SAILING AT THE SUMMER PALACE

© 2017 DAVID FRASER

Ever since my dad took me, age 10, out in a dinghy in Regent's Park Lake in London and we were becalmed for an hour, I have loved sailing. So when traveling rough through China years ago with a friend from the Bronx, we spotted a dinghy rental place on a shallow manmade lake north of Beijing, it was impossible to resist.

Kunming Lake graces the Summer Palace, the suburban 19th century watering hole of China's emperors escaping the dry summer heat of Beijing. Breezes and greenery helped keep the Qing Dynasty royals and their retainers from sweating overmuch, and it is said they popped into the lake for a swim before cocktails in the evenings.

Dominating the shore was an extraordinary creation, the Marble Boat of the Dowager Empress Ci Xi, she of the long fingernails and longer political reach. In 1893, despite foreign occupation of China and the shadow of a rapidly industrializing war-hungry Japan, Her Majesty ordered the rebuilding of the boat, a two-story structure complete with fake paddle wheels. The royally embezzled funds were supposed to go to build a modern Navy.

Also known as the Boat of Purity and Ease, the Marble Boat was originally built in 1755 on a solid stone base. Its wooden pavilion, painted to look like marble, had burned in 1860 during an attack on the Summer Palace by British and French expeditionary forces, who were admittedly more used to assailing each other but made an imperialist exception in the case of the Celestial Empire.

For a modern foreign traveler from exotic Meiguo (America), what could be better than coasting up to the visitor-laden Marble Boat in a dinghy with a fetching  shipmate, to be admired by the 5,000 or so mostly Chinese tourists ringing the lake and taking summer selfies aboard?

"Are you sure you know what you're doing?" asked the dinghy rental guy in Chinese. "Mei wenti," I replied, no problem, yours truly is an experienced skipper of poorly made small boats plying two-meter-deep lakes.

Oddly, his words foreshadowed those of my companion. Myra, around 5 feet tall,  had long black hair that flowed to her waist unbraided beneath a tiny straw hat, and occasionally during our trip had to be rescued by the gendarmerie from crowds who -- back in the day -- were mesmerized by a nice Jewish Bronx lady publicly smoking a cigarette in the People's Republic.

We tacked smoothly away from the dock. "Let's sail up to the Marble Boat," I said to the first mate. "Look at all the people... it will be so cool."

Two minutes later we heeled slightly to starboard and ran aground 30 feet off the Marble Boat.

"Shit," said Myra, lapsing into her native Throgs Neck patois. The tourist masses stopped taking selfies and started giggling and pointing. "Not to worry," I reassured the landlubber. "We'll just rock from side to side and that will dislodge us."

It didn't.

Neither did pulling the sail in and out sharply. That did, however, act as a Red Flag (if I may put it that way), drawing in those Chinese and foreign comrades along the shore who realized they were missing a drama worthy of Peking Opera.

After a few minutes of awkwardness it became clear what I would have to do. "Hold the tiller that way," I said, lowering myself over the side and into the mud. Myra gave me a smile that somehow highlighted her sharpened teeth. The crowds roared as I sank up to mid-ass.

"Wei! Kuai lai kan lao wai!" (Hey, hurry up and come look at the foreigner!) seemed to be the comment of choice, although it was hard to tell as the dialects proliferated and the volume rose.

"Turn the boat around," yelled a helpful young man from Hong Kong, in English. I refrained from splashing him, mostly, as I walked the bow around 180 degrees so the onlookers could admire my sweat-soaked polo shirt and steady nerve amid adversity.

Knowing there were now approximately 12,000 watchers eager to learn my technique, I had Myra lean way back while I belly flopped in over the side. A horizontal glimpse at the Marble Boat showed mothers and fathers holding up fat babies who also seemed to be laughing at something in the water.

With considerable sangfroid, I pulled my muddy white legs aboard and undaunted, took the tiller from the first mate, who appeared to crouch low, hiding  behind her hair, which billowed across in the light breeze to tickle my face. "Are you sure you know what you're doing, now?" she inquired.

"Here we go," I said merrily, letting the sail out and as surely as the Great Helmsman Mao Zedong himself, steering intrepidly for 20 seconds before ramming another hidden mudbank.

As 400,000 happy hysterical visitors piled onto the Marble Boat, all seeming to be wearing blue jackets and pointing at something amusant in the lake, the dinghy guy started up his motor boat and headed our way, waving a long rope.

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Some people stow things properly in their airport luggage for check-in. Others, running late, take the approach that there's nothing wrong with stuffing their carry-on with clear plastic bags containing a Bear Grylls survival knife, VHF radio, GPS, and marlinspikes that the TSA guy probably won't eyeball. David Fraser has been known to miss the plane as well as the boat. He tries very hard to live up to his credo that teaching sailing is mostly a matter of sharing imbecilic things he may possibly have done. Somehow, despite serving as Rear Commodore and Port Captain for Cal Sailing during several leadership vacuums, he made it to Cruising Skipper. He continues to teach through example.  

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