All Aboard: Sailing 101

Sailing has been on my bucket list for years. I’ve always felt drawn to the ocean and more specifically boats and marinas. I love seeing the mast silhouettes in the harbor at sunset – perhaps it’s the symmetry or the nuanced style each vessel proudly displays. The paint jobs tell only part of the story. Often the name, which is stenciled on the stern (back) or side, tells much more. Monikers like Hot Flash, Kid’s Inheritance and Golden Years tell of leisurely retirements spent on the open seas, while Radio Flyer, Taxi Dancer and Liberty indicate a freedom and movement more associated with racing sailboats.

Last fall I decided to step through the veiled sheet of the sailing world and take a course from the Santa Barbara Sailing Center. Normally the course runs 10 weeks and includes both classroom tutorials and on-board practical knowledge. Wanting to finish sooner, three of us agreed to a 4 day accelerated version of Sailing 101. Taking me back to college days of cramming, I digested the entire book over a weekend and learned about a 1000 new terms. Everything has a foreign name – ropes are lines, left is port, right is starboard, sails are sheets (main, jib, kite or spinnaker), buoys are fenders, front is bow and back is stern…the list goes on.

Our instructor was a ruddy-faced boy, who appeared to be only moments out of high school. Raised on the water, sailing in his bones, however he had yet to learn the finesse of handling three adult women with little sea experience and short attention spans. Our tardiness and incessant interruptions were met with confusion and borderline exasperation as we fumbled through learning to tack or jibe, the difference between windward and leeward, dozens of age-old knots and rules like right-red-return (the color of buoys to direct harbor traffic).

The course was a whirlwind of information for me, as I had not sailed since I was 12 at Girl Scout summer camp on a Payette Lake in Idaho.  Nothing felt familiar and the mass of the J24 (24 foot long boat) felt like an overwhelming responsibility. The most unnerving part was getting it out of the harbor (under sail vs. motor) without hitting anything. Using a rudder to steer, sometimes I would panic and pull it the wrong direction, causing the boat to careen toward a dock full of nearby yachts. During these moments I appreciated the overbearing, young instructor barking decisive orders at us.

Much like riding a bike, sailing is largely about feel. Sometimes the captain is making only minor corrections (trimming) to wind-filled sails to keep them tight enough to move the boat in the direction desired. It’s a balance struck by “watching the wind” as it passes across the water and through the sheets. It’s not an exact science, however, which introduces the slippery slope of human judgment. Countless decisions up for debate include when to turn, which sails to raise and weight distribution.

Leisure sailing is dramatically different than racing. Going out for a pleasure sail typically means a smaller crew of knowledgeable hands working together to follow a path designated by the captain. There is casual conversation, perhaps cocktails and an air of R&R. Conversely; racing comes with the sweaty smell of competition. While the prize for winners of smaller, local races are typically only a mug or a non-descript glass plaque; these competitors treat it like it’s the Hunger Games. They fine tune processes and procedures and double-check their equipment with military dedication.

While unacceptable during leisure sail, boats in a race come within inches of one another at alarming speeds as crew scramble to make adjustments work in tandem on a myriad of tasks like steering (captain at the helm), watching for pesky seaweed (which gloms to the keel and slows the boat) and trimming (adjusting the slack to make efficient) sails.

After much hesitation about being a novice, I finally volunteered to crew. Having no experience, I was relegated to “rail meat,” which basically means they use me for my body weight. So as the boat is tacking (zigzag to best use the wind), my job is to race back and forth across the center of the boat and dangle my feet across the edge. The weight helps keep the boat balanced and thus moving efficiently. I quickly learned that gloves are key (protect against rough ropes and an assortment of other sharp items), as is a waterproof jacket (getting wet is inevitable) and clothes you can basically break dance in, as the racing across the bow is typically done in a slithering (feet first, on the back is recommended) fashion. Bruising is almost guaranteed.

I’ve now been out a handful of times. Slowly the lingo is taking hold and I’m better anticipating how to stay out of the way. I’ve also updated my wardrobe (top siders, anchor jewelry, nylon fingerless gloves), so I have all the cute sailing accessories. I figure I can at least look good, even if I’m a total beginner. My next step will be to come off the rail and actually become useful.




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