RIGA - My calendar told me that the topic of this week's "Experience the Baltics" was boating and yachting. I began researching my topic, as I generally do, by browsing the web for information on the subject. According to the website www.seaclub.lv there are 8,000 motorized water vehicles in Latvia. Six hundred of these vehicles are boats and 814 are small sailing yachts. This is an impressive number considering the entire population of Latvia is under two and a half million people.
Factoring out all of the inland folks (who probably don't have a water vehicle) and all citizens under 18 (who we can only hope don't have a water vehicle), it appears that Latvia hasâ€¦ wellâ€¦ uhâ€¦ dare I say a boatload of water vehicles within the eligible population?
This kind of information is undoubtedly interesting to some folks. I even found it worth a second glance. But the more I browsed the web the more I wanted to speak to some real boat owners (as opposed to those spewing facts from cyberspace). This desire translated to: a day trip to a yacht club.
Having lived on Long Island at one point in my life, I knew the yacht club scene. Being a journalist, I considered a day at a yacht club a sacrifice that would have to be made in my quest for a story. I stoically prepared myself to enter a world where the women would answer to names like Cynthia Dahling and Persephone while the men's names would end in numerals 's higher numbers would demand more respect. And of course there would be a few less fortunate men who would simply answer to "Junior." Okay, enough of my judgmental prattleâ€¦
The sky is azure without even a hint of a cloud and the thermometer rests at about 20 degrees in the sun the day that my husband and I drive out to the Auda Yacht Club. As we pull into the parking lot, our only welcome is a lone seagull demanding something before swooping down, and disappearing, between two Soviet block buildings.
"Is this the yacht club?" I ask.
"Yes," my Latvian husband replies.
"Really? Umâ€¦ where's the clubhouse?" I ask.
He shrugs and says, "Maybe we're looking at it," as he points to a block building that has most definitely seen better days.
"Maybe not!" I reply.
I feel strangely relieved as Guntis Svikulis, our contact person, walks towards us and introduces himself. There's not a champagne bottle in sight and Svikulis is dressed casuallyâ€¦ Not Woodward and Lothrop's the-yacht-club-spring-collection casual, but more like after-I-sand-her-down-we-can-apply-the-varnish casual.
"Welcome!" he says enthusiastically, before walking us around the grounds. Yachts of various shapes and sizes stand on dry ground looking painfully self-conscious as their owners prepare them to sail this spring.
Svikulis points up at a yacht hovering overhead, "That's our competitive yacht named Ra, like the sun God. We won first place in here in the Latvian championships last year." We pause and watch Maris Utinans work on Ra. He seems lost in his thoughts 's perhaps dreaming of his first time out to sea this season.
We continue walking, navigating between several large yachts, before entering an area housing a long row of Soviet buildings in front of which stand a variety of sailing ships.
"And this one," Svikulis points up to an eight meter yacht proudly bearing the name Ad Nauseam, "this is our pleasure boat; just for fun."
A few meters away, after sitting down, with Ad Nauseam in full view, Svikulis begins assembling a small barbecue grill. "We're going to have shashlik and sausages," he announces as he offers me a beer.
"No thanks. I'm the designated driver," I reply wistfully. In fact a beer sounds good right about now.
Within minutes Sandis Barda, a fellow yachtsman, joins us.
"I'm writing an article about yachts for The Baltic Times," I explain to Barda. "Anything you'd like to tell me?"
Barda assures me that his English will improve after a little beer. In fact his English is fine, but I agree to wait.
As we sit, Barda enjoying his beer and me the sun, Egils Vitols, his mate,Ieva along with their six year old daughter Annija arrive.
"Sailing is something different than just sport or competition," Barda says. Apparently the beer has kicked in. "It's in my..." he points to his chest. "It's deep inside and it's more likeâ€¦" he hesitates, looking for the correct word. Looking at the expression on his face I think I've found the missing word.
"It's a passion!" I say.
My husband translates the word "passion."
"Yes!" Barda says excitedly. "Yes! It is a passion."
He then tells me a story about a man in his forties whose doctor gives him the sad news that he is dying. Years of hard work and stress have destroyed his heart and he is told to go home and make the most of his last months of life. The man decides to die on his yacht. "I can die at home in my bed, or in my garden, or I can die with the wind in my hair and the sea around me. I choose the sea and the wind." Barda relates the man's sentiments.
Believing that he will go to sea and die, the man takes off and sails for several months. But in time, never having felt better, the man returns to the doctor and, after several tests, the doctor 's confused and probably a little embarrassed 's pronounces the man completely healthy.
"Experiencing his passion cured him," I say.
"Yes, again: passion!" Barda replies.
"When I am at sea, there is nothingâ€¦" Barda continues, "No time; no space. I can't think about what I should be doing because there is nothing but the boat and the seaâ€¦ I can't look around and think about how far I am from anything because distance has no meaning. There is only the sea and me."
"And then there are the moments when an unexpected storm hitsâ€¦ like when we were returning from Lithuania after the Lithuanian Yacht Championship in 2000. Suddenly we were in 33 meter per second winds and seven-meter high waves. That was Maris' first time out to sea. His face was completely underwater for a minute when a wave came over the side of the boat â€¦"
"Who?" I ask.
Maris Utinans, apparently taking a break from working on the Ra joins us. "Me!" Utinans replies. "I was underwater." The men all laugh as Svikulis reenacts how they pulled Utinans, by the back of his head, out of the water.
"And you still go to sea?" I ask Utinans.
"Yes, of course. I love it!" he replies.
"Those are the times when I am only surviving," Barda says. "I think of nothing but that moment and what needs to be done. I make big promises to God, too," he chuckles. "I promise to become a Christianâ€¦ you knowâ€¦ promises like that. Those are the times that I really am alive."
Six-year-old Annija, wearing a bright orange life jacket, has been catching crawfish for hours. Her small bucket of water is now teaming with them. She approaches us, carrying a tiny crawfish and explains that she wants to devise a method of tagging each fish before returning it to the sea at the end of the day. Perhaps she can number them? she asks. We say, maybe not. She looks slightly disappointed as she gently holds the creature in her hand. "He's lost a little leg," she tells me, pointing to a stump where an appendage had been.
"I'm so sorry," I say. Then noticing the crayfish trying to grab her, I ask, "Will it hurt if he pinches you?"
She gently places her small finger between his pinchers, "No, it tickles!" She says giggling as the crawfish pinches her.
On her word, I give it a try. The crawfish gives me a hard pinch and I yelp like a puppy. Annija shakes her head and walks away.
I look up at the Ad Nauseam where Annija's parents, Egils Vitols and Ieva, are working diligently on the deck. Seagulls swoop through the clear blue sky as shashlik and sausages sizzle on the barbecue grill. The Long Island Yacht Clubs with their $80,000 slips are a lifetime and a million miles away from me, here in Mangali, Latvia. I am with people who go to the sea to remember who they areâ€¦ people who work tirelessly through beautiful spring days with azure skies and budding trees to make their yachts seaworthy for the summer. I am with people who would rather face their own mortality on occasion than face a life without the sun overhead and the sea beneath them; people who teach their children to respect the sea as well as its creatures.
Suddenly I remember a quote that I read while doing research for this article on the Internet. It was a quote from a book called "First You Have to Row a Little Boat" by Richard Bode.
Bode wrote: "For the truth is that I already know as much about my fate as I need to know. The day will come when I will die. So the only matter of consequence before me is what I will do with my allotted time. I can remain on shore, paralyzed with fear, or I can raise my sails and dip and soar in the breeze."
This yacht club is not about prestige, pomp, or ceremonyâ€¦ These are simply people who choose to dip and soar.
For more info on Yachting in the Baltics go to www.sailingbaltic.com