A Different Tack

A nautical novice learns sailing's not just for the high society

Until a month ago, I'd never set foot on a sailboat. Sailing just wasn't something families like mine did. It was up there with golfing and taking high tea and any number of oddly aristocratic activities that appeared to require perfectly coiffed hair, a closet full of Lacoste polos, and the ability to pick the right fork to use with the salad course.

Plus, it just seemed so … complicated. All those ropes and rigs and cranks and pulleys. And the weird terminology: starboard, bulwark, coxswain, jib — these were words I had no use for outside of finishing the New York Times crossword. And don't even get me started on the whole seasickness thing — how much fun can you really have with a sport that induces vomiting?

Secretly, though, I really never felt sophisticated enough; those fancy words and expensive equipment — the whole thing intimidated me. It felt like an ultra-exclusive club open to the kind of women you see on “Real Housewives of Orange County,” not perennially broke writers like me.

But all it takes is a glance around the bay on any summer day to see just how popular this sport is. And chances are those sailors aren't all blond-haired, blue-eyed CEOs with six-car garages and a summer house in the Hamptons. At least a few of them must share my tax bracket, and if they can batten the hatches and beam reach on a starboard tack, or whatever the hell they're doing out there, then so can I. I felt a little better when I found out that, with more than 100 yacht clubs in the Bay Area, just-for-fun “beer can” races are run seven nights a week.

Still, I was apprehensive going into my first day of Sailing Fundamentals, a weekend workshop taught by J World Sailing School, based in Alameda. Right away I was unprepared, despite the helpful checklist on J World's Web site: no hat, no sunscreen, and next to the LL Bean canvas totes the other two students had packed for our day on the bay, my black suede handbag was downright ridiculous, better suited for a cocktail party than a sailing expedition. “That's a very nautical purse you've got there, Maya,” smirked Rob, my towheaded, impossibly tan, just-out-of-college instructor, whose looks did nothing to buck my sailor stereotype.

Rob told us we would each take turns being the “skipper,” or captain, of the 24-foot J80. I can handle that, I thought to myself; if anything really bad happens, we can always power up the motor and drive home. Wrong. The J80s don't have motors; that's why they call them “sail” boats. Great.

Vocab on the high seas

Day one was spent zigzagging across the bay as we practiced tacking (that's moving the front sail from one side of the boat to the other in order to change direction, for you landlubbers) and steering. Much of my tenure as skipper was spent shrieking, “Uh, Rob? I have, like, no idea what I'm doing,” while narrowly avoiding collisions with other boats, apologizing for my ineptitude, and word-nerding out on the etymology of phrases like “take a different tack” and “lower the boom.”

That weekend I learned to tell port from starboard; I learned what it meant when the sails were “luffing” and how to trim them to make it stop. I learned to tie four different kinds of knots and what to do when seasickness strikes (start steering — it takes your mind off the nausea). I even learned how to dock the boat without hitting the very expensive-looking craft nearby when it was time to break for lunch.

On day two I realized just how incredibly steep the learning curve for sailing was. In three hours of in-class “chalk talk,” Rob zipped through dozens of new vocab words and mnemonic rules of thumb like “turn tiller toward troubled telltale.” When he started getting into serious math-and-science territory in his explanation of concepts like draft position and weather helm, things I couldn't even imagine wrapping my mind around, I warned him, “Rob, I might cry today.”

But when we got out on the boat, the mass of multicolored ropes that just yesterday seemed so indecipherable miraculously started to make intuitive sense. My disposition had morphed from hopelessness into tentative confidence, then full-blown exhilaration. No longer so consumed with just getting my bearings and steering the boat, I started noticing my surroundings: the sun, the wind, the water, the skyline — it was breathtaking.

I even started to like the arcane language. “Most of these words are 100 years obsolete,” Rob said after my 900th linguistic “a-ha!” moment (“So that's where 'three sheets to the wind' comes from!”). Obsolete or not, it's fascinating that hundreds of thousands of people still keep this vocabulary alive, and when I had to bark orders like “prepare to jibe!” it made me feel connected me to the crusty, hundred-year-old sailors who actually had to sail for fishing or transportation, not just sport. Don't get me started on Sir Francis Drake.

Hooked on sailing

Even though sailing's not quite as perilous today as it was centuries ago, Mother Nature is still not a force to be trifled with. “The geography of the bay makes it a natural wind machine. Every day the wind's around 20 knots,” says J World's Wayne Zittel, who put that figure in layman's terms for me: “That's a good amount of breeze.”

And, he explained, there are so many microclimates that it's not unusual to see race boats heeling from high winds on one side of the bay while little kids play on boats in dead-calm waters less than a half-mile away.

According to the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, which likes to put these things in round numbers, the average wind speed at San Francisco International Airport from 3 to 4 p.m. in July is about 17 knots (slightly over 19 mph), compared with only about 7 knots (8 mph) at San Jose and less than 6 knots (almost 7 mph) at the Farallon Islands. Like he said.

After my lesson, I was hooked. Now what? Well, there are always more lessons to take until I'm skilled enough to rent my own boat. But a writer's salary doesn't exactly lend itself to dropping that kind of coin (certification courses can cost $1,000 or more, and an afternoon-long boat rental can set you back a few hundred, too, depending on the size of the boat and the day of the week).

Rob's solution: make friends with people who have boats. Or, if your friends are broke, too, join a crew list to work on other people's boats through local yacht clubs, Latitude 38 magazine, or online services like sfsailing.com.

I still can't tell you what exactly the Cunningham does or why moving the traveler-thingy to the leeward side makes the boat not tip over quite so much, and it'll probably be years before I can begin to understand the endless minutiae of sailing. But that's another part of its charm; when I asked Dave, a baby-faced instructor from Bellevue, Wash., what he loved most about sailing, he answered, “the mental aspect. You never stop learning. You can never master it,” mostly because sailing's central variable, the wind, is and will always be unpredictable.

Which is why it's all the more enthralling to harness a force as powerful yet invisible as the wind. You're conquering nature, but only for a moment at a time. That thrill is addictive and tough to shake; after one particularly smooth jibe during my sailing lesson, I blurted to the class, “Holy shit, you guys, I'm sailing! Me!”

OK, so maybe sophistication's still not my bag, but I've definitely changed my mind about this sailing thing.

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