Ellen Cassedy is the author of We Are Here: Memories of the Lithuanian Holocaust. In this interview, she speaks about discovering her Litvak heritage and her connection to the future of Lithuania.
I stood in front of Union Station with my "Lietuva" duffel bag on my back, my foul weather gear hung neatly on a hanger thrown over my shoulder, feeling like a seasoned veteran. Sure, I had never done the Chicago Yacht Club's annual Race to Mackinac, but I had just sailed up Lake Huron. I was experienced.
That evening at dinner, I regaled my cousins with stories of sailing under star-filled skies and searching for wind in the fog. And, I answered as nonchalantly as I could the most commonly asked questions, "How did you get on this boat?"
It was a hot Saturday morning; I was dressed in an official Detroit Tigers polo shirt and matching baseball cap as I headed out to my boat. I had gotten the call only a week earlier to join the crew of Chico 2 for the 88th Port Huron to Mackinac Race hosted by the Bayview Yacht Club and sponsored by Bell's Beer. Yes, the race came with all the Oberon you could drink!
The boat is a 1D35, a fast boat designed especially for racing. (I sail on one in San Francisco called Alpha Puppy.) It's got a sparse cabin, but I was happy to hear that one of my crewmates had gotten the head (toilet) working just for me—I'm the first girl ever to race on Chico 2. As per tradition, the four professional sports teams in Detroit drew boats to represent them in the race and the Tigers drew us, which explained my unorthodox sailing outfit.
Just before 10:00 am, we pulled our docklines and eased our way toward St. Clair river. The mood in downtown Port Huron was light and fun with over 200 boats flying their colors, all crew on deck, waving to the massive crowds. As we paraded past the Port Huron Yacht Club, an announcer called out the names and skippers of all the boats. It was quite a sight to be in the middle of so many sailboats, all going the same way for the same purpose: to race as fast as they could up the 230 nautical miles of Lake Huron to Mackinac Island.
With a month on Lake Charlevoix doing little else besides sailing under my belt, I thought I was ready for the San Francisco Bay. After all, it does get pretty windy on the main basin. I found out quickly that on the Bay, sailing is the easy part, and racing is a whole other day at sea.
Thinking that it would be hard to find a boat in need of sailors, I put my name on every crew list in San Francisco. Barely 48 hours went by before I got my first phone call. Within a week, I had a choice of boats. Early one Saturday morning, I took the bus across town to the South Beach harbor where I was a last-minute addition to the crew on Akyla—it means Shark in Russian. The boat is aptly named, because five minutes after I stepped aboard, I felt like I had been thrown to the sharks, all my skills in doubt. What little I knew about sailboat racing—Tuesday nights in Boyne City followed by cheeseburgers and beers at the BRI—did not prepare me for the level of intensity involved in sailing on Akyla in the Champion of Champions race on the San Francisco Bay. I thought I was pretty fluent in the parts of a sailboat, until now. Moments after we shoved off, there were commands being shouted—fortunately not all at me—that may as well have been in Russian. I mean, what's a cunningham, a vang, or a running backstay? I couldn't have told you then, but I can tell you now, they all change the shape of the sail, though on a level that was far beyond my understanding.
It was a blustery day on the South Arm of Lake Charlevoix for the annual Ironworks Regatta. Sailing from Boyne City to East Jordan brought the boats with their spinnakers across the lake in front of our house around 3:00 pm. With the nice northerly wind at our backs, we decided to join them. We hadn't raised our spinnaker in almost two seasons, but what the heck, we got it out of the garage and gave it a try.
There was some debate between my dad and I about how exactly we should rig the sail. We own a beautiful symmetrical spinnaker custom-made for us by Yager Sails & Canvas in Spokane, WA. A Christmas gift for my dad from my brothers and I, its panels are yellow, green, and red, the colors of the Lithuanian flag. Traditionally we have sailed the spinnaker in pretty much the same style that my family does anything else: We bought it, hoisted it up, and figured the rest out later. My dad pointed the boat down-lake to run with the wind and cut the motor while I grabbed the sail bag and crawled up to the bow. I pulled the sail out of the bag (up to this point it had never occurred to any of us that there is a correct way to pack a spinnaker to guarantee it will deploy without getting tangled). Since we don't have a spinnaker pole, one way we've tried to rig it is by tying a short line to one of the clews like a tackline and tying the other end to the pulpit rail, with both sheets tied to the other clew. (Yes, we were trying to make an asymmetrical spinnaker out of a symmetrical spinnaker.) However, I decided to raise the sail before tying that little line on, or even passing the sheets back to my dad at the tiller. I just attached the halyard and hoisted the sail into the heavens. Panic ensued. Let's call this, Launch Number One.
It is a luxury for most people to quit their job and spend a summer on the lake reading, writing, painting, and of course, honing their sailing skills. Indeed, I count myself among those people—but that is exactly what I'm doing this summer.
It was a calm afternoon when I arrived at my family's cottage on Lake Charlevoix in Northern Michigan. Without any wind to tempt me towards the water, I spent the time unpacking and setting up my workspace. The next morning was equally calm, and so after fixing a hearty Sunday breakfast, I sat myself down in front of the computer, anxious to start crossing things off my To Do list.
It wasn't long before the American flags that line the shore up and down the lake stood erect in a brisk breeze, drawing my gaze away from the computer and out the windows toward the little Victoria 18 tied to a buoy just beyond the drop-off.
My favorite word in Lithuanian, grybauti, means “to go mushrooming.” In English, the meaning is simple and to the point, but in Lithuanian, the sentiment of the word is much more poetic. I didn't fully understand it until recently, when some friends put me in a pair of rubber boots, handed me a basket and a knife, and drove to a “secret spot” some 20km outside of Vilnius on a cold, damp morning.
In Lithuanian, the word užupis means “beyond the river,” though the Vilnelė River, which divides Užupis from the Vilnius Old Town, is more of a winding creek. In 1997, a group of bohemian artists and writers declared the neighborhood independent and founded the People’s Republic of Užupis. Independence Day is April 1st, and a sign marking the entrance to the district features four distinct symbols including a smiley face and the Mona Lisa warning you of “art ahead.”
March 11, 2010 (Kovo 11-ąją), celebrates the 20th anniversary of modern-day, independent Lithuania; though it was nearly three and a half tumultuous years before the last Soviet troops retreated to Moscow. On this day I reflect on my first trip to Lithuania, and all the things I could not have done if it were not for those brave men and women who stood up to the Supreme Soviet and declared their independence.
There are ducks in New Zealand that mate for life. I don't remember their name. The female has a white head, and the male a black one and we first saw them while kayaking in Milford Sound. In Christchurch, they stroll through the Botanic Gardens in pairs, resting in the sun on the banks of the Avon River.
Christchurch has been accused of being "too English"... but that is precisely what I like about it. A European city of turn-of-the-century stone buildings with cozy sidewalk cafes and quaint English punts taking tourists along the river, situated on the shore of the South Pacific and protected on the west by the Southern Alps.