Sailing Lessons

In my fantasy life as a sailor, the weather is always perfect—sunny and warm (but not hot), with a steady breeze blowing from exactly the right direction. In every scenario, my boat is tugged forward with an energetic breeze—thrilling, but never alarming.

Sometimes, I force myself to admit that sailors will encounter rough weather. I remind myself that high winds and rough seas are dangerous for my small, unballasted boat. My unquenchable thirst for sailing literature—with its tales of storms and high seas– helps me stay humble and cautious.

I'm either asking a question or blowing on the sails.

I'm either asking a question or blowing on the sails.

But what never intrudes into my daydreams (and rarely shows up in the classic tales of sailing adventure) is the tedious reality of less than perfect weather—days marred by rain, cold and, especially, the absence of wind. Yet these are the forces of nature that have bedeviled me all summer. I am starting to realize that the number of truly perfect sailing days—the kind that inhabit my dreams—can be counted on a single hand over the course of a year.

I had a great start with my first outing in a Sunfish in early summer. The day was perfect in every way. But then the mid Atlantic seaboard settled into unseasonably cool weather and, worse, an unending procession of storms.

In July, David Heineman, a fellow Pocket Cruiser builder, suggested that we split the cost of a sailing lesson offered by a boat rental concession at a nearby state park. We picked a convenient evening when we were both free.

The long range forecast looked good. But as the day approached, the promise of sun turned to a day filled with clouds and, on the morning of our lesson, I woke to overcast skies and a light drizzle. By late afternoon, steady rain was falling and we reluctantly canceled.

Determined to get our lesson, we rescheduled and, this time, the day was clear and warm. We met, as agreed, at the dock right after work. Our boat was a 14 foot American day sailer—a simple, stable and nearly indestructible fiberglass boat similar in length to our Pocket Cruisers. Our instructor was a very personable fellow named Matt who was young enough to be my son, but exuded an air of self confidence that came from a lifetime on the water. We readily followed his instructions.

David appears more resigned to our fate.

David appears more resigned to our fate.

I was eager to get the most out of our hour-long lesson. While sailing the Sunfish, I realized that I tended to follow the path of least resistance and didn’t try to set a course that required any real skill. I hoped to learn more about sailing upwind. Also, I had never used a jib before and, since my Pocket Cruiser has a jib, I wanted to understand its role.

But by six p.m. when we were all in the boat, the light wind died and we more or less drifted into the middle of the small lake. We went through the motions of sailing—David and I took turn holding the rudder and we all practiced unfurling and furling the jib (which was fun, even without a wind), but it was really all for show. By the end of the hour, Matt was using a canoe paddle to get up back to shore. I had a good time, and learned a few things, but drove home wanting a bit more. (A short video clip taken by David captures our cheerful sense of resignation.)

So I started watching the weather and—a month later—found both a sunny day and a free afternoon. This time the whole family came along and I rented the American for an hour’s sail. But—and I swear this is true—the very moment I handed over my credit card to the boat concession attendant, the wind died and the ripples on the lake disappeared. It was so calm it made the previous sailing experience look like a gale.

But I had an enthusiastic family and my twins fought for turns to paddle the boat. Hilary, still skeptical of sailing, announced that this was her favorite outing so far. Becalmed, she merely stretched out on the seat and dragged her fingers in the water. The only one fighting resentment was me; I pointed the boat toward ripples that disappeared the minute we reached them and, in a small fit of frustration, started flapping the rudder, just as I did when I boy, in a futile attempt to make some forward motion.

I eventually gave up and joined the kids in a rousing rendition of the Gilligan’s Island theme song. Matthew took the rudder and steered us back to dock while Sophie paddled and Hilary worked on her tan. It was a fine afternoon, even if it wasn’t part of the original fantasy.

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One Response to Sailing Lessons

  1. Rental Canoe says:

    Very good article. Well written. This is good stuff.

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