When lightning hits water, the electricity spreads outward across the surface. The mast of our boat was a problem much the way a lone tree is: with its tendrils of positive charge, it called to the polarized clouds, literally reaching for them.
The forecast was wrong, of course. The rain that might’ve come that afternoon (60 percent) came in the morning (0 percent), five hours ahead of schedule. My parents and I were a mile from shore when the air changed: the wind died, and from our boat until halfway to the horizon, Lake Michigan turned glassy; beyond, waves like corduroy lined the water in consistent and constant rows. The stillness around us was soft in light too dark for ten in the morning. We panicked.
This was before weather apps, when people still used BlackBerrys, before hyperlocal forecasts with numbers that are still wrong, apps that say, no rain anywhere in the area, despite windshield wipers wiping and raised umbrellas puffing inside out—despite the precipitation exactly in the area. When this happens I’m not frustrated but hopeful: the weather just needs to catch up with the app, the reality with its measurements. Never mind that a forecast is a measure of the future, not the present.
Still, I have a deep affection for weather forecasts. On my phone every morning, standing in front of my desk, towel wrapped around my wet hair, I check two apps, then three sites on the computer, computing by intuition some inexact average that helps answer, among other things, which shoes to wear and how many pairs of socks. I need weather—its numbers, its icons—for decision-making, and I need decision-making for movement, for not being stuck in a bathrobe, staring into a closet of unquantified possibility, or in front of the mirror, trading one cardigan for another, unable to decide which one looks best and if it looks good enough to trump temperature concerns.
There is knowing the weather for social reasons too, so I have something to say when I step into an elevator and lock eyes with someone I sort of know. We face the front, arms at our sides, and in winter we tell each other we’re cold and in summer we say we’re hot and in between we find something distinctive about the day—the humidity, the wind—to complain about.
If you sail too close to the wind, the sail flickers back and forth and the boat doesn’t just stop but moves in reverse. Sail too far from the wind, and the sail again luffs, sometimes swinging the boom all the way around, the sound of the thwapping canvas like punches. But sail just close enough and the sail grows taut, the centerboard hums through the water, and the boat glides miraculously forward.
The wind that morning was from the west, from behind the city’s long-toothed skyline, which meant in order to head straight away from the beach, downwind, we’d have to let the sail all the way out. We arrived at the beach right when the sailboat-rental place opened. Seagulls pocked the sand, pecking at trash. A shirtless guy with a faint life-jacket tan dragged the fourteen-foot flat-bottomed Sunfish knockoff down to the water, where he flipped it over and tied the mast upright while we cinched tight sun-bleached life jackets that smelled like seaweed, sweat, an old basement. We’d have to wait to put the rudder and splintery daggerboard down until we were in the water, deep enough that the wood meant to keep us going straight wouldn’t get stuck in the sand.
I’d been sailing for a decade, mostly at summer camp in northern Wisconsin, where we’d play pirates on a lake whose other side—the peeling birches, the spit of sand and rocks—you could easily see from the shore. There in that lake, I learned the nuances of sail trim and the wind clock, a conceptual diagram that dictates how far out the sail should be when the boat is pointing a certain way relative to wind direction. Before heading out, rowing in a sea-green rowboat from the dock to the sailboat, I’d find direction in the hulls: boats tied to buoys point into the wind. How stiff the flags on the camp flagpole were—how loudly and crisply they thwacked into perfect rectangles—and how dark the water was told me speed. If there were whitecaps on our small, glacier-cut lake, it was windy, and if the whitecaps were surrounded by black water, it was too windy.
Years later, I saw wind in numbers, too unsure of instinct alone to make the decision whether to head out—albeit on a bike, not a boat. Surrounded by rural farmland, I wouldn’t go if the weather sites told me the wind was blowing faster than ten miles per hour. In a city I would, because in a city there are buildings for the air to bounce off of and slow, there are packs of people breathing the wind in and out, the whole whir overtaken by cars and subways and the sounds of relative density, the music of movement. But in cornfields, especially when the corn was gone, when the fields looked like they’d been trampled by giants, then the wind blew faster than ten miles per hour even when Wunderground.com listed it as such. Accuracy depended on harvest, on straightaways and hills, it depended on what I was used to, and it depended on all the people who might have been there if the land weren’t growing insufferable bounty insufferably fast, and if that pace supported more than one post office per town.
When the wind blew from the south I rode north, up the road I lived on, past one neighborhood of half-empty subdivisions, another encircled by golf courses, neon green in summer and snow-bright in winter, then a slight westward slant before I turned around. (Let me stay here, on land, just a bit longer.) Near the turnaround point, I passed a field bare in all seasons, open and vast for the wind to rush across. The water tower beckoned from ahead, a shadow cast on the low church beside it. My phone in my bike-jersey pocket, pressed flat against my back, traced my route on a map, and though it got the distance right, there was always an anomalous peak in the speed graph, putting me at forty or forty-five miles per hour when I knew I couldn’t have been going faster than thirty. Sometimes one of those construction-area speedometers standing on the side of the road would clock me going my usual fourteen or fifteen miles per hour, and I wondered if the cars that passed me noticed, if they thought my legs were spinning too fast or too slow for such a speed, whether the speed looked natural, or if they didn’t notice at all, barely even seeing the bike as they sliced by and interrupted the wind so it built into a heavy thump that came five seconds later, after the cars disappeared around one of the many rolling-hill bends that kept me thinking about stray pebbles, dew-slippery leaves.
Every moment of sailing is a decision. Am I tacking efficiently upwind? Time the turns by glancing at the digital watch I wore only at camp, the one with the green band that never felt tight enough. Am I pointed exactly where I want to go? Draw imaginary lines tracing trajectory. Have I decided in the first place where that is?
My parents and I had nowhere in particular to head, so we just went out, zigzagging away from the shore, moving vaguely in the direction of the water-treatment plant. The lake was August green-blue, clear enough to see down twenty or thirty feet, way deeper than I ever want to touch. I’m afraid of underwater things; their sliminess alarms me.
We sailed that morning because we wanted to, because we had no other time to go, because the wind didn’t seem too strong, and because in the face of an undaunting yet imperfect forecast we thought our confidence would be enough to ward off storms. I’m decent at sailing; my parents trusted me. My parents are decent at the wind; I trusted them.
I pumped the rudder against the flat water, my hand a blur in the windless air. My life jacket rubbed against my upper arms.
They taught me the wind while bike-riding: first ride against the wind and then, heading back, with it. A friend I ride with thinks it’s a silly habit, that it doesn’t matter when the hard part comes because it’ll be hard at some point no matter what, and how much difference does the wind make, anyway? So much, I tell her, and she goes where I want to go first because she’s a good friend and, to her, direction doesn’t matter. She too checks the weather, but she’s spontaneous, and when the forecast is wrong, and she’s without the right jacket, and cold, she doesn’t kick herself. She doesn’t even kick the weatherman. She just keeps going, cold, but sure she’ll warm up sometime soon.
On the lake, air dead, one of us decided we should turn around and head back, trying to beat what was quickly becoming a thunderhead. My mom says I made the choice, but picturing myself with tiller in one hand, mainsheet in the other, parents facing me, their knees touching and feet crowded in the shallow boat, I imagine it was less a choice and more instinct, the physicality of sailing saving me from overwrought decision-making. I am best at physical choices, in games or sports, when the key is not thinking; otherwise, when the key is thinking, but thinking just enough, I’m a mess.
The thunderhead filled the sky, the color of a salted asphalt road in winter, the stillness like the morning after. The sail sighed. Its tension gone, its shape bent not by the wind but by the nothing left by stilled wind. Maybe the storm would disappear as quickly as it had come, I suggested as we barely moved. My mom’s eyes were wide.
I pumped the rudder against the flat water, my hand a blur in the windless air. My life jacket rubbed against my upper arms. What do we do? I asked again and again. Just keep going, my dad, ever calm, said. He wondered if he should jump out to swim, but then what if lightning struck the water, forgoing our metal-tipped boat and plunging straight into the lake?
The first time I tipped in a sailboat wasn’t at camp but there on Lake Michigan, in a sailing class, only a mile or so north of where my parents and I were fighting the oncoming storm. I remember seeing the sail and then being under it, I remember being cold. I remember being told, years later, that if you ever get trapped under the sail, you should follow its seams outward.
I remember us thrashing on the lake, arguing about what to do and about how far we were from the shore, yelling over the silence.
The wind knocked the boat sideways in a single blow. Air slapped the sail and then the sail was scooping water and the centerboard was flinging a wide arc and we were holding on to the hull, our legs underwater. Get under the mast! I yelled to my dad, hoping he’d prevent the boat from turtling. He held it afloat with his life-jacketed torso as I climbed onto the centerboard to flip everything right-side up. The boat wobbled back, and we climbed in, trying not to see the lightning nearing, trying not to hear thunder snapping the empty air, but we were the only ones on our section of the lake, and the swells of calm punctuated by swells of blowing pulled all our attention to how very unnatural those states are.
Run! he said, and we ran, and my cheeks, hot with embarrassment and failure, burned against the needling rain.
It was not fun, fleeing from the storm. And it was my fault. I believed that then, and despite distance believe that now. I’d been the one who wanted to go sailing in the first place. No matter that my parents had agreed, that my dad had deemed the weather safe and my mom had deemed the weather safe, that we were all there together, caught by surprise. I was responsible for the day being fun and now I was responsible too for us not dying—and for the melodrama of thinking that’s what might happen.
How could we have trusted such inaccurate measurements? How could I have accepted a prediction based on who-knows-what—maybe some radar, or something I hadn’t even checked?
Another slap, and again we were sideways, we were in the water, we were all saying I don’t know what to do what do I do? while moving somehow in unison, bound by panic. I leapt on the centerboard again and again, crawling toward it and heaving my torso onto its slimy side, righting us only to tip, the lightning cracking nearer and nearer to where we were now rocketing toward the breakwater, where the suntanned sailboat guy was reaching out, his palms open, for the boom of our boat, where he was jumping in, and where another guy, raincoated and in flip-flops, grabbed us by the shoulders of our life jackets and leaned back, dragging us one by one up onto the pier. Run! he said, and we ran, and my cheeks, hot with embarrassment and failure, burned against the needling rain. By the time we were back on the beach, wet and shaky, the suntanned guy was climbing out of the boat near the beach and walking it up onto the sand, the wet painter rope dripping a dotted line that was soon erased by the flat bottom mashing the sand smooth.
My parents, I noticed once we were on land, were not red-cheeked with embarrassment and failure. They were flushed, instead, with relief. But I felt none, so exhausted by the shame of needing help—the shame of not predicting accurately—that I couldn’t even be glad that nothing worse had happened.
Ever since, when my mom has said she’ll never sail again, I hear in her voice accusation, though there is none. I turn away, busy myself with clearing the table or fiddling with my shoelaces or petting the dog. I try to hurry the conversation to the next topic, I try to never reminisce about that time I was so substantially wrong about the weather. I like to think I accepted long ago that weather is luck and that that particular weather was bad luck, that my parents’ silence in the car ride back from the lake was the silence of not having anything meaningful to say, rather than the silence of disappointment in what had happened—in me.
But I couldn’t convince myself that we’d just been unlucky. There in the backseat, avoiding my dad’s face in the rearview mirror, I could feel in the downswing of adrenaline only the regret that comes with any wrong decision, the useless regret of imagining it the other way. How foolish to have let chance guide a decision—how foolish to have pretended that that chance was certainty. If only I had known better, if only I had chosen right. I’ve never lost that feeling of responsibility. So when my mom says she’ll never sail again and I rush the conversation elsewhere, it’s not because I don’t want the story to become lore, but because I’m still not sure how to tell it.