The next time I come to the lake, it’s June. I want to get a 360-degree view of everything, so I join Jim McCraw on race committee, where we’ll be charting checkpoint and finishing times of all the boats. McCraw has a self-described “fu-manchu” mustache. It occurs to me that if “share three interesting things about yourself” were a contest, McCraw would win running away. He gets to the lake as often as he can, weekdays often included. He spends Valentine’s Day with his wife, Linda, on his boat, Wasting Time, bringing candles and flowers and DVDs. Linda is the boat’s admiral, a common term among sailors to indicate who calls the shots. McCraw’s family owns a 200-year-old farm that his nephew now runs. It’s been in his family for generations—he used to be a dairy farmer during the Carter administration, but a drought in 1980 put him out of business. His great-great grandfather was a surveyor for the lower third of Missouri, which was mostly forest at the time. He has a love for British cars, borne out of a desire to be different; now he’s turned it into a passion, helping found a club in 1999 and organizing monthly rides and an annual car show in Carthage.
McCraw is drawn to sailing for its solitary nature and the mental acuity it requires. “You gotta be self-sufficient,” he says. “If something breaks, generally you fix it yourself.” His boat, with its intricate wirings and DVD capabilities and every last detail accounted for, should have MTV’s attention. “Just like people drive cars, a lot of them don’t know anything about the car,” McCraw says. “I’d say 25 percent of us do work on our own stuff, the other 25 percent know absolutely nothing about the boat, the other 50 percent are somewhere in between.”
It’s not a particularly windy day, which is more or less a death sentence for a day on the lake. At one point in the middle of the afternoon McCraw and I look on as a few of the boats come to a standstill. Sailing is a sport that doesn’t hide its metaphors, and it’s here that all the times water is used as a parable in literature start to make more sense to me. At one point, Mother Nature lays it on thick as it starts to rain. But there’s no tarp or rain delays and we all soldier on until it stops. I am now an expert at using a stopwatch and writing numbers down, and I get thanked a few times for helping. Though it’s not strenuous work, I feel accomplished, having weathered the elements to deliver accurate results.
A Lasting Passion
Paul Nahon is among the best racers at the club, winner of 14 Governor’s Cups, and about as good an ambassador for the sport as you’ll find. He looks a bit like a newsman—well-coiffed hair and a deep, confident baritone. When he’s not sailing, he’s busy winning tennis championships as General Manager of the Springfield Lasers, a World TeamTennis team. But the lake is where Nahon is most himself, operating around the boat with a calculated nimbleness. He is naturally enthusiastic, and he loves that you’re enthusiastic too.
Nahon has been with the club for 26 years, throughout its several transformations and leadership changes and driving to the lake on the weekends as much as possible. When he was around 7 years old, he read By the Great Horn Spoon!, and it spoke to him. “I was trying to read all these books and I read it and it talked about sailing around the cape of South America and when I read that it kind of intrigued me,” he says. In his sophomore year of college at Southwest Missouri State, now Missouri State, he fell in love twice. First, with his now-wife, Angel. They met at a gas station when his sister, a friend of hers at the time, introduced them. It was then, too, that Nahon broke his wrist playing tennis right before nationals. With the time he couldn’t use with a racket, he took up sailing. Love struck again.
“I sailed all summer,” Nahon says. “And it was windy all summer. So my buddy—he was a Jimmy Buffett-type guy—and I sailed the whole summer and that’s where I kind of got to the point where he said, “Ok, you can take my boat any time.”
Nahon moved to California after school, and really got into racing at Manhattan Beach, where he discovered he liked the teamwork aspect of working with a crew in unison. It was a contrast to the often lonely nature of tennis, and he took to it.
The water is the backdrop of Nahon’s best stories, like the time he chartered a boat to Mexico while living in California selling boats. On the way back, he and his crew got caught up in a storm, traversing through violent winds before arriving in San Diego, dehydrated and beat up. They sailed to the wrong customs and were told that they were in violation of international law. They were let off, sailed to the right customs, and counted their blessings.
Angel tells me that sailing “fulfills” her husband, that it fuels his competitive nature. She doesn’t go out on the boat much, but she does put her background as an art teacher to good use, painting from pictures she’s taken while sitting on the dock. People ask her why she allows her husband to disappear on the weekends, and she’s baffled by the question. “He’s happy doing what he’s doing—I’m happy for him,’” she says.
When his son Paul Nahon III passed away in 2013, Paul was overcome with grief. Just 20 years old, he was an accomplished tennis player who won two state tennis titles in 2010 and 2011. Paul woke up and cried every day, feeling nothing but loss. He tried distracting himself with tennis, but it didn’t give him the respite he craved. So he turned to sailing.
“In tennis and other things that distracted me, I was almost being physically abusive to myself,” Nahon says. “Not in a bad way, but pushing myself too hard because I had this anger, and sailing seemed, that didn’t bring that out of me. [Paul] was my buddy for ten years out on the tennis court, so that was painful, whereas sailing was completely different.”
One month after his son’s death, Nahon won the Governor’s Cup. He realized in that moment how much sailing meant to him, that even in his darkest hour, there was something he loved so much that, if only for a few fleeting hours, he could forget. He could forget about the immense loss that clouded him and retreat to his place of refuge on the water.
There’s a certain catharsis that can only be found in the things we are most passionate about—having something that provides an escape from the cacophony of noise that permeates everyday life. The backdrops are innumerable—for the members of the Lake Stockton Yacht Club, that place just happens to be the water. It’s where time slows down and instinct takes over.
“When I get out there, every component of [sailing] is a getaway,” Nahon says. “And when I get away, every component of it is relaxing, even though it’s crazy out there, everything slows down. And it takes your mind away from everything. You don’t have anything to think about but executing the wind and every component of it. To me it’s like meditation. I’d do it every day if I could.”