Across the Line

September 27, 2008

By Katlyn Putney, St. Thomas More High School

I remember the day perfectly. I had just come home from a quick morning sail on the Gulf of Mexico. On my yellow Laser Radial, I had sailed from Fort Meyers Beach over to the bridge that goes across to Sanibel Island. My 15-year-old body handled the seven-knot winds easily. The sky was a bright blue and the sunshine beat down on my tan arms and legs. My wet and salty shoulder-length brown hair cooled my head in the heat. I even saw a few dolphins swimming under the bridge. It was the perfect day.

Once I stepped inside, my father called me over to his worktable in the garage.

“Hi, Dad! What’s up?” I asked.

“I’ve got some exciting news, Lizzie,” he replied. “I’ve decided to enter a race from Fort Meyers to Auckland.”

“Dad, Auckland is in New Zealand.”

“I know. The race starts next June. I have 11 months to prepare.”

That was 10 months, three weeks, and four days ago. I’m not going to lie, for the first nine months I was extremely excited. Sailing was life for my dad and me. This race was a dream come true. I was so thrilled to see my dad do something this great.

But as soon as month 10 came around, I got a little nervous. We had just started packing up the boat, when I found the life raft.

“Hey, Dad, what is this?” I asked cautiously as I came across the box-like package.

“That would be a life raft. Right now it is in its dormant shape, but once I pull that yellow string on the side, it will inflate to be a little raft,” he answered.

“Are you going to need it?”

“Maybe. As I get south of Cape Town, the weather gets cold and the winds get rough. Accidents always seem to happen there,” he said nonchalantly. “Let’s go to lunch,” he added as he got off the boat.

I just stood there. I had never thought about how dangerous this could be. A vision of my dad floating in the middle of the ocean on a pool raft ran across my mind. Suddenly I didn’t want him to go. I had climbed up the ladder and onto the foredeck. The sun was shining so brightly that I had to shield my eyes. I remember imagining my dad having to do the same thing before a huge rogue wave swept over his beautiful boat. The thought of it made me shudder.

My dad leaves two days from now. Since that day with the life raft, I haven’t been helping as much. He had to recruit my brother Brian and my mom to help. I feel bad, but I just can’t stand the thought of him not crossing that finish line.

As I lie in bed, I think about the dangers he will face. Even if he wears a lifejacket and has the best safety equipment in the world, he could still get hurt or lost. I have been sailing my whole life, and even on 12-foot boats I have gotten hurt. Once last summer I hit my head and got a concussion. How is my dad going to handle a 50-foot boat by himself? There will be no one out there to save him.

When morning comes, I am the first one up. I check the weather, a habit I developed over sailing season, and decide to go for a quick sail. I write a short note telling my mom where I will be. As I ride my bike down to the docks, I suddenly realize how beautiful it is outside. The sun has just risen, leaving streaks of pink along the blue sky. Seagulls and pelicans fly through the air like they have never flown before, and as if the only thing left in this world is to fly. The water is calm and quiet, but once every few seconds the breeze picks up and little ripples form on the surface. I think of my dad and how he would wake up to the same sunrise halfway around the world. While I rig my Laser, I realize something. My dad has been sailing for over 30 years. He knows the wind and his boat like the back of his hand. The knowledge he has and the technology of his boat will keep him safe.

I know it sounds stupid, but as I sail I pretend that I am my dad. I imagine that I am racing his race, and that my little yellow Laser is his magnificent sailboat. I hike the boat flat like I never have before, trim like I am actually in a race. The back of my yellow lifejacket skims the waves as I hike parallel to the water. My blue board shorts slide down and reveal part of my pink bikini as I continue the lean out and hike. I use a set of shallow water markers as my finish line and a biker in the distant sidewalk across the channel as my competitor. I pretend that the brown pelicans on the beach in front of me are my family, and all I have to do to be with them is cross that finish line. I zone in and slowly begin pulling ahead of the biker. I sail between the two markers and head home.

Now I am at the docks with my dad. The gun goes off in one hour. We check and re-check everything on the entire boat. We run the lines and make sure nothing is twisted or frayed. Everything has to be in its exact place. My dad needs to be able to find something in a blink of an eye, maybe faster. I am still nervous about seeing him go, but after my sail yesterday something inside me knows everything will be all right. I still won’t go near the life raft, though. I’ve read stories about people having to use them and it scares me. I know how vicious the winds near Cape Town can be.

It’s 25 minutes until the gun goes off. Time for my dad to leave. He unties the bow line, stern line, and the spring line. All of his sponsors are here, giving him care packages filled with fun things to do during calm days. Before his boat even leaves the dock, my dad hands me an envelope.

“Don’t open this until I cross the starting line,” he says, “and don’t lose it either. You’ll need it when I finish.”

I can’t speak because I know that if I open my mouth I will start bawling. I nod my head, smile, and push the boat off the dock.

One minute until the gun goes off. My family and I are on a spectator boat, watching the five opponents battle for the best spots on the line. The sun is out; the wind is good and steady. My dad’s boat is flying, clearly the fastest boat out there. Her snow-white hull shines in the glistening sunlight. As my dad sails past, I see the biggest grin planted on his face. He is having the time of his life. In the background I hear a loudspeaker announcing the action to the watchers on land.

Thirty seconds until the gun goes off. My dad sails around the pin end and starts heading back toward the race committee boat. I see exactly what he is doing, and what I predict is true. A perfect hole in the line opens up, big enough only for him. He moves in and luffs, wasting time and protecting his spot. I laugh out loud because it is so perfect.

Ten seconds. The line gets crowded.

Five seconds. I laugh again because my dad is building up speed.

Four seconds. Three. Two. One. BANG.

The gun goes off and Dad is already a boat-length ahead of everyone else. I can already tell that this race will be a good one. As I watch him sail away, I remember the envelope. I open it and look inside. Inside are three plane tickets to Auckland, secured together with a paper clip. There is no date on them, so I can only assume that they are for the finish. I turn and watch the sail of my dad’s boat disappear on the horizon, and I know that I will be there waiting for him when he sails across that line.

“Across the Line,” a work of fiction, won first place in the 2007 May Murphy Thibaudeau Writing Competition. Thibaudeau, formerly of South Milwaukee, was a writer honored at local and state levels. Her books, including a biography of Frederick Layton, are available in the St. Thomas More High School and local libraries. She began writing after her retirement from teaching. She taught 36 years, 20 of which were at St. Mary’s in South Milwaukee. Her daughter and son-in-law, Clairese and Gregg Huennekens, sponsor the annual writing contest at St. Thomas More in her honor.

Note from the writer: I got my inspiration for my short story “Across the Line” from my friend from sailing. We sail together at South Shore Yacht Club. Her dad raced around the world alone in a sailboat, and I thought that the whole idea of making such a voyage was amazing. I spend most of my summer sailing, so I thought that a nautical theme would be the best for my story.

St. Thomas More High School is a participant in the Bay View Compass Community Partnership Program, which fosters the education and talents of young people interested in the arts of journalism, writing, editing, photography, and design. Thanks to coordinators Vicki Nast and Mary Powalisz.

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