We named our little craft “Gwaihir,” after the Eagle Wind Lord from Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” Really, she was a wind lady and a rather dainty girl at that. The name was perhaps a trifle pretentious for such a small craft, but I thought it would be a lucky name. Gwaihir was a 16-foot Soling with a centerboard, which is a retractable keel. With the board up, she drew only 16-inches. I used to tell friends that Gwaihir could sail on a wet hankie. I believed she could.
She was a surprisingly stable craft. We carried a 5-horsepower outboard so when tide and wind were against us, we could still get home. In the old days, sailboats had to drop anchor and wait for the tide, wind, or both to shift. Today, we have to get back in time for dinner so we have outboard motors.
Sometimes, when the sea was calm and the wind was fair, we took Gwaihir out through Sloop Channel and Jones inlet to the ocean. Even a 3-foot roller looks huge when you are on the deck of such a small craft. My sailing partner was a madman on water. He would sail through thunder squalls because he liked the challenge. His father had been equally insane, so it must have been DNA.
Mostly though, I piloted her through the salt marshes, the shallow canals on Long Island’s south shore. She was ideal for shallow water sailing. We could move silently through nesting grounds of plovers, herons and divers, soundless except for a slight flapping of the jib. The birds were undisturbed by our passage and went about their business, our white sails wing-like in the breeze.
One bright day with a warm sun lighting the water and the sky blue as a robin’s egg, I anchored in a shallow, reedy spot, lay back on the bench and drifted off to sleep as I watched little puffy clouds scoot across the sky.
I awoke a while later and our white sail was covered with what seemed to be thousands upon thousands of monarch butterflies. I had drifted into their migration route and they had stopped for a rest on my little boat.
I didn’t move or say anything. Just looked up and watched, thinking that if ever there had been a perfect day, this was it. Then, as if someone had signaled, they rose in a flock and flew onward to complete their long journey. And I sailed home.