Skipper makes the call

2011-01-19 00:00

THE wind sands down the thin layer of saliva on my lips to reveal lips as bright red as the sails above my head. I lick them again, knowing I shouldn’t. Our little wooden yacht tip-toes along the glass surface, scared to scratch it. We’re on the second of three laps and the wind has exhausted itself in the previous two rounds, so now we sit as light as possible in the middle of the harbour.

I cast my eyes over the cracks of the small waves and catch sight of a wriggling yellow buoy. It seems distant so I sponge the glossy decks, tighten the front sail, neaten the small hold and discover the sunscreen. I look up, trying to reel the buoy in with my eyes but it just squirms, the anchor too heavy. It’s still far off and my every move can affect our course in this light wind, so I’m forced to sulk in the cramped front area.

It feels as if the sun’s rays are all directed at my black life jacket with such precision I want to rip it off, toss aside my lucky cap and plummet into the salty water. I turn my head back, ever so slightly and tilt it so only my right eye can peek out at my brother, sitting patiently at the back of the boat. Quickly I turn back after stealing a glance, not wanting to meet his eyes. I doubt whether he has noticed I am sulking. I offered him infallible advice and tactics but he chose to make his own strategy. I reasoned, argued, disagreed, shouted and finally sulked. I was right, why couldn’t he admit it? He’s the captain, I’m the crew but I knew what I was talking about.

However, Skipper makes the call and we moved from a comfortable second place down to sixth place and this fickle wind makes it impossible to edge up the ranks. He shouldn’t even be helming. I’m older. It comes with the territory like being the cop in cops and robbers, getting pudding first and the almighty front seat of the car. I can’t even remember how I agreed to this Banana Republic authority. Like a dream, it just happened and before I knew it, I was in the middle of the event and didn’t think to question how I got here.

Nic’s timid in build and manner. “Emotionally unready” was what they called it when he had to repeat Grade 0. He was never the kid to start a hyper revolt at birthday parties. He never sent a cricket ball through a window, or coloured outside the lines. When he was told he would have to stay back a year, I half expected him to break down, to kick something, throw a toy or slam a door. No, just a quiet, “okay”. In a coy, yet brave way.

I rotate my head slightly and look at him, slightly longer this time. He’s looking straight ahead, chin held high. He’s actually not so small I realise. His face has changed, he’s still a deep thinker but now his eyes shine with eagerness and he has permanently turned-up corners to his mouth. His strong hands hold the tiller tightly. And I wonder when he changed. I feel guilty for not noticing the transformation.

“Ready for the gybe?” he asks gruffly.

I turn my head and grab the rope, not ready to show my white smile of defeat just yet.

Round the buoy the wind escalates. In sync, we duck to avoid the swinging boom and jump across to compensate for the shift in balance. By now we’re on the run downwind and it’s time to launch the third sail. Telepathically, we time it perfectly and overtake a boat. Being a light combined weight we both have to sit right on the edge and slant back. A wave leaps onto my lap but the cold splash isn’t enough to cool my burning thigh muscles. The adrenaline is my Kryptonite. My hands burn, holding on to a thin rope and I throw my centre of gravity out of our boat and hang suspended next to my soaked captain. I feel his leg shake slightly next to me. He’s having a hard time controlling the rudder as we fly over the crests.

“Nic, I’m sorry about earlier.”

“It’s fine,” he says gently.

“No it’s not okay. You were right. I just forgot about the tides and …”

“It really doesn’t matter.”

And I know he means it. He nods to the crew on board the committee boat as we sail into third place. He smiles at them and I smile at him, but he doesn’t see. He’s busy congratulating the winners. In that coy, yet brave way.

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