Ann Lee Miller earned a BA in creative writing from Ashland (Ohio) University and writes full-time in Phoenix, Arizona, but left her heart in Florida, where she grew up on a sailboat. She loves speaking to young adults and guest lectures on writing at several Arizona colleges. Over 100,000 copies of her debut novel, Kicking Eternity, have been downloaded from Amazon. She blogs memoir at AnnLeeMiller.com. Here is a memoir article about growing up on a sailboat.
Hurricane Laurie gusted across the Gulf of Mexico, 105 mile-an-hour winds gunned for the Glades and south Florida. It was October 27, 1969, and my family barreled across Biscayne Bay under full sail, heading for a Hurricane Hole to wait out the storm.
I planted my eleven-year-old self on the foredeck, scanning the distant shoreline for a gap that might be our cove. .
I was not afraid. Dad would keep us safe.
But his tension bled into me.
Sailing was supposed to soothe, but even under clear skies, Dad stressed.
He could have taken a lesson from the hippies he admired. They rattled around Coconut Grove in beater Volkswagen vans, on bikes or on foot—wafting Patchouli oil, incense, and I-don’t-care in their wake. They didn’t care about jobs, haircuts, or monogamy. They ingested bean sprouts by the pound, brownies when they got the munchies. The women burned their bras.
I glanced back at the cockpit.
At the helm, Dad stood ram-rod in his crew cut. Mom posed at his side, her nurse’s uniform tented to symmetrical cones by a sturdy bra. They were a hip American Gothic portrait of monogamy.
We were coming up fast on a buoy. I shouted to Dad and pointed.
Dad levered the tiller hard to starboard, and the boat swerved and came about. He yelled, “What color is the damn buoy?” the second I remembered he was colorblind.
“Red!” Mom shouted.
He angled the boat into the wind and we drifted past the buoy.
Dad raised his voice over the flapping of the sails. “Annie, check our depth!”
I scrambled over the main cabin, readying for the thud of our keel hitting bottom.
Rigging clanged against the aluminum mast.
My fingers closed around the depth-sounder, a long mop handle with notches carved at one-foot intervals.
Patches of sand blinked through the seaweed below us, but we still floated.
Dad angled us back into the channel.
The sails filled.
I let the pole roll from my fingers, releasing a breath I didn’t know I’d been holding.
My five-year-old brother crouched in the corner of the cockpit, wide-eyed. These were the best days of his life, he’d tell me later.
Dad white-knuckled the tiller, his calming yoga work-outs not paying off. He’d lift his body off the dock with his hands and levitate his legs front or spread right and left. He did handstands while we kids counted the seconds. He sat Indian style with both heels up—like a hippie doing Transcendental Meditation.
I think Dad secretly wanted to be a hippie. But everyone knew flower children were young. Dad had rounded forty and was riding a Boston Whaler full-throttle toward forty-five.
But no hippie would coat his kids’ noses, cheeks, and shoulders in zinc oxide twenty-four-seven—when the rest of the world was frying itself in Johnson’s Baby Oil. Hippie dads wouldn’t make their kids check in every hour. They wouldn’t saddle their offspring with chores like painting a stretch of deck or stacking lumber in the aft cabin.
A hippie dad would be too stoned to make his kid read aloud Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop and phonetically sound out all the fifty-gallon words.
My stomach growled as my eyes swept across the seawall looking for an opening. I wondered if there was anything to eat on board that hadn’t lived in the bay. The beansprouts Dad grew in the cupboard didn’t count.
He ground conch in a hand-cranked meat grinder into chowder and fritters that had to be chewed twenty-five times and tasted like rubber hose. Clams were dug at low tide. We scooped shrimp—when they ran—in nets from the dock. Dad gigged, cast-netted, spear-fished our food. Once in a while he poached a Florida ‘lobster’ by reaching into a crawfish hole, ripping off its tail, and stuffing it into his trunks. He never got caught.
Dad hollered for me to take down the foresail.
While I worked, my brother manned the tiller, Dad downed the mizzen sail, and Mom—binoculars to her eyes— yelled, “There’s the inlet!”
Relief flooded through me, and the wind gentled as we closed in on the shore.
I needed to think about something other than food.
JIM: That’s all we have room for today. But, Ann will finish the article next week, so be sure and come back. In the meantime, you can view her book Kicking Eternity by clicking here.