A long time ago, when we were green-as-grass sailors still attempting to fathom the differences between gudgeons and pintles and where to find the garboard strakes or why the running backstay on the starboard side wouldn't hold its tension, we fell in with a group of folks who over the years would become close friends, always ready to lend a hand, offer a bit of advice, or grab a bow line when trying to land in vicious crosswinds on an ugly day.
I don't suppose sailors are different in these respects from any other close-knit group of old friends. The good ones are always there in need, standing by with a helping hand but yet wary of intruding where their help was not really needed. After a while you might tend to take that for granted, but I have learned the only way to take it is in the deepest respect and admiration for what their friendship really means. It means the world.
This struck home the other day when we were sitting on a back row at St. Peter The Fisherman's Catholic Church in Oriental, down on the lower Neuse whether the waters are wider than at any point on the Mississippi, or so I have read. It was a a Sunday Mass for our old friend Don Sinkiewicz, who died in March. Don and his wife Sharon had been our next-door slipmates a long time ago at Kerr Lake, up near the N.C.-Virginia border, at Steele Creek Marina. They had a 26-foot Erickson and we had just acquired an old 25-foot Coronado, and we needed to know a lot more about our vessel than we knew when we got it. In his easy-going way, Don (and Sharon, too) helped us understand the things we were doing wrong and gently pointed us in the right directions -- when to let the genoa sheet fly during a tack, how to trim the mainsail on a beam reach, that sort of thing. And he clued us in to the traditions of the local yacht club pig-pickins, when the ribs and chicken wings seemed to mysteriously disappear shortly before dinner. They really weren't ribless pigs or boneless chickens we were cooking, he explained with a smile; you just have to get there early enough to see 'em and grab one or two before they migrate elsewhere.
And then there was Ed Bilicki, a quiet man who could do anything in the world and who rarely spoke until everyone else had had their say -- and who then would come up with the most intelligent thing said or the best advice or the pithiest comment in that whole discussion. He and his wife Rainy (their boat named, of course, "Rainy Day") brought a boatload of common sense and simple solutions to a pursuit that many find way too confusing and far too costly to pursue. But Ed and Rainy had gotten through lean days when Ed was an enlisted man in the Air Force -- before the military sent him to college to become a meteorologist and an officer -- and they showed how working people could afford to maintain and sail a vessel and bring it back without tearing it up.
Ed was in many ways the most competent man I knew. His scientific background seemed to be built around an innate understanding of machines, materials, processes and outcomes. Rainy would ask him to build something she had seen somewhere and in due time, it would appear -- intricate marquetry, complicated joinery, ingenious gizmos with compound angles that would fold away neatly into some corner of the main saloon or a crowded cockpit. He sometimes made what you needed and installed it while you were away, and waved off whatever he had done with a boyish smile and a change of conversation. Men and women loved him for his easy ways and constant and thoughtful friendship and valuable personal counsel.
One day last year Ed and Rainy lost their adult son to a sudden heart attack. I have often wondered how parents are able to deal with the loss of a child, and I cannot imagine the unending heartbreak. And just 17 months later, Ed had his own heart attack, one that led to his death Monday after the best efforts of modern medicine and constant vigil by Rainy, their daughter Heather and a long line of family members and friends who visited at Rex Hospital.
We sat up late with a bottle or three the other night, on the screen porch of old shipmates in the quiet coastal village where Ed and Rainy and others of our sailing crowd now live, and where Don and Sharon kept their handsome trawler "Time Out." We relived old days with fine friends, telling stories funny and sad, remembering kindnesses from long ago, ancient jokes, dockside rituals, certain libations consumed, rarely but sometimes to excess, talking about some of the finest people we have ever known. We are the richer and wiser for having known Don and Ed and another dozen or so boating friends who made our lives fuller -- and who showed us grace under pressure as well as elegance under sail. We will miss them, mightily. Godspeed.