I grew up a thousand miles from the nearest ocean, on the second largest river system in the world, but during that time I knew nothing about boats.

Then when I graduated high school at 17 I enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, where I spent six months active duty and eight years in the reserve, including one summer on active duty at the Second District Coast Guard Station in St. Louis.

On Monday mornings we went out to collect the bodies of those who had drowned over the weekend, mainly because of drunk driving, according to the bosun’s mate in charge. Those people have fascinated me ever since.

I don’t own a boat. Those who do own boats are sometimes misconceived as fussy men and their SPF30 women.

Take, for example, my former father-in-law, who lived in Detroit and kept a boat in a marina on Lake St. Claire. My father-in-law was a mechanical engineer, the kind of nerdy guy you noticed in college who wore a plastic pocket protector in his shirt pocket and could say the word “theorems” without giggling.

When my wife and I would visit from Chicago he’d take us down to the boat almost immediately upon arrival. We needed a map to find his boat, for there were hundreds of boats moored to a labyrinth of piers and docks.

On a typical Friday evening we would sit in the boat and drink martinis until my father-in-law would swear he could see whales and other forms of life on the lake. During 10 years of marriage we actually went out sailing maybe three times. Mostly it was martinis in the marina. Actually preparing to sail took twice as much time as we were on the water.

Which leads me to describe an incident that occurred when I was a callow, shallow fellow.

(Spoiler alert: He doesn’t get the girl or the boat.)

One time, when I was unattached, I met a woman at a party who had a small sailboat, but didn’t know how to sail it.

“Well,” I said, “I was in the Coast Guard.”

I said it with pride, because I feel the Coast Guard is a cut above the rest of the military and its function is to save lives. I did not reveal my history with the Coast Guard simply to impress a woman I barely knew.

Anyway, she invited me to her house, where it was assumed we’d go sailing. What she didn’t know was that my knowledge of life on the high seas consisted of three words: “Red, right, returning.”

So I showed up at her house. It overlooked a shallow bay and a 17-foot sailboat that looked abandoned – the sail wasn’t even attached to the mast, and the rudder was secured up out of the water. It smelled of mothballs.

Of course, we never got to sail but we spent a pleasant afternoon at the local bowling alley.

Bob Kalish observes life from a placid place on the island of Arrowsic (motto: You’re not in Georgetown yet). You can reach him at [email protected].

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