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Shut Up & Sail

Shut up & Sail

“Don’t let go of the tiller,” Dave, my instructor, shouted over the sharp rush of the wind, the hum of the sails, the splash of the waves and the fissures of rain pouring down the Gore-Tex hood of my jacket "Would you let go of the steering wheel of your car?"
I grabbed for the piece of wood in the centre of the cockpit but didn’t know where to point it.
“I don’t know what to do. I can’t do this,” I yelled from my almost vertical position as the boat heeled. My brain registered the water streaming over the port side, and I thought we were going to capsize. I couldn’t think. All I wanted was to get on land.
“Steer your course,” he said. “Ease the main sheet.” Somehow, I remembered that meant to slowly release some of the rope between my feet from the toothy, one-way cleat that was holding it in place. Once I let out some of the sheet, the mainsail opened up, and the boat lost some of its power and flattened out a bit. “Can you take over now?” I asked, hoping he’d guide us out of the rain and steer us back to the dock.
“No way. Keep sailing,” he said in his New Zealand meets New York accent. And I did.
Sailing is my biggest fear. Well, not sailing, but capsizing. And not even really capsizing because I don’t have the same fear when whitewater canoeing or rafting. So maybe broaching is the correct word. Broaching is my biggest fear. But when an opportunity arose for me to take a Basic Keelboat course with Offshore Sailing School, I couldn’t turn it down. I figured it was about time for the former editor of BVI Property & Yacht to learn how to properly sail.
That first day of sailing class had started out sunny and warm. I sat in the air-conditioned classroom with my classmate Bryan Ferris while our instructor guided us through sailing basics. “The hardest part about sailing is the vocabulary,” he said, and I wondered why a rope was called a sheet when the sails looked more like sheets. And boom vang made me think of something Dracula would say.
After a few hours of instruction, Dave took us down to the boat, an attractive and open Colgate 26 that was not dissimilar to the IC-24s I’d been on with my colleagues. We checked the engine and prepared the boat for a sail. Once out of the way of traffic, Bryan pointed us into wind, and I hoisted the mainsail. We took turns sailing around Road Harbour, avoiding cruise ships, ferries, fishing boats, tugs, catamarans and monohulls, getting the feel for steering the craft.
Soon after we unfurled the jib and did some more tacking drills, we realized that the looming clouds in the Channel were not going to miss us, and we geared up in all-weather jackets. Bryan skippered confidently in the squall, and I only squealed a few times when I thought we were heeling a bit too much. Before we made the helm switch, I took off my sunglasses, but Bryan assured me that I’d need them as goggles against the rain.
Up to this point, I’d loved that we had dived right in to the sailing experience. Dave didn’t pander to us or coddle us—he made us sail. But once the rain and wind and clouds and waves kicked up, I questioned Dave’s technique, certain I wasn’t capable of sailing the boat under anything less than ideal conditions. And even though I’d recovered from my panicked state and rectified the situation, the fear and helplessness I’d experienced beforehand clouded my memory of my first day of sailing. Bryan, on the other hand, kept repeating how happy he was that we'd conquered every condition on the first day—everything from zero wind to having to heave-to in the rain to put two reefs in the mainsail. Dave said, “We had second-day weather on the first day.”
I considered taking Dave aside the next morning and giving him some constructive criticism about his teaching method, somehow believing that I had a right to do so. My plan, which I convinced myself was not based solely on my lingering fear from the previous day’s unsettling experience, was to approach him instructor-to-instructor (justified, I thought, since I used to teach writing) and explain how some students needed a slower introduction, gaining confidence at each level, until they were ready to proceed to the next tier. I wanted to explain that throwing someone into the swimming pool and hoping they wouldn’t drown (a slight exaggeration) wasn’t the best method of instruction for all students and maybe we would learn more if he slowly and repeatedly went over each lesson until it became second nature. I was certain that I would be speaking for me and Bryan (though I’d never thought to ask Bryan how he’d felt about it), and I also ignored the fact that this was a condensed two-day course without the luxury of extra time to baby the students.
Luckily, my fear (disguising itself as professional advice to another teacher) did not win out, and I kept quiet while Dave taught us about apparent wind the next morning. And when we got on the boat, I only let out one little yip during a serious heeling session, didn’t drop the tiller once (until we were docking), successfully completed man-overboard manoeuvres, and even steered all the way around Dead Chest—out of the safety of the Channel—in six-foot swells. When I saw the water splashing over the side of the boat again, I eased the main sheet, but not too much. It didn’t seem that bad on the second day. The fact that I’d done it before, but under the added factor of rain, gave me confidence that I easily control the boat on a clear day, and probably on a rainy day, too. 


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