Glub Glub

In which our first solo sail nearly becomes our last

We have always wanted to go down to the sea in ships. Though we can barely swim, we're convinced salt water courses through our veins. The sight of white sailboats bobbing prettily on the bay makes us yearn for the sailor's life. So we finally decided to do something about it.

We took sailing lessons this summer. And now, having completed our first solo sail, we can say, with heartfelt conviction: Thank God summer's over. We have an excuse to stay off the bay until next spring.

Despite ranking last in our class, we graduated from the Tradewinds Sailing School in Point Richmond, qualifying us to take a small boat out in the "baby zone," a covelike area not far from the Richmond­San Rafael Bridge.

Dog Bites invited along Kat, our favorite companion. An ex­Indiana farm girl, Kat had never been on a sailboat and was a bit sketchy about how well she could swim. "But I can float on my back!" she assured us brightly. We figured that was better than floating on her face, so off we went in a lovely, 22-foot vessel named Kodachrome, snacks in our cooler and adventure in our souls.

The sun shone and the bay sparkled. We fired up Kodachrome's outboard engine and putt-putted our way through the marina and out into the busy Richmond harbor channel, dense with oil tankers, tugboats, dredging barges, and other sailboats. Once in the channel, the drill is to steer your boat into the wind, raise your sails, kill your engine, and scud away from your landlubber blues.

While Dog Bites hauled up the sails, Kat worked the engine, which had a throttle with an amusing visual aid aimed at the novices usually working it. If you want to go faster, you twist the throttle toward a little bunny painted on the handle. In class we were told to call it "rabbit," as in, "Give it more rabbit!" To go slower, you twist toward a little turtle.

Dog Bites was a little shaky on the sail-raising, but we eventually got them up and soon found ourselves happily cruising the baby zone. Back and forth, forth and back we zipped, giggling and nursing rope burns. We tacked, we jibed. We sailed toward the rock jetty, we sailed away from it. The daring Dog Bites heeled the boat way over, and Kat screeched with delight. (OK, maybe it was terror.) The whole thing was a blast.

After a couple of hours, we were ready to head back. The wind had freshened (damn, we love sailor talk), and much larger sailboats were marching majestically back through the channel. We restarted the outboard. Kat steered into the breeze. We began taking the sails down.

Calamity struck.

As Dog Bites was trying to untangle ourself from the folds of the descending mainsail, the engine began racing at an alarmingly high RPM. "Tortoise, honey, tortoise!" Dog Bites shouted. Kat just gave us an oh-shit look.

Dog Bites went back to investigate and was horrified to find the throttle handle dangling limply from the engine, connected only by a thin cable. "It just came off in my hand!" Kat yelled over the noise. Dog Bites turned off the motor, but fear clutched our bowels. They hadn't said anything about this in class.

The wind was pushing Kodachrome steadily toward the jetty, now only 100 yards distant. Dog Bites had a sudden vision of being battered against the rocks and missing 60 Minutes. Something had to be done.

We tried to jam the throttle handle back into place, but that didn't work. So we started the outboard again, thinking we could at least guide it with our hand and limp back to the marina. But it was still racing as we shifted into gear. Bad move, mon capitaine.

With a sickening, metal-shearing "Blam!," the engine flew off the stern and splashed into the water behind us. The sudden torque of the propeller spinning at abnormally high speed had jerked the outboard right off its mount. It sank like a stone. We stared at each other. "Uh-oh," Dog Bites said with memorable understatement. "That can't be good."

We drifted closer to the rocks. What would Jack Aubrey do in a situation like this? He'd set sail, damn it! Beginning sailors are supposed to return to the Tradewinds dock under engine power only, but we didn't have any choice. Up went the sails. Dog Bites grabbed the tiller and jutted our chin defiantly into the wind. No problem! Hold onto your ass, baby! We sailed briskly toward our fate.

Soon we were inside the marina's protective breakwater, where we resisted the impulse to jump overboard and swim (or, in Kat's case, float) for it. But the sailing gods were with us, for the wind calmed considerably as we cut through the marina under glorious full sail. We almost looked like we knew what we were doing until Kodachrome banged into the dock and crunched to a stop.

That evening, nerves soothed by large quantities of red wine, Kat ventured delicately that she had been less than impressed by Dog Bites' boating skills. "Maybe you should take another class or three," she offered gently. Maybe that's not a bad idea. -- Jack Cheevers

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