History has been shaped by crossings. Traveling by boat along the shore can be paralleled overland on foot, but for most of human history, reaching distant, even unseen lands has required boats and navigators willing to set a perpendicular course that leaves familiar land behind. Erik the Red in the 10th century and Columbus in the 15th sailed west into the unknown Atlantic to discover the New World. Australia and the Pacific islands were settled in vessels launched from Asia. In recent times, crossings in small boats have been personal challenges. Frank Samuelsen and George Harbo were, in 1896, the first to cross the Atlantic under oar power. Ed Gillet paddled a kayak across the Pacific from California to Hawaii in 1987.
I made my first crossing in 1965, when I was 12 years old, and while it didn’t shape history, it shaped me. I had bought a flat-bottomed skiff from a kid who lived a block away from the home in Edmonds, Washington, where I grew up. I paid $15 for it, a few weeks’ worth of my allowance. I don’t know who built the boat, probably some penny-pinching amateur, because the plywood that made up the hull was textured and meant for house siding. The boat was too heavy for me to cart the half mile from home to the shore of Puget Sound, let alone drag over busy railroad tracks to get to the beach, so Dad let me keep the boat at the Edmonds marina alongside his 27’ Tumlaren sloop. He also let me use his 5-1/2 hp Johnson SeaHorse outboard on one condition: I had to stay close to shore.
The marina was a 2-mile bike ride from home, and during the summer I often went out boating, by myself, along the Edmonds shore. I’d leave my bike on the dock, get the gas tank, oars, life vest, and throw-cushion out of the cabin, and load up the skiff. I had rigged the motor to be steered by means of a plastic-covered wire clothesline that I’d looped through pulleys around the perimeter of the cockpit so I could sit forward to bring the bow down.
One bright sunny day, when Puget Sound was drowsing in a silvery calm, I biked to the marina, fired up the outboard, and motored out from behind the boulder breakwater. In the cool air, the Kingston shore, 5 miles to the west, was sharply defined and seemed much closer than it usually did through a scrim of midsummer haze. I turned west and aimed the bow at the Kingston ferry dock. After I set the throttle at a comfortable cruising speed, I stepped forward and sat in the bottom of the boat with my legs tucked under the foredeck and my back resting against the thwart. The steering line, running along the beam supporting the deck, was at shoulder level and only occasionally needed tending. The air coming over the bow cooled my face, but the still air in the cockpit let the warmth of the sun come through. In the middle of the Sound, a ferry on its way from Edmonds passed me, and passengers lining the railing on the upper deck waved and I waved back. In 1965, apparently, seeing a recently graduated sixth-grader alone in a small boat in the middle of Puget Sound wasn’t cause for alarm, and there were neither cell phones nor 911 anyway.
As I neared Kingston I steered for a narrow sandy beach just yards to the north of the ferry dock. I killed the motor, kicked it up, and used an oar to pole across the shallows to the beach. With my weight in the stern and the bow lifted above the water, the boat skidded ashore. I crawled over the foredeck and set foot on dry land.
I didn’t stay—touching that far shore was all I’d set out to do—and shoved off straightaway to head back home. At the halfway point, the sky had pushed the land around me tight against the horizon. I could barely make out individual buildings on either shore, so certainly no one could see me. I was miles from anything and anyone and on my own in a way that I had never been before.
I didn’t tell my father about that crossing until I was in my mid-40s. He wasn’t at all surprised that I had broken our agreement and ventured far from Edmonds; he had expected it. He’d been a boater his whole life and he knew the lure of a distant shore, and, as a father, he knew that one day I would have to sail away from the security of my home shore and the timidity of always doing as I was told.