I can still remember the first time my parents let me take the Hobie Sunfish out on my own. Well, with my little sister along for the ride as my mate. Or, as she might recall the experience, my guinea pig.
Sure, Grandpa had a ski boat and took us for rides from his lake house in northern New Jersey all the time, and yes, he’d let us kids head out as far as our little arms could paddle in the canoe, but being given the all-clear to hoist that Sunfish’s sails and let the wind carry us beyond sight of his dock was an entirely new level of freedom. We had no VHF radio. Not even a walkie-talkie. We had our bathing suits, our wits and whatever skills we’d gleaned while riding with Grandpa aboard the bigger Hobie catamaran that sat next to the Sunfish on his dock.
With the tiller in my hand, I steered that little Sunfish northbound along the lake’s eastern shore. We made it past the community clubhouse and were closing in on the north shore when a monster gust caught our sail. The sailboat heeled, and I let out the sail to slow us down and regain our balance, lest my little sister, now knuckle-white from gripping the cockpit ledge, fall overboard. As it turns out, I’d overcorrected; our bow was now pointing directly at the eastern shore. I tightened the sail again, to regain some momentum, but I couldn’t make the turn fast enough. I, the mighty captain, sailed that little boat straight into the land (into a weeping willow tree, to be exact.)
The very kind people who owned that tree, and the lakeside house behind it, helped set us kids straight and get our bow pointed back toward the middle of the lake. It took my sister and me a few more hours to get back home, tacking and making our way while our mother watched from the dock through binoculars. She tells us she wasn’t worried. She had the ski boat to come get us if we got ourselves into serious trouble. Otherwise, she wanted us girls to learn the confidence to get out of our own messes, and to find our way back home on our own.
Many of my cousins came to Grandpa’s lake house, too, and today, a number of them go boating regularly along the Florida coast. They’re among the 11.9 million people—about 14 percent of those who look to buy boats as adults—that the Grow Boating initiative calls “nautical natives.” You know, the folks who grew up like I did, on and around the water, who can recall spending time on boats with their families and friends, and who have boating so deeply ingrained in their DNA that it’s hard for them to imagine life without being aboard a boat of some kind, at least some of the time.
Other people buy boats too, obviously; Grow Boating defines them as everything from “gear guys” who just plain think the engines are cool to “seclusion seekers” who are trying to cast off lines and leave civilization in their wake.
Me? I write about boats for a living now, so I get to cruise aboard everything from today’s Hobie sailboats to superyachts so big that they wouldn’t even fit on that lake where I grew up boating. I’ll never admit to which boats I like the best. All I can say is that I know, deep in my bones, that my life would not be the same without them all.