How My Vocabulary Was Expanded By Sailing Lessons

By Amy Gordon

I learned the word atrocious when I was eight on the day we were being taught to tie knots. Something about a rabbit coming up through holes, or diving down through holes, or going around trees. All the kids around me were directing their rabbits perfectly. My rabbit, evidently, was seeking greener grass. My rabbit was wrong. Atrocious said the handsome instructor.

I learned the word goddammit when I was eight on the day the wind caught our boat in its teeth and dragged us up, then flung us down, one gray mountain after another. I curled up, soaking, in the bow, head down, watching water lap between the floorboards. Goddammit, pull the sail in, yelled my brother.

Being in the grip of fear when you are eight – is it like being in the grip of grief when you are seventy? Similar helplessness.

I learned the phrases Get your ass back in there and It’s your funeral when I was eight. Our little fleet set sail for the islands. It was meant to be a fun day, a break from the daily fare of diagrams drawn with magic marker on large sheets of paper. Lots of arrows, lots of talk about right-of-way. The puzzle of why a word like leeward with its two e’s would be pronounced loo-ard.

I developed a prejudice against loo-ard as it is the side of the boat that first slides into the lake when you are about to capsize. Where I always had to sit as the water with its gleeful fingers beckoned me. Come drown, it whispered.

On our fun outing, loo-ard was where they put me in a boat with older kids, but the great god of wind favored me that day. All around, all around on the deep blue sea (lake actually), only inertia. Our sails were sad and listless. Floorboards too hot to sit on. Teenagers laughing, making jokes I didn’t understand.

Something snapped.

I jumped out of the boat. To the islands I would swim. Yes, brave heroine, striking out on her own. Handsome instructor came by in the motorboat. Get your ass back in there. Generally, I was an obedient sort. I clambered back on board and we paddled to the islands.

When I was eight, I knew those islands well. I had often rowed to them on my own. Huckleberries grew there. Huckleberries are to blueberries what Huck Finn is to Tom Sawyer. Wilder, more truthful. They are darker, with more seeds. Something a crow would eat. I was picking them when the handsome instructor said What the hell are you doing? Those could be poisonous. I was amazed by his ignorance. They’re huckleberries, I said. It’s your funeral, he said.

He’s long dead now, and I’m hoping his funeral was a nice one.

\"\"Amy Gordon lives and teaches in Gill, Massachusetts. She directs plays with young people and conducts writing workshops. She is the author of numerous books for young adults and children. Her first chapbook of poems, DEEP FAHRENHEIT, was released by Prolific Press in 2019.

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