Patrick’s Post: Learning to Sail aka The Day My Mom Fell in the River

by Patrick
To start at the beginning, click here.

Getting a sailboat to move using only the power of the wind is the easiest thing in the world to do once you understand how it works and how to adjust the rigging on a boat. The basics can easily be learned in a day or two with someone knowledgeable to guide you, and there are sailing schools all over the world who will teach you for a modest fee. Aside from the basics there is an art form to it as well, and honing your sailing skills so that you can place first in the race at the local sailing club is a lifelong endeavor. You don’t need this level of skill to go see the world, but be warned that once you get the sailing bug it’s likely to never get out of your system.

In my case, my family took a couple of sailing lessons from a guy my dad found. We pulled into the marina where we were to meet our instructor and everyone was excited. It was a beautiful sunny day and there was a good breeze coming across the river. I distinctly remember the moment when my mom realized what this day was going to turn out to be.

As we went onto the docks a small sailboat was being tied off by a crusty looking little old man. My dad introduced us to him and while we went over the basic rules I noticed mom scanning the sailboats in the marina wondering which of these fine yachts we would be going out in. She finally just asked, and the guy looked at her with a bit of surprise, then pointed at the bare bones boat he had just finished tying off. Mom’s expression went from excitement to disapproval in the space of about a half a heartbeat. Turns out our first real sailing experience was to be in a 16’ long racing boat. The vessel was built to go fast, so she had one mast, two sails, running and standing rigging, a centerboard, a hull, and a tiller. And that’s it. No benches, no cushions, no bathroom, no cooler, and man oh man could she move.

As I stared with excitement at this little boat that just screamed speed even while tied up to the dock with it’s sails down, my mom was literally sputtering.

“Bob, I’m not going out on the river in that thing. Find us a different boat to learn in.”

After a certain amount of cajoling and reassurance that everything would work out fine we finally got her convinced. My dad was very good at cajoling. This was a pattern that would continue for the next couple of years while my mom had her horizons expanded.

The first few hours of learning to sail is basically a class in terminology, a brief introduction to the physics of sailing and how sails actually work, and a little hands-on instruction with ropes. There are a million different kinds of knots but there are really only a few basic ones you have to know to be able to sail well. I’m not going to turn this into a sailing lesson, but if you’re interested there are quite a few video tutorials available either for free or low cost on youtube and elsewhere on the Internet.

After our classroom session it was finally time to put what we learned into practice. We all climbed aboard and the captain led us through the process of raising the sails and navigating out of the marina. From there it was just a matter of seeing in action the things we had already discussed. Honestly, it was all much easier than I had expected. Within the space of an hour or two we were all taking turns setting the sails, tacking in the wind, and steering the boat. In real world application this little boat turned out to not be terribly fast with three adults and two kids on board, so we never really got to see what she was capable of. I’ve since had the opportunity on several occasions to single-hand sail smaller boats that are designed for speed. Being out on the water in a stiff 20 knot breeze when the boat is heeled over with you hanging off the side as she skips across the water is one hell of an adrenaline rush. The forces involved with capturing the wind – even on a small boat – can be really amazing.

And then came the lesson on safety and recovery. This is where my mom put her foot down. The captain instructed us to take turns jumping overboard while under sail, while the others aboard turned the boat around, managed the sails, brought us to a stop, and safely brought the person back on board. Sounded like a ton of fun to me, so I volunteered to go first, and enthusiastically dove into the Mississippi. After drifting downstream for a while my family finally got the boat managed and back to me and pulled me on board. Then came my brother, then my dad, and finally it was mom’s turn. “I’m not jumping into the Mississippi,” she declared adamantly.

No amount of cajoling on the part of either my father or the captain would convince her. After about 10 minutes of arguing about the safety merits of experiencing BEING  the man overboard, the captain took matters into his own hands and proved to my mother just how wrong she was about her not swimming in the Mississippi.

He calmly moved to the downwind side of the boat, sat on the edge, pulled both the main and jib sails tight, and without a word pushed the tiller hard over until we were catching wind straight off our beam. In a small sailboat with no keel, no ballast to speak of and a good stiff breeze this series of actions will inevitably lead to one result and one result only. We immediately capsized, dumping not only my mom but all the rest of us in the water at the same time. Retelling that story and laughing about the look on my mom’s face when she surfaced provided many hours of entertainment over the years.

Next came the ‘what to do if you capsize a small boat’ part of the lesson and we soon had her righted, bailed, under way again, and pointed at the marina where my mom swore she would never set foot on a boat again. She would eventually discover that she was as mistaken about that as she was about not swimming in the Mississippi.

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