyes, stuck out her tongue at me.

I never did learn to like her, nor she me.

Not through all their months together.


The year was 1970.

The idea first arose at a college party with a little too much beer.

If I were hip, I would say now that reefers were behind it; but in truth, neither I nor
my friends were into any drugs beyond alcohol.

But the image somehow retains a marijuana-like haze.

Probably, if my friends and I had pursued our idea, it would have ended badly.
But it seemed so promising, so peaceful, so intrinsically meaningful in a world gone
awry with Vietnam and the draft. It was so ... innocent.

We decided, that night, to live on a sailboat after graduation. Sailboats were all the
rage then, reflective of the philosophy of that era’s youth -- war-weary, looking for
alternatives, embracing Zero Population Growth, seeking something ... preferably
something quiet.

Sailboats possessed an earnestness that was inherent in the growing environmental
consciousness; they offered no waterway pollution, no noise pollution. They provided
absolutely no encouragement for those oil-rich sheiks or those filthy-rich oil companies.

We were ready that night -- and for a few weeks afterward -- to disavow most of our
worldly goods, pool our financial resources (which meant, in my case, borrow from Mom
and Dad) and purchase a seaworthy schooner that could carry us wherever we wanted to

We would rise above the Eve of Destruction, above the din of despair that our
misguided elders were creating with Vietman and materialism.

There were four of us (two couples) plus an infant, so we would need sleeping room
for seven on our boat -- allowing for expansion of the group through recruitment or

That would mean a ship of some 40 feet, we figured -- not of course, knowing how to
figure at all. Nor did we have a clue as to the cost of such a vessel. (It turned out the rule
of thumb back then was $1,000 per foot.)

I recall the initial conversation vaguely. The words have not carried across the years
crisply, but their basic message has:

“We will, of course, need jobs of some kind,” I said.

“We can get them at the various ports of call,” said the other male, Richard, a lanky
Michiganian of imposing intellectual powers. When he spoke, I tended to listen.

“The girls,” he added, nodding in the direction of his wife and my then-wife, “can
teach. We can do manual labor as we go. And you can write. No sweat.”


No sweat.

The words brought me back to Keuka -- my son’s words as he had lobbied to ride the
jet ski. He was still out there, cutting north, south, east and only occasionally west, toward
the dock. Too close might give Dad a chance to wave him in.

No sweat.

Of course, a dream beyond one’s means is all sweat, and generally quite impossible.
That was the case with the grand plan to sail the world.

My friends and I talked about it from time to time as graduation neared, as though we
were still on track to do it, but our college careers ended and we drifted apart, cast by the
winds of whim in different directions geographically, professionally and, I suspect,

We kept sporadic contact afterward, but the dream died aborning.

I managed several sailing trips in succeeding years -- weekend and weeklong jaunts
around Lake Ontario on somebody else’s boat -- but eventually the water and I parted
ways. I no longer frequented the lakes -- became a landlubber -- and settled into an
existence devoid of booms and sails and tillers and rudders and sheets and anchors. I was
anchored to the land.

But now, decades later, watching the waters of Keuka and a boy on a jet ski, the
memories of the sailboats in my life rode in on the currents, washed over me, and blessed
me with something of the feel -- the sense -- of how it used to be.

There, on the shores of Keuka, I could recall ... smell, inhale ... the essence of sailing
-- how it was composed of cooling breezes on a hot day, and of death, and of a young
woman’s mating call, and of dreams leading nowhere.


“Hey, Dad!”

David was cruising in now, slowly approaching the dock, his face alight with the joy
of the speed and the power and the noise and the slap of the waves and the spray in his

I smiled at him.

“Can I stay out a little longer?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said, figuring -- hoping -- Mike wouldn’t mind. “You’re doing great.”

“Man, we gotta get one of these,” he said, and he opened the throttle, turned and
took off again.

Ah, dreams, I thought. Maybe they’re more the province of the young. Maybe that’s
the natural way.

But that ride I had taken with David was pretty impressive. Not quiet, for sure. But

Maybe dreams die, I reasoned ... but that doesn’t mean that their more reasonably
attainable country cousins -- goals -- have to.

Maybe getting one of these vehicles wouldn’t be out of the realm of reason, I told
myself, even at $5,000 or so. Maybe it was a worthwhile goal.

Maybe, I thought, I could convince my wife that it was a good idea, a good

Maybe David could work on her, too.

Maybe ... maybe I could check in with my Mom -- widowed and living in
Florida -- about a loan.

She was near the water, could smell the salt spray as it carried in from the Gulf of

She likes the water, I told myself.

Maybe she’d listen.


After all ... I never had hit her up for the 40-foot sailboat.



Check out the features below


Memories of Life near Steam Mill Road

A former resident of the Odessa area, Betty Appleton -- now of Australia -- recalls life years ago off Steam Mill Road, outside the village. Features.


A look back: A day of herbs and politics

Back in May 2000, Watkins Glen was visited by a Senate hopeful just weeks after his opponent, the First Lady of America, campaigned among us. Here is an essay started then and presented now -- about Rick Lazio and Hillary Clinton in Schuyler. Features.


Local prose: The Wave

One of our area residents, Bob Brown of Montour Falls, provides a lovely essay on a traditional walk and a traditional wave. See Wave.


Chased by a madman

When you hit the road for vacation, you aren't always assured of smooth sailing. Herewith a tale of terror on the highway -- as it really happened. Features.


© The Odessa File 2005
Charles Haeffner
P.O. Box 365
Odessa, New York 14869