In August 1964, my family took a four-day vacation to San Diego. I remember not wanting to get out of the motel swimming pool, being overwhelmed at the enormity of the San Diego Zoo, and treasuring the pearl necklace which was my birthday souvenir from Sea World. I also remember my dad looking at the sailboats out on Mission Bay, saying, “That looks like fun. Come on, kids, let’s go sailing.”
So with the four of us in tow, he walked up to the boat rental stand. Asked if he knew how to sail, he nodded yes, and the young man staffing the boat rentals handed him a pencil and pushed a sailing test towards him. He looked at my dad’s answers, and then walked down the ramp to usher us into one of the boats. We piled in, and pushed off.
We meandered along and it was fun enough. But pretty soon it seemed we were at a standstill, in what sailors call “irons.” My dad started trying all kinds of maneuvers, getting visibly frustrated. At one point, he actually said he didn’t know what to do next.
“Uh, Daddy,” I said, “I thought you knew how to sail.” “I’ve never been sailing before,” he said amid swinging the boom around. Even at 8 years old, I knew better than to pursue this line of conversation at that moment.
Eventually we picked up enough air to limp our way back to the dock. Like I said, the outing had been fun enough, and yet I was glad enough for it to be over. I probably wouldn’t have remembered any of this but for two reasons. The first is this photo which my dad took of us in that sailboat, which he really liked. Bob, on the left, was a few months shy of 7, Alan on the other side of me was 4 and John on the far right had turned 2 that June. What curled Bing’s hair about this photo is that none of us were wearing life jackets. Bob and I could swim pretty decently at this point, but Alan was just learning. My mom didn’t let John in the motel pool but here he is in the boat. Cars also didn’t have seat belts then; it was a different time.
The second reason was the conversation I had with my dad later on the trip. In as casual a way I could manage, I asked him, “So if you didn’t know how to sail, how did you pass that test?” I have never forgotten his answer. He said, “It was just physics. If you think about it, you can figure out anything.”
If you think about it, you can figure out anything. I suppose this might sound as if it smacks of arrogance, but I took it then, and take it now, more as the mantra of the problem-solving mind. He who blew through crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and Rubric’s cubes for fun, figured out engineering and science problems at work. With everything, he did what Richard Bushman calls “laying your mind” on an issue to untangle it.
Knowing what I now know about sailing, it was a good thing nothing went wrong, though, that still summer day. About 40 years later, I was in the vicinity, Coronado Bay, in a boat again, this time on a chase boat watching Akemi practice with the Alamitos Bay Yacht Club junior racing team before the start of Sabot Nationals. It was wonderful to watch the concentration on the faces of the sabot sailors as they tacked on the whistle like corps de ballet dancers, their sails snapping and then catching the wind with full sail. Now they knew what they were doing. Sailing is three-dimensional chess with the elements, a thinking man’s sport.
Thanks to some generous hospitality this past Saturday, Akemi and I got in one sailing day for the summer. Our skipper described the wind as too light for any challenge, but the weather otherwise couldn’t have been more pleasant. First mate Akemi had the chance to brush up some sailing technique, while my job mostly was to help with innocuous tasks, stay out of the way during the real action, and relax in the sea breeze in the security of highly competent hands. And admire the inspiration and example of problem-solving minds, while I laid my mind on a few issues of my own.