Sailing Lesson: A Love Letter in Eleven Parts


There is no question that we are alike this way: we appreciate comfortable silences. We are two introverts, still learning each other, and we are going away for one night on your sailboat.

You’re not so sure about your sailboat motor anymore. Like you, it’s over 40 and doesn’t like to admit it’s always sore in the mornings. You run it for only 20 minutes at a time now, just to be safe. And your depth finder—damn it, the new one—is malfunctioning.

You don’t understand it. And you don’t understand why I am still on the dock when you are in the boat, motoring backwards. A look of mild exasperation crosses your face, but you hold your tongue. I have nudged the Belafonte out of her slip with you at the wheel, but already she has gotten away from me. My legs are not as long as yours; I cannot come aboard without risking falling. I fear this would spoil our first nautical overnight: my skull crushed in indigo ice water between the hull of the boat and the dock. So I wait. You return to the slip for me. As I clamber aboard—chastened—a man, with no horse in this race, expertly frees us from the dock. Godspeed.

As you navigate out of the marina and into the channel, I silently plot a bolder course. Later, I will tell you what I understand completely: the perfect heat of your hand on mine, the curve of your lower back, the morning I opened my eyes and found you smiling as if you’d just come home.


Everyone who knows you is amazed: You let me drive your Dodge Ram, your Kubota tractor, and the Belafonte. This is the hat trick, the love trifecta. We are going steady.

We sail north on Lake Superior through a sprinkling of islands, the Apostles. At the helm, I strain to see the telltales—bright ribbons on the sails that show wind direction. The green plume is flying up and out, but the red is drooping.

The green—he’s happy, I say.

I turn slightly starboard, into the wind. The red ribbon lifts, flying parallel to the green.

Look, she’s happy too, I tell you.

You smile that smile, my favorite telltale of all. You ask how I know which is a he and which is a she. I tell you I just know. Sometimes, I just do.

Trimming the jenny

You are very proud of your Genoa sail—the jenny, you say, they also call it a jenny—and its smooth-talking, no-nonsense rolling furler. I envy this blithe jenny, silkily rising to take its rightful place in the summer sun. It’s so unlike your Jenny, who often twists and tangles, coming and going, wrestling with her thoughts.

The jenny catches wind as you tighten the sheet. I feel it lift. We fly.

Now you trim the mainsail of the Belafonte with your usual shatterproof concentration. You are not one for idle chatter, and neither am I. I sneak glimpses of your extraordinary face and stay the course, as you call it.

A little to port, you say. We fell off a bit. See that clearing on the island? Aim for that.

Trim: It is a tidy, can-do word that suits you. You are a trimmer by nature. The mainsail, the jib, your daughter’s pixie fringe, your firstborn’s cowlick, the green backyard with its grass regulation soccer height.

You’re pinching again, you tell me, which means I’ve fallen off the wind. The sails are fluttering, unsure. Pinching: this is a new term for me. I consider pinching you, then pinching myself. How did I get here, onto a rust-orange sailboat on Lake Superior, with all that is you?

I squint at the wind indicator whirring at the top of the mast, trying to figure out how to get the wind back into your sails. I think: I will always try to coax the wind back into your sails if you let me. You’d do it yourself, I know. You don’t need me. But I have a few tricks that just might interest you, from time to time.

The sound of your voice

That’s Hermit Island. See the dark blue strip of water up ahead? That means wind.

You will happily talk if there’s good reason. You love explaining what you love. Not why you love it, but how it works. The sun laps at my sweat while I drink you in. I lean in to the sound of your voice, buffeted by the wind.

I feared how much I might love the sound of your voice, which is why I waited for your very first call to go to voicemail, then pressed you tight to my ear, refusing my daughters’ pleas for speakerphone. I had to hear who you were on my own, alone. Gentle tenor, the Wisconsin thick on your tongue, the soft, shy hammock sway of your sentences: I chose to welcome the fall.

life float sunset | Sailing Lesson | Jennifer Mattern


You teach me another sailing term: luffing, the act of sailing a ship nearer to the wind, the point when the sails begin to flap. I am a luffer, not a fighter, and the Belafonte likes me, I can tell. I feel like I am steering myself. She handles like I do: she is quiet when working and is touchingly eager to please.

Clouds and sailboats and ferries glide past on the edge of the planet. The wheel feels good beneath my hand; the rudder puts up no fuss: smooth sailing.

Good job, you tell me, looking pleased. You sit for a spell—the highest compliment—and scan the water with something approaching contentment while your last mate stays at the wheel.

I study your serious profile again as you wiggle your omnipresent baseball cap and yank it lower, shading your eyes. You catch me looking and smile, suddenly shy.

A time will come when I will no longer fear failing in front of you, sailor. I am still learning to trust that you will love me despite my mistakes, my melancholy, and my need to disappear from time to time. I cannot always find the words right when I need them, or they tumble out all at once, at the wrong time. I am still hoping that I will not capsize from carrying too much sail and catching too much wind. I am still afraid of getting too close to our vanishing angle: the maximum degree of heel after which a vessel becomes unable to return to an upright position.

If I were a boat

You chose the Belafonte, so perhaps it makes sense that you chose me.

After all, she too is sturdy, of 1970s vintage, good with kids, appreciative of sensitive handling, and prone to oversteering, and she benefits from small, frequent corrections.

I promise you these three things: I will heel hard from time to time, but I will keep you safe. I will never tack or jibe without fair warning. I will never, ever strike you in the head with the boom.


It’s late afternoon when the motor dies without warning—that is to say, without a grumble first. (The motor might well argue that it has given you plenty of warning, short of texting or telegrams.)

York Island, our planned destination for the night, is just visible off the port side of the bow. Now, sitting dead in the water, we realize we won’t be making it there. We are becalmed, a perfectly lovely word for unable to move due to lack of wind.

You pore over worn paper maps and depth charts. You point out our options as we wait for some wind to kick up. Oak Island is a good bet for the night’s anchorage with its gentle crescent shoreline facing west. It is the tallest of the Apostles and beloved by bears. You scan my face, worried I will be disappointed. You listen intently to my voice for any clue that we should press on to York.

Oak Island is perfect, I say.

sunset water | Sailing Lesson | Jennifer Mattern


Despite very little wind, no motor, and no depth finder, we make our way to the waters just off Oak Island. At first, you are not sure the anchor will hold, but it does.

We eat rice and beans and diced tomatoes in the white-dotted red tin bowls I bought for you near the marina. You liked the red, you said. The sun is setting still, but you climb into the dim cabin to wash the dishes, protesting that they will get crusty.

Come up here, I plead from deck. The sun’s not finished with you yet.

You oblige me and come up top with a thin comforter. We wrap ourselves in it, defending against flies, mosquitoes, and the approaching evening chill. We watch in peaceful silence as the western sky goes from glaring blue to molten orange to ripe peach to rose quartz. Clouds become pastel streaks of lavender gray. Curtain call for the sun, no encore, and still the show goes on.

You tell me you have never done this, have never watched the sun drop below the horizon. How can it be that you, beautiful you, have never watched an entire sunset, from start to twilight? I have, but not once has it ever been like this.

We talk a little, hushed, as if the waves are listening. You fret that you are not enough, that the old prophecies will come to pass, that you don’t have it in you. You fear that your heart is stiff and finite like the musty walk-through fiberglass heart I used to explore as a child at the science museum near Rocky’s steps.

You can’t ask me to love you less than I do is what I say. I won’t do that.

Then I tell you that I will make a box and fill it with all the words you think your heart can’t yet fit. And that you can decide someday whether you are ready to open the box.

Now you’re going to make me cry, you say. Which is how I know your heart can stretch to hold this lake—if you let it.


The stars and the fireflies come out of hiding at the same time, vying for our willing attention. Later, the full moon ascends over Oak Island. Your slow grin in the shock of moonlight tells me that the red wine from your sister did not hurt.

A man in motion tends to stay in motion. This is the longest, sleep excepted, that I have ever seen you at rest.

Look at the water, you say suddenly. I gasp. I’ve never seen a lake mirror the constellations overhead.

I like our swaps, our easy give-and-take, no one keeping score. I’ll tell you all the sunset’s secrets if you coax the stars to come spend the night on the water with us from time to time.

I like everything about this picture: We are alone at night on a sailboat with a busted motor on the mightiest lake in the world. Our phones hear nothing. No one knows exactly where or who we are. My coordinates? The crook of your arm and your lips at the nape of my neck.


We wake up with no children, no dogs, and one thin blanket. Hot tea, instant oatmeal, and the boat radio’s weather forecast are served. You weigh anchor; I weigh this new love of ours. On the way home the wind is drunk. One minute we are scudding along, the next we are adrift. The weather forecast is not dire, but it is still less than ideal. Thunderstorms possible. We are giving the motor the silent treatment, which it likes. We’re hoping to ration its mercy and coax it to life in time to navigate the marina. We tack—zigzagging to chase whatever breeze we can—over and over.

I know what my lesson is, I say.

You are more than happy to hear it.

See, I say, and you thought I just bossed everybody else around.

Sailing lesson

Do not panic when tacking leads you away from your desired trajectory. Your destination is still there, waving you home, even when it slips momentarily out of sight.

—for ML