A memory of a summer spent in Poland at a sailing camp, anchored (as many memories are) by experiences shared with another human.
Sailing with Mr. Adam
His name was Adam and he smoked cigarettes from Russia. He was lean and rather short, and his face was tan and wrinkled, as if it was made of weathered leather. His eyes were small and deep set and his hair was thin and dark brown. He was an old sailor with the stereotypical traits you would find in an encyclopedia or something, and I was part of his crew for two weeks when we sailed on the Masurian lakes in the north of Poland.
The lakes are something to behold. Even the smallest are big enough for a whole sailing school to use, and the largest are like giant mirrored plains, stretching on and on. Dark green forests surround the entire landscape. If I could, I would bottle the early morning scent of that place and smell it every morning: dewey, sweet, and delicious.
But it ended up not being about the lakes or the smell. Mr. Adam, as we called him, was someone you wanted to know about. What was his life like? How long had he been sailing? Where was he born? What did Poland look like in his youth? Where has he been? You could ask a shallow question and you’d get a respectful answer with no elaboration and you wouldn’t want to press him on the issue. Mr. Adam was a quiet person, except for certain ‘incidents’. Unfortunately, those ‘incidents’ tend to arise often in the first few days on the water…
“You, American, wake up and to the rudder,” he said, interrupting my watching of the scenery. I obeyed and grabbed the tiller (the thing you use to move the rudder) and the rope for the sail. “Aaand, we’re sailing,” he stated matter-of-factly (this was one of his favorite things to say when we were holding steady). Mr. Adam lit one of his cigarettes when we got further away from shore (smoking on the ship was frowned upon) and was quiet, save for the occasional comment of “loosen the foresail” or “pull in the mainsail, it’s fluttering”.
When we were facing away from the pier he went to the bow to urinate, saying “just hold the course” as he went. We were sailing pretty fast at that point, and I had let us drift away from the wind, inducing a slight lean. Of course at the moment Mr. Adam was returning back from his break a gust hit us and the boat started to tilt precariously. Mr. Adam jumped into the crew area as we tilted further and I panicked and drew in the mainsail (bad idea) and he yelled “for fuck’s sake get out of there” (rough translation) and he took the helm and loosened the sail just as our windows were about to touch the water (I was saying my last prayers). He said, “boy, now is not the time to wash our windows” (a patronizing ‘boy’ was another one of his favorite things to say). We righted ourselves and I just sat there sheepishly.
It was like this six hours a day every day for 12 days (after which was the exam), with the number of “incidents” declining as our scrappy crew of four became comfortable with the boat and the commands we had to use. I gained a sort of cautious confidence, feeling the tension in the mainsail, loosening and drawing in the ropes like the reins of some wild stallion. It became more and more enjoyable, even if the skills were absolutely basic. And when our entire crew passed the exam, I like to think that Mr. Adam’s concise “congratulations, sailors” transformed us from a bunch of knuckleheads capable of sinking a stabilized sailboat to a hardy group of sailors he was proud of.