Only a block off Lamar Avenue, the stretch of Highway 78 that cuts through Memphis, at the intersection of I-40, an intrepid urban geographer might stumble upon a most unlikely sight. Four hundred miles from the nearest blue water and just under ten from the Mississippi River is a marina of sorts, filled with ocean-going sailboats, arrayed about an old service station circumscribed by chain link and barbed wire, a port in a storm of blacktop and concrete.
I’ve been an armchair sailor since I was a child, when my father filled my head with the idea of skipping like a flat stone from island to island up and down the Caribbean, from the Greater to the Lesser Antilles. I used to dream of making my own itinerary and living only by the raising and lowering of sails and anchor. As a young, newly married man eighteen years ago, the closest I ever got to those exotic places was Rooke Sails. Times were tight; children came along, and the idea of leaving everything behind to zigzag the Gulf from Florida to Texas to Mexico became a distant memory until recently, when on the way back from delivering a friend to the Memphis airport, rounding a bend in the interstate, the masts came into view as though they had just breached the horizon.
Landlocked in a neighborhood of warehouses, all-night convenience stores and urban decay, where FedEx planes come in close on their approach to the country’s busiest cargo airport, Chris Rooke has sold and hitched sailboats from coast to coast for forty-three years. At more than six feet tall and sixty-five years of age, Rooke has white hair that recedes like the tide to reveal a charted map of age spots, the effects of a lifetime in the sun. His white beard confirms his years and seaworthiness. In greeting me, he gazes down with eyes not unlike the sea or the sky in their blueness, and I can see signs of youth and a glint of troublemaking in those pools.
“I sell escapism,” Rooke tells me. I nod my head as my six-year-old daughter watches the tiger-striped tabby cat that wanders among the rolled jibs, the spools of line, and rusting trailers. “If you don’t rest your saw,” he says, “it’s going to get dull.” He sees sailing as more than mere recreation, as a way for people to bond, for parents to get to know their children. He, too, nods toward my daughter. “Everyone is the same size on a sailboat.”
Rooke learned to sail from his father, a tinkerer who built his own boat in their backyard and took his young son along with him to crew in regattas on lakes near and far. The pair worked as a team to trim their sails and cut a few seconds from their time here and there, tacking quickly and soundly around the far buoy and loving the feel of the spray in their faces. It was the beginning of a lifelong passion for Rooke, and a career that began with sail making and expanded to include brokering boats from his home dock in Memphis and, over the phone and Internet, to all points on the map. As the business has grown over time he and his wife, Charlotte, have cultivated a reputation in the communities that set sail on the many lakes of Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, and the Carolinas, and elsewhere in the country and world.
Rooke has forgotten more about sailing and sailboats than most sailors will ever know. He is intimate with the personalities of these boats, their nuances and their secrets. He can trace the line of ownership on a boat slipped at Paris Landing to the first time he sold it off a lake in Muscle Shoals. When he talks, Rooke lists to one side or the other, and if you don’t know your starboard from your port, you could miss the point. He’ll show you boats and tell you tales, and should you find yourself on his lot, be sure to ask him about the time he trailered a boat to Nantucket, home of Starbuck and Ahab, for a client. The long haul involved brake failures, the generosity of a tow truck driver named Bubba, and completing the last leg of the delivery by sail after missing the ferry.
As I listen to Rooke, I run my palm along the smooth rounded hull of a boat on stanchions like a beached whale. I walk my little girl around to point out the colors, the keels hanging dry as though awaiting the second great flood of the century. We read the names together and I explain that all boats are girls and that all boats are beautiful in their own way. Adrift on dreams and wonder, my daughter and I close our eyes and imagine the rushing sounds of the interstate as the distant pounding of the surf. “Do you hear that?” I vow that someday we will sail together.
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