Repainting My Life’s Guideposts
by Donald Bitler
Sailors are a different lot. There’s something magical about working on a vessel the size of a tractor trailer that’s pushed by the breath of God. We are all slaves to a certain passion that transcends all social and economic boundaries. We all hold several truths in common: wind, weather, and boat maintenance. This past summer - economics being a part it seems of every facet of my life - I’ve learned to save money by doing much of my own boat maintenance. Specifically, I learned I could save several thousand dollars by painting my 36-foot Columbia sailboat, one of those jobs that seemed like “a good idea” at the time. I had no idea of the sweat and second thoughts it would occasion. And although my boat never left its cradle during the summer of 2000, it took me to several points of the compass and beyond.
Each weekend I drove to Lake Erie - most often alone - to sand and prepare my boat for painting. It was hard to find help and, at times, even harder to ask friends to use their cherished weekends to come and labor and sweat in the sanding dust to help me stumble through a job I’d never attempted before. I realized after the first few weekends that I was committed to an undertaking and couldn’t turn back. It was akin to that moment in remodeling a kitchen when the cabinets are in the middle of the floor, the counters torn out and you realize “My God, what have I gotten myself into.” Yet, there I was. Because of my lack of experience with power tools, I did more damage than good my first several weeks by taking off the old paint and filling in the blisters. As a consequence, I felt compelled to resort to the seemingly insurmountable alternative of hand sanding the entire hull. With no real experience, I relied on book knowledge and the advice of strangers. Around a boat yard, eveyone has an opinion. Between 40 hours a week on an automobile assembly line and traveling 260 miles round trip to labor weekends on my boat, the summer I first imagined as a big adventure quickly became a Greek comedy. The remarkable thing is that it returned to being an adventure. Working on an old boat that size can start your mind to wander. A 30-year-old boat you’ve only owned for a couple of years, and beat up as badly as this one, undoubtedly has some stories. I knew I was going to be in the next chapter of this boat’s life, as it would be in mine.
Week after week, I sanded the hull. At times, I was a 44-year-old man with dreams of taking it down the eastern seaboard to the Bahama Islands. Other times, I was a 12-year-old boy again, fighting pirates off the Ivory Coast. But, always and undeniably, I was filled with hope - hope of the great escape, of escaping a job that seemed to steal a little bit of my soul everyday, and working on a project that nourished it.
I don’t know when I stopped wanting to be a cowboy. But I remember wanting to buy my first car; the dreams and the excitement of the places that car drove me to in my mind. Then came college and the hopes, dreams and excitement that I thought an education would propel me toward. Then there was the army - the excitement of being a soldier, saving my country from “Communist domination.” I could go on and talk about the loves in my life - past and present - and where my dreams took me. And I must say, those dreams can keep a young man going for awhile. Sooner or later, though, reality sets in and you start believing in the trappings that only money can provide.
I remember thinking if I could just get a job at Honda working in an auto plant, earn good money, it would make me happy. It didn’t. Then, I thought, working at Honda and owning a nice home in suburbia, I would be happy. I wasn’t.
Then sailing came into my life. For the first time I discovered what it meant to have a passion. Sailing filled the hole that was in me that I had tried to fill with relationships, houses, money, and the trappings that go with money. They always came up short. It has taught me to work with the elements of nature, how control is an illusion. It has taught me a patience in dealing with people and nature. And it made me realize something I’d known as a child - that humans are not designed to live in isolation from the natural world. We weren’t made to suck recycled air or to carry out our tasks in life under fluorescent lights.
Working on this old boat alone, in the heat and sanding dust, I thought of the indomitable truths of life, and the pursuit of happiness. Sometimes in what is the prison of our everyday lives, glimpses of dreams of what freedom is appear ... taking a dance class, working on an old house or car, and for me, taking the summer of 2000 to sand an old hull of a very, very tired boat.
Donald is refurbishing his Columbia 36. He is from Hilliard, Ohio and sails Lake Erie.