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Sailing into today on a boat from our past

I stepped off the sailboat onto the dock in Gibsons, British Columbia, and although it was solid, a moment of reverse seasickness made me feel as if the ground were swaying. I silently wondered if this sensation was similar to what my mother felt when she complained that her Parkinson’s made her feel unsteady. 

It was an odd thought to have during a relaxing weeklong sailing trip with my father and nearly five years after my mother’s death. But this wasn’t just any sailing trip. It was my first trip in my father’s new boat, which was also formerly his old boat — until he bought it back, that is.  

The boat is a 33-foot Freedom Yacht, a revolutionary design when it was built in 1982, as its strong carbon fiber masts didn’t require any stays. The irony of the name wasn’t lost on me. When my father bought it new, he was a 50-year-old entrepreneur looking for freedom from the incessant grind that had brought him the successful sale of his company. When he bought back the same boat as an octogenarian, he was looking for freedom from the memories of my mother’s disease and death.  

My own associations with the boat were different, of course. I was a young adult when my parents owned it the first time; busy at first with university and then with my career. Still, I tried to make time to join them when I could to cruise the Gulf Islands, scattered throughout the Strait of Georgia between mainland Canada and Vancouver Island. I appreciated the short runs between anchorages that allowed time to go ashore and explore the quirky towns and thick forests of fir and cedar.  

There were always surprises: a particularly stunning sunset, a vivid meteor shower, orcas breaching in the distance, pods of frolicking dolphins and porpoises surfing our bow wave. I even recall being serenaded at one anchorage by a man in a kilt playing bagpipes as he stood on the bow of his boat.  

Still, the unexpected wasn’t always good, on a boat as in life. There was the occasional anchor that dragged at night, a misread chart or a motor that wouldn’t start. It was an intense storm that scuttled my first attempt to sail the Desolation Sound area roughly 25 years ago. Because the northern end of the Gulf Islands is a 100-mile, three-day sail from Vancouver, my parents had brought the boat up ahead of me. I flew to Vancouver from Boston, where I was working as a new reporter, expecting to continue to Campbell River the next day. Instead, my parents met me at the airport, explaining that winds of 30 knots (35 mph) and huge seas had scared them into leaving the boat at a marina to fetch on a later trip, after I’d returned to the East Coast.  

I don’t recall the last time I sailed before my parents sold the boat. I know I didn’t make it to Desolation Sound, and I know too that my mother never showed symptoms of her impending Parkinson’s disease while on it. Looking back, that was a godsend. The boat remained free from any association with her illness. 

As the neurological disease progressed, freedom became ever more elusive. My mother became a prisoner of a body she could no longer control. She became bedridden, and my father became her caregiver, shackled by her needs. My vacations were no longer relaxing adventures where I’d be rocked to sleep by lapping waves but rather trips to their home to help where I could. A decade passed, then another. Then she died.  

In his grief, my father would sometimes reminisce about their sailing trips — the times without me — when as a couple they left behind their demands and distractions and reveled in one another’s company. He often described one particular time at Princess Louisa Inlet, a fjord that’s a frequent stopover on the way to Desolation Sound, when they woke to find themselves in fog so dense they could see nothing but white. Unable to sail, they had no choice but to laze away the day. “It felt as if we were the only people in the world,” he said with a dreamy look. 

Although my father liked to talk about my mother — there had once been tangible reminders, too, in the way of photographs. Then, less than two years after my mother’s death, a flood claimed their house. Days later, I sat with my father amid the ruin, surrounded by curled, soiled pictures and muddy belongings on what would have been their 60th wedding anniversary, and we wept.  

On a cold January evening six months later, an email popped into my inbox. “I just spent a bunch of your inheritance by buying back my old boat,” my father wrote. “Anyone for sailing this summer? “Surprised, stunned, I was nevertheless thrilled by his quixotic impulse.  

“We’ve lost so many things over the past few years,” I wrote back. “It feels good to have ‘found’ something. Especially something with such good memories.”  

If anything, his purchase was even more foolhardy the second time around. He still lived in Calgary, Alberta, 1,000 miles from the boat; only now the airlines required passengers to arrive at the airport two hours ahead of departure. He still didn’t keep a car in Vancouver, so getting provisions and other logistics were complicated. While he was new to ocean sailing when he first purchased the boat, he now had the experience, but not as much strength and agility. And without my mother as first mate, he needed to search for competent and compatible crew.  

Still, we don’t often get second chances in life. For him, it was an opportunity to have a physical connection to something he shared with his wife. For me, Desolation Sound still beckoned. 

The same rugged wilderness that Capt. George Vancouver reviled when he named the region in 1792 now attracts upward of 40,000 visitors each year. They come by boat or kayak to the largely undeveloped islands and inlets around the sound, enjoying the warmest water on the British Columbia coast, hikes to freshwater lakes and the rich sea life. I still yearned to experience it.  

Undoubtedly, there have been changes since my first attempt decades ago. A new Trudeau is prime minister. I’m older now than my father was then. And, this time, the weather was glorious. Arriving to meet my father, I looked out at the forest of masts and immediately spotted the black carbon fiber and our Freedom’s distinctive cat ketch design, with the larger mast at the bow and a smaller one midsection. 

I was nearly giddy with excitement as I went below into the cabin. The couple who owned the boat in the interim had replaced the green interior cushions with ones that are navy. The icebox was converted to a refrigerator, a heater was installed, and there’s GPS now. But it felt like I was looking at an old friend wearing a new outfit; the sort of old friend you might not see for years, yet you pick up seamlessly where you left off.  

And like a visit with an old friend, there never seemed to be enough time. We started in Comox, on Vancouver Island, then stopped at Squirrel Cove on Cortes Island, before overnighting at just two anchorages along the 37 miles of coastline contained within the Desolation Sound Marine Park.  

Grace Harbour was a well-sheltered cove teeming with jellyfish that allegedly don’t sting. I was mesmerized watching them dance past the boat. Tenedos Bay was rimmed with sheer cliffs dropping into water so deep we had trouble setting the anchor. Where the rocks had spalled, the ledges were covered in moss and spiked with twisted red arbutus trees. Each place was different from the other, and both were unlike any other area I’d sailed. That evening, we sipped glasses of wine and gazed out at the snow-capped mountains of the Coastal Range. It was then that my father confessed that his second chance hadn’t worked out as he’d planned.  

“I had the idea that by buying the boat, I would really be able to touch the memories, and that hasn’t happened,” he said. “But I realize that it doesn’t matter. I never go through a day that I don’t have a half-dozen times when something happens and I think of your mother.”  

On the last days of the trip, we headed south along the Sunshine Coast toward Vancouver, stopping in Powell River where we chanced upon a logging sports competition. We had so much fun watching the men and women chop, saw, nail and climb that we spontaneously altered our itinerary and stayed another day.  

In Secret Cove we rented kayaks and spent the afternoon paddling around the inlet. “I’ll remember this day,” my father told me lovingly.  

Yet even as we created new memories, the old ones simmered just below the surface. 

Heading toward Gibsons and our last night on the boat, my father started talking of an ice cream shop in the town that he and my mother used to favor. Hours later, I too remembered her, but in a different, dark way. As my equilibrium faltered when I stepped onto the dock, my mind went to her disease and how much it took from her, from all of us.  

Steadying my legs, and my memories, we headed off in search of the ice cream shop. Mike’s Gelato was there now. My father thought it was the same place, and I didn’t have the heart to contradict him. He ordered mint chocolate chip. Like my mother, I gravitated to chocolate.  

As we sat outside licking our cones and watching the moonrise over the water, I was content, happy to be sailing again with this man, on this boat. But what about him? Was he sorry he bought the boat back?  

“Not at all,” he said. “I still love the boat. I love the adventure, the sense of accomplishment. I love the freedom.”

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