I had sailed only twice before coming to Provincetown. I had always liked boating — I rowed in Central Park as a boy, and in time became a strong canoeist — but I never learned to swim well. For me, part of being on any boat was my constant awareness of the cold menace of the water below. Down there, inches below the surface, lay not sunlight sparkle but hopeless dark struggle and death by drowning. Boating, however, was freedom, even less constrained than riding my bike. To boat was to control the world of water.
Fifty-three years ago, when I was a medical student, my lab friend Philip invited me to the Yale Corinthian Yacht Club, where he had a summer membership. Sailing was elite, I feared. People who sailed had gotten somewhere and would go further. The Veronica Lodges of the world sailed, but I was an Archie at best, and on most days a Jughead. For me to get anywhere had always required countless repetitions of effort. I was used to being in the galley, on a bench with an oar to manage.
But I accepted Philip’s invitation, and on a warm Saturday my then-wife and I drove down to the cove where a fleet of Gannets awaited. Philip showed us how to step the mast, tighten the stays, arrange the rudder. He let us raise the sails and hold the tiller. You fastened a halyard quickly and right, the way you tie a surgical knot. Philip’s mellow New Orleans accent reassured us as we set out. I loved the ease of not paddling, the light air and gentle motion, the motorless silence, the bubbles that streamed off astern. “Ready about!” I cried, and I became a sailor.
Late that afternoon, tired and sunburnt, we ate steamers and drank beer at a bar where the TV was showing Mississippi civil rights disturbances in color. That was my first glimpse of color television. Life was now in color. Anything was possible. I could even sail.
The next summer, I returned to the Corinthian sailing club. All they wanted was my name. They didn’t even require proof that I could swim 50 yards, which had been a condition of my college degree.
My wife and I had the sense to arrange a first outing as a foursome with another couple. They came from families that had sailed themselves to Bermuda.
On the appointed Saturday the four of us piled picnic lunches into our VW bug. Things had changed at the club: while I recognized masts, stays, and tillers, the boats were somehow sleeker now, 420s, ready to race. Instead of warm air caressing us under blue skies, the damp blast that urged us out along the dock pressed my windbreaker cold against my back.
I peeked at how the other couple rigged their boat. They set out first. Our hull tilted as we eased ourselves aboard. My wife took the sheets, I clutched the tiller, and next thing we were reaching toward Portugal at what felt like 20 knots. We boiled past the other couple, who laughed and clapped. “You do know how to sail!” they cried. The truth was we were baffled and terrified and having our biggest fight ever about which was the safe way to turn, and which was not.
Two hours later we somehow managed to dock and wobble onto terra firma. I did not sail again for 20 years.
In Provincetown, my new wife, Lise, introduced me to the Sunfish her father had given her. Its red, white, and blue sail and varnished daggerboard appealed. I would work this out by myself. I studied a book. Then, Jack Kearney, family friend, sculptor, and old Navy man, took pity on me. With kindness and off-color jokes, he would teach me to sail.
Jack took me out on his boat, the Jay Bird. And he sailed with me on the Sunfish. In time, I dared bigger and bigger winds alone. To sail out beyond the point was a joy, but I also cruised the length of the beach, to inspect my neighbors and their houses, as they, I came to learn, scrutinized my technique.
Lise didn’t like sailing much. But sailing alone let me think. And as long as Jack sailed in Provincetown Harbor, I enjoyed our sailors’ fellowship afloat.
One bright July morning, Jack hailed me aboard the Jay Bird at high tide. It might have been our first sail together that season. I paused only to exchange my shoes for a six-pack and waded out to join him in the warm breeze that rippled the bay. That evening he and his wife Lynn and Lise and I would get together with my father-in-law and his wife, who had just arrived from Connecticut. But now it was time to sail.
Glorying in the day’s possibilities, we tacked and reached and came about and ran and jibed and told each other the same reliable jokes until the tide called us back to Jack’s mooring. Pink-cheeked from sun, wind, and beer, we carried the cooler through ankle-deep water and tracked damp sand into the house to find an ambulance departing with my father-in-law.
Only half understanding, we piled into cars to follow it to Cape Cod Hospital.
My father-in-law was the artist Robert Motherwell. Forty-four years ago, I shook the hand he painted with when I asked him for his daughter’s hand. He appreciated the gesture but kept his distance, so we never got to know each other well. His birthday was January 24. His parents named him Robert Burns Motherwell, after the Scottish poet, who had been born on January 25, 1739, but I was told that he found that presumptuous.
I was also born on January 25, and also named Robert, but no one told me I had a namesake. Whatever Bob Motherwell may have felt, I found our coinciding names and birthdays amusing.
I was still practicing medicine on that July day in 1991. But as we hurtled down Route 6, I was a husband and a son-in-law, not a doctor. Lise and Lynn and Bob’s wife, Renate, and I didn’t talk much in the car. He’d looked bad on the stretcher.
Ahead of us, the wailing ambulance careened. I kept my eyes on the road and tried to drive unexcitingly. We bit our lips through Eastham and around the circle and west, until we rolled up to Cape Cod Hospital’s emergency entrance next to the parked ambulance with its rear door still open.
The women rushed in ahead of me and down a corridor to inquire at the desk. I paused in unexpected quiet: no hubbub, no overhead pages, no clatter of crash carts. A porter was mopping. I knew my way around an emergency room. There was the big treatment room right inside the ambulance entrance. Its door was open. I crossed the threshold.
He lay alone, supine. No color. Not breathing. His right arm, his painting arm, had fallen off the edge and hung down toward the floor. I took his hand — it was cold — and held it as I assured him again that I would take good care of Lise. I replaced it at his side, tucked in the sheet. I wished we had known each other better. I admired and envied all he had achieved.
Well, as our namesake’s song has it, “a man’s a man for a’ that.”
I stayed with him until the nurses led the rest of the family in, and then it was like every other ending. This had happened. Presently we got back into the car and drove home to Provincetown. For a while, life would be a hard pull in the galley rather than sailing free, but I had learned how to do both.
R.S. Steinberg of Provincetown and Cambridge is author of the novel Albie’s Struggle. This story is condensed from the version he read at Gail Strickland’s Provincetown Story Night in August 2018.