Chapter 15 (Part 3) Summer camps and sailing


Long Island Sound from my beloved 19-footer, Kijé — 1973

The summers were always a problem for me since Alyyn always wanted to go to a summer camp with his sons. He was the waterfront director. I taught summer school my first summer, but that was far too much work. In 1966 I got a job as a chaperone with Simmons Travel Tours for a group of young girls, which was a mixture of fun and annoyance since the British agency which had organized the tour had made several quite serious mistakes concerning schedule and choice of hotels. So in 1967 I decided I would go to camp with Allyn.

In this camp in New Hampshire, Camp Winamac, I was Allyn’s assistant on the waterfront, teaching the youngest girls to swim, as young as four in fact. (Horrible to think that parents could leave their 4-year-olds for an entire summer to people they didn’t even knew!) We started by getting them to blow bubbles underwater, then dog paddle and so on. They had to do a simple little dive to get their very first certificate, and I remember one chubby little girl who took forever to dare fall into the water head first, which was all that was needed. She did manage finally and she got her certificate. I sometimes took a few of the little kids out in a small wooden sailboat, but it wasn’t really sailing. This was a horseback riding camp essentially.

I was also a counselor, meaning I had to take care of a cabin of 12-year-old girls. Usually counselors are young girls and I didn’t appreciate this part of my job at all. The main thing I remember from the nights in this cabin was the sound of the clawed feet of lively chipmunks on the roof. I liked that.

The site of the camp was gorgeous. New Hampshire is a mountainous state with lots of lakes and forests, quite similar to Maine in fact. During the summer at Camp Winamac, which was not too far from Manchester, we once managed to get a day off when the weather was really good. We tied our funny yellow canoe with the red sail onto the roof of Allan’s car and headed for Lake Winnipesaukee up north in the center of New Hampshire.

We put up the aluminum mast and hoisted the one sail there was for this toy sailboat. It wasn’t so little but it was very awkward as a sailboat. However, even though heavy and clumsy, it took us places and this time we set out for an island in this incredibly clean lake. The crystal clear water was a marvel and the bottom of the lake seemed so close you felt you could reach out a hand and touch it. Once at the island we put on our snorkels and masks and went swimming around looking at fish and whatever there was to see under us in the marvelously limpid water. This was in 1967. I hope the water is as clean today as it was then.

The funny canoe even served for a bit of sailing on Long Island Sound, but especially it served very well for going down the rapids in the Delaware River from Hancock, New York, south to Port Jervis. This is where the Delaware River is the border between Pennsylvania and New York State. Those rapids are perfect as soon as there is enough water in the river and Allyn was a master navigator, good at finding the best places to shoot between the rocks sticking out of the water. We went through Skinners Falls, probably the best stretch of rapids in this river and it was lots of fun. I soon learned how to handle a canoe and I even taught canoeing later on in our second summer Massachusetts. Doing a ‘Figure 8’ stroke when you are alone in the canoe, from starboard stern of course, is not a big deal, and that’s how you manage easily to keep the canoe on a straight course with just one paddle. I have always liked boats of all kinds and a canoe was a new and fun thing.

We were probably a bit unconventional as rapids-shooters, since we once in a while left the canoe under a bridge somewhere next to a town and walked up the riverside to find a bar to have a Tom Collins. We hit on a nice bar in Pennsylvania once where I learned something interesting. They had all sorts of old wood signs and wall decorations with texts in somewhat old-fashioned German. Talking with the owner, I learned that the Pennsylvania Dutch are not Dutch at all, but deutsch. When they first came into the country, there had been a misunderstanding of the word deutsch. In fact when the word Dutch came into the English language there was already a misunderstanding.

I had a most stunning experience (I can only speak for myself obviously) one late spring as we were on the Delaware river. We heard a lot of birds honking above our heads. All amazed we saw the progress of hundreds, no thousands of Canadian geese in huge V-formations in the sky above us. Since it was spring they were clearly returning to their haunts in Canada, which was not quite clear from the direction they seemed to be flying, more as if they were headed westward in their giant formations. I had never dreamed of seeing a thing like this and the awe I felt at the time has stayed with me. A miracle of nature, which organizes lives to perfection — if we would just let things take their natural turns and not do our own fighting against nature from greed or excess ambition. End of lesson.

Our next camp, in 1968, much better organized, was in Massachusetts, west of New London. No question of making me a counselor here. We, the instructors, had a house to ourselves with ‘happy hour’ every afternoon around five, all of us usually in the same couple’s room. And every morning we were awakened to reveille and the head counselor’s hearty cry of ‘Rise and shine’. I have hated the saying ever since. In fact, like John, I pretty much hate the camp mentality.

Here we had a good-sized lake and I was the sailing instructor on the girls’ side. I also taught canoeing once in a while since the certificate a few of the girls got was for boating, not just sailing. I had a couple of groups of the older girls (girls’ waterfront and boys’ waterfront in this well organized camp of course!) who actually learned quite a bit about sailing and knots and got their boating certificate, signed by Ira, the very stuck-up young sailing instructor on the boys’ side, since I didn’t have the Red Cross sailing instructor’s diploma that was needed to sign those certificates. But I knew my knots and I taught them well.

We used only Sailfish and Sunfish, light one-sail boats where you just sit on top of the hull, or with your feet in a little well, the way you do in the slightly bigger Sunfish. It proved to be pretty much impossible though to teach the younger girls even the most basic principles of what made the boat move by the wind. They just wanted to go out on the lake to capsize and have fun. It was okay with me. I was wearing a very thin cotton shirt over my bathing suit to keep the sun from burning my light skin, but it dried in no time. So we capsized, since that’s what they all wanted to do, two or three little girls at a time. Of course all of them except me were always wearing life jackets. I swam around the boat, put my whole weight on the dagger board, which is the term for the removable keel on those little boats, and straightened up the boat as the water emptied out of the sail. And off we went again. I didn’t quite give up on teaching even the little girls though. I had explained everything to them about the wind and the sail and one day when I asked “Okay, so where is the wind coming from right now?” they pointed to the bow. All right, I guess I gave up. They had fun capsizing and that was it for the little girls.

In the Massachusetts camp we had a serious head counselor who was a bit miserly with days off. When Allyn and I said “We can take off today, right? It looks all cloudy.” he would always say “Wait a bit. It’ll burn off.” So we waited. Sometimes it did and sometimes it did not burn off.

One time we were lucky here too for our day off. The head counselor said Okay, and we took the road for New London – without our canoe. In the harbor we rented a sailboat and set out for Block Island, which is east of the eastern tip of Long Island. It was a boat about the size of my future Kijé, so about 19 feet long. The weather was perfect and we sailed the whole morning, arriving at Block Island some time after lunch. We saw the narrow entrance to the lagoon, Great Salt Pond, but we just turned around and went back. We returned to the New London harbor in good time before dark. It had been a nice day even though a bit uncomfortable for the one who was not at the tiller. There were no real seats in this little boat, but it did what we wanted it to do. It took us back and forth and we had fun. The wind was a bit less than we could have wished for, but it would do. There were occasional bursts of a good breeze, and we kept moving.


The mainsail of my Rhodes 19

The mainsail of my Rhodes 19

That fall I bought my dear Rhodes 19, which I baptized Kijé (since Petrushka was too long to paint on the stern of the boat). There was an R 19 printed at the top of the sail. I was finally the skipper. Well, sometimes. The marina in New Rochelle was a few hundred meters from Harbour House, so we packed our lunch, got the drinks, mostly lemonade, and walked down to our boat, which was actually my boat. We used our canoe as a dingy, a bit awkward but it worked. When I painted the name Kijé in black letters on the stern of my boat I was kneeling in the canoe. I had cut out the letters, including the accent, in fairly stiff paper and I was very pleased with myself when I saw the result. No smear at all.

Siv and two students and dear friends from Mamaroneck High School, Nora and Rita — setting out to move Kijé from a Pelham marina to the New Rochelle marina.

We very often went out sailing on Long Island Sound on weekends and the only one annoying thing was the yachts, which you really do get to hate if you are a sailor. The owner sits up high on the bridge with his captain’s hat in full view, feeling like the king of the sea. Those motor boats are supposed to slow down for sailboats so as not to bother us with their high wake. But they never do. They shoot past at full throttle and don’t think twice about other people’s comfort. We often sailed towards Long Island, to approximately the spot where Fitzgerals’s Great Gatsby is set. In real life it is Great Neck and Little Neck. We used to call it sailing towards Great Gatsby.

One sunny Sunday a 12-meter boat was practicing in the Sound for the America’s Cup, and we thought it would be fun to see if we could keep up with it. We did pretty well, sailing as close to the big boat as we could without his taking our wind. It was just fun, but of course nobody on Big Brother noticed that a little Rhodes 19 was racing them.

I remember how when you looked down towards Throgs Neck Bridge, New York City usually appeared in a poisonous yellow haze. We seemed to have such clear air all around us, but most likely it was not as clean as it seemed to us.

Ted and Norma came out sailing with us one Sunday and so did other friends once in a while. In fact, as I remember now, it seems to me now that Allyn and I had already separated when Ted and Norma came out with me on Kijé.

Siv rowing the dinghy and niece Kajsa getting a ride to Kijé.

The most memorable sailing we ever did on Kijé was a Tuesday afternoon in November. It was Election Day, so the first Tuesday of November in 1968, the disastrous day when Richard Nixon was elected President of the United States. We, like so many others, at least state and community employees, were off that afternoons so we could vote. At that time, we thought that Nixon was just about as scary as politicians could get. Since then we have learned otherwise. There is no limit.

The sky was grey and there was a very good breeze. We had our foul weather gear on, hoods up. We sailed towards Long Island as we often did and as Kijé hit the waves, the cool salty water sprayed our faces. Kijé was heeling and the water was coming in over the leeward gunwale. That was sailing. I just loved to feel the salty spray on my face.


It was a bit sad to give up sailing a few years later when John and I moved to Paris, but there are lots of good things in life that don’t depend on a boat and a vast body of water. I tried to keep up skiing, but after an accident in 1981, I gave up on that too. Later on, many years of hiking in the Austrian Alps was going to more than make up for giving up on sailing and skiing.

Continued:: Chapter 15 (Part 2) My Political Awakening