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peter mitchell The Globe and Mail

My husband was a sailor.

When Mike was on a sailboat, he spoke another language that included words such as whisker pole, clew and sacrificial anode. Somehow, I was supposed to understand what these words meant despite being a landlubber most of my life.

Sailing, I have learned, isn't just a hobby or even a passion. For many sailors, it is the lens through which they view the world.

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The sea ran through Mike's veins. He came by it honestly. His father had been in the Royal Navy and Mike grew up around boats from the time his family immigrated to Canada and settled in Halifax. He served in the Coast Guard. He had sailed competitively - even participating in Olympic trials. For three summers, he skippered a 110-foot private yacht, taking celebrities and other glitterati around New York harbour.

While he was comfortable on any kind of boat, he was truly in his skin at the helm of a sailboat - the wind in the sails, the waves breaking on the bow and a clear horizon ahead.

When we met, more than 20 years ago, he hadn't sailed for some time. A failed marriage, alcohol and depression had dominated the previous few years and hadn't allowed for sailboats and seagoing.

As we began our life together, the rigours of raising kids and building careers seemed to overshadow everything. At first, I thought he was content to leave his sailing days behind him. But each time we found ourselves near a shoreline, I could see a change in his demeanour. Not excitement, as I might have expected, but rather a sense of comfort, of belonging to the water.

It became gradually apparent to me that he had always viewed his world with a sailor's eye. Mike would keep a "log" of all house maintenance or repairs. Everything had to be "shipshape and Bristol fashion." The backyard was not called the backyard; it was "down aft."

About 10 years ago, we began renting a sailboat for a week each summer. Although it was always an enjoyable time - often the anticipation of and preparation for it even better - there was a sense of loss in Mike's eyes each time we packed up our gear and headed back to our land life for another year. It was just a matter of time, I knew, before that sense of loss might be too much.

Seven years ago, we were driving back from a weekend on a friend's sailboat. Mike was quiet, as he usually was when leaving a boatyard. "Do you think it's time we bought a sailboat?" I asked.

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Mike continued driving without any obvious reaction. But there was a change in him, almost imperceptible. "You know what this means, don't you?" he replied. I thought I did.

By that evening, Mike had downloaded descriptions of about 30 boats from the Internet. "We'll start with these," he said.

The next several months saw a flurry of visits to marinas and boatyards, meetings with boat brokers and endless earnest talk about the features of the C&C 32 versus the Nonsuch 30 and countless other boats. We were completely caught up in this adventure, but while I was an observer watching a lovely new part of my life unfold, for Mike it was something more elemental.

We finally bought our boat and spent blissful days sailing it and not-so-blissful days waxing the hull or making repairs. Over the years, we persevered through storms. We anchored in peaceful coves. And on days of brilliant sun and steady winds we were very near heaven.

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Through it all, Mike sailed the boat as if it were his arms and legs. The sail and the sailor were one. And I finally began to understand the difference between passion and nature.

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Mike didn't simply love sailing. He needed it. It was his nature to sail. Sailing wasn't a diversion from his workaday life - it was the way he lived his life.

I know now that the lessons and home truths he had learned on the water had formed his character. And the only way he could navigate the ups and downs of life was to see them as rogue waves or rocky shoals. Did sailing mimic life or did life mimic sailing? I don't know. Either way, it was his skipper's eye and instinct that enabled him to face the challenges each presented.

That day in the car seven years ago, I didn't understand the real significance of suggesting we buy a boat. I didn't appreciate that a door was reopening for him, that a compass once lost had been refound. But I'm glad I asked that question.

Mike died suddenly of a heart attack a few months ago. He fell, unconscious, just metres from the shore. The sparkling blue water had lured him home for the last time.

Joan Woodrow lives in Prince Edward County, Ont.

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