How to sail a canoe

I’m considering changing the name of this site. Maybe something like “Metaphors from the life of my author, L, and how they relate to my own story.” Too lengthy?

Life jacket, KateTake sailing, for instance. Say you have three women, two in a canoe and one in a kayak, and they’ve loaded these boats with enough gear and food and drink to see them through a couple of nights on a lakeshore in Saskatchewan’s boreal forest. Say it’s L and two of her friends. Say the wind is behind them. They raft the two boats together, and L, who’s in the bow of the canoe, and her friend who’s in the kayak fashion a make-shift sail by tying a rain poncho to the shafts of their paddles. L’s other friend, in the stern of the canoe, uses her paddle as rudder, and — magic! They run with the wind, laughing all the way. It’s a straight sail for a good distance, then a wee paddle through the channel at the end of the route and a glass of Irish whiskey at the campsite. Cheers.

A few days later, on the way back out, L and her friends are determined to once more sail a good portion of the way. They know the wind will be tricky — it’s behind them, but it’s coming at an angle. Still, a proper sailboat would be able to cope with such a wind, so why not their contraption? If they can just find the appropriate angle for the sail and use the stern paddle as a rudder, they think they should be able to harness the breeze. (Well, more than a breeze, actually a pretty good blow.)

These are three women not easily defeated, but eventually, when they’ve been driven almost to the eastern shore of the first of the three lakes they have to navigate, and just ahead there’s a point they have to get round, even they have to admit the physics of the situation are not in their favour.

If L had bothered to pay proper attention on the few occasions she agreed to crew her husband’s sailboat, she’d have known that to benefit from a wind that comes in at an angle you need a keel or a centreboard that knifes down into the water. As the wind pushes the sailboat sideways, the water pushes back against the centreboard, and the boat doesn’t blow ashore; but in a rigged-up craft with no centreboard, you could end up with a kayak swamped on the beach, which is what almost happened before L and her friends rolled up the poncho and put their paddles to proper use.

Sometimes, in life and in story, things get complicated. Any story worth reading is powered by forces that aren’t straightforward. Things will come along to complicate the life of the protagonist, and they will come in at an angle. When the wind’s at your back, life’s a breeze. As we’ve seen. Straight ahead to the happy ending, where all is hunky-dory and Irish whiskey. That sort of story may be great fun for the people in the boats, as they sail past pelicans and delight in the way the water purls between the two boats, but it’s hardly captivating for a reader.

Sometimes, in story as in life, the protagonist can get through almost an entire book before she even figures out the direction of the wind, to say nothing of understanding its force. I won’t mention any protagonist in particular, but her name might begin with K and rhyme with late. Speaking figuratively, in the novel L’s writing I’d be at risk of being blown ashore if I didn’t have a centreboard. L, bless her authorial heart, has granted me a faculty that’s meant to resist the winds she’s conjured up to curse me with. She’s given me an active imagination. (Some would say it’s overactive.) Here’s how it works: someone breaks my window and writes an obscene insult on my door, and I imagine all sorts of who-and-why scenarios, and in the course of these imaginings I discover things about myself. Here’s another way it works: I get desperate for a connection with my long-dead dad, and I begin to imagine scenarios from his life. In the course of these imaginings I discover … ah, but I’ve already made that point.

There’s a downside: this power of imagination is a little bit dangerous in my hands. I get over-confident; I put too much stock in the stories I dream up. When the wind shifts without warning, the boom comes around and knocks me down. In the end, though, my centreboard will be what saves me, I’m sure of it.

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2 Responses to How to sail a canoe

  1. Kim Aubrey says:

    Glad to see you are back to writing, L, but sad that the holiday is over as I gear up to return to my own desk. Thanks for another great metaphor! It makes me think how much we want things to be easy and pleasant, how we resist hard work, especially after an easy stretch when the writing is going well.

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