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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 31 page 02


sailboat nearing large freighter

The Crossing

by Jon Spencer

Fonyay buckled the lifejacket across his chest. His fingers were stiff and raw with the early morning chill. It was dark, the sun was not yet awake. “The wind quiets just before dawn, like it is waiting for the sun to speak,” his father used to say. Fonyay stood on the dock holding his knapsack, shivering, watching the man raise the mainsail and cleat the halyard. The sail hung lifeless.

“It's cold, but the water is flat,” the man said as he stepped off the boat, on to the dock beside Fonyay. “The breeze will freshen from the west once the sun gets up.” He tucked his hand into his jacket pocket to pull out his cigarettes. “One day. It's the shortest point across, from here to Toronto Island,” he said, as he stabbed a cigarette into his mouth. “Don't worry about the other side, just ground it on the beach, you'll be fine. Step here.”

He motioned Fonyay to step into the small sailboat. It was 23 feet long, an old Kirby sailboat, with a tiny, grimy cabin, enough to lie down in, store his knapsack, but not much else. The name “Knot Home” was described in peeling black electrical tape on the transom. He stepped into the cockpit unsteadily, tossed his small knapsack into the cabin, sat down, picked up the mainsail sheet with his right hand and grasped the tiller.

“OK?” the man asked. Fonyay nodded, his stomach churning with anxiety and fear. The man uncleated the painter from the dock, pulled the boat along to get it going and tossed the rope onto the moving boat. He pushed the stay to send the sailboat off across the glassy water of the marina.

“Remember, look for the red buoy when the water gets choppy, then steer for the CN Tower,” he said, as he cupped his hands to light his cigarette. “You'll ride the current all the way, don't worry,” he said. The boat floated uncertainly toward the channel. The man stepped back, shoved his hands in his jacket pockets as he watched the little boat glide softly away.

The water was smooth as a tabletop. Fonyay looked east. There was the faintest crack of fire splintering the horizon. He checked his watch: 4:35 a.m. He looked back to see the man on the dock, smoking, watching. Fonyay had floated into the channel now, the barest breath of air caught the top of the mainsail. The boat drifted toward the concrete wall of the channel. Fonyay pushed the tiller out. The boat turned toward the wall, the bow bumped and scraped along the abrasive concrete. Panicking, he pulled and pushed the tiller until the boat straightened out alongside the wall. Fonyay pushed along the wall to guide the boat back into the channel, pulling the tiller towards him.

He took a deep breath, his heart thumping. Relax, you can do this. As he exited the channel he looked back at the dock. The man was getting into his car.

His friend Rafael had been wrong. Rafael had said the man would take him across, but this man had insisted on only selling him a boat. Fonyay was reluctant. He had taken only a few sailing lessons in Boston a couple of years ago, just day sailing in the harbour. But he knew the basics. Even so, this crossing would be unlike anything he had ever done before.

Back home in Cameroon, he had visited Lake Barombi with his parents one time. His father had paddled the pirogue, his mother sat facing his father, while Fonyay, all of six years old, perched up front, over his mother's objections, trying to fish with a piece of twine hanging from a stick. He caught nothing in that brown, muddy water.

Africans don't sail, he thought. Except maybe now.

The breeze came from the west, just as the man said, as the sun pried open the dawn clouds. Fonyay switched sides, his back to the wind, and looked up at the sails. Both jib and mainsail were filling out, the tiny red bits of wool on the sails, the “ticklers”, were starting to fly straight. The water burbled in conversation beneath the hull, as the boat tilted slightly and the wind carried him out into the lake. Fonyay tugged the mainsheet to pull in the sail, cleated it, then uncleated the jib sheet and pulled it towards him. Instantly, the boat quickened, tilted even more as the sails caught the wind. He felt good.

“I can do this. I can do this,” he whispered. “Stay calm. Focus. Just one day.” Lights blinked on in the houses along the shore. He could see lawn chairs on the docks. He sailed along the shore like this for an hour or more, making good headway, the wind steady. The sun was up, the sky clear and blue, a few clouds made gold by the morning rays, his body warming. He could feel the water changing, the waves getting short and choppy. The little Kirby sliced through the chop as if it was enjoying itself.