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Ahoy! July 2024

Sailing: Day One

A Captain friend of mine recently told me he had been sailing for so long, he couldn't remember the feeling of being a novice.

I couldn't empathize. I vividly remember my first day on a sailboat: Day One of sailing school. Our Instructor strode into the classroom with the no-nonsense authority of a man who has spent so much time at sea he'd replaced his blood with saltwater, and announced:

"Welcome to one of the most exciting, and one of the most dangerous sports in the world!"

What had I gotten myself into??

The next thing I knew, he was handing out rigging knives to myself and my two classmates, with the instruction to never to step on a deck of any sailboat without that knife. The importance of its necessity was driven home with a story reminiscent of a driver's ed film. I pocketed the knife, and silently re-questioned my decision to embark.

Little did I know how sailing would transform my life, not only by initiating me into a thrilling sport, but by launching me onto an amazing journey of new people, places, and owning my own sailboat.

Day One morning, sunrise over a marina

Sunrise on Day One

After our pre-sail briefing, we boarded, and my Instructor told me to take the wheel. For those who have never experienced it, the sensation of helming a sailboat is akin to driving a limousine while standing in the trunk. I had never set foot on a sailboat in my life. I told him this. His response: "Take the helm."

"But Captain, I've never driven a boat!"

Unfazed, he smiled. "I know. Take the helm."

I muttered something under my breath about kissing the nice, shiny finish on the hull goodbye as we motored into the fairway....

Teachers change us. They have the power to inspire a passion for, or a hatred of, a subject based on their attitude toward the material, and the way they convey their knowledge. The worst ones make a week in a sweltering, sunlit pillory more enticing than the prospect of a minute in their class. The best ones (although we rarely realize it in the moment) walk with us as we toe the line in the sand marking the edge of our comfort zone, then stand beside us while giving us a gentle nudge over, redrawing the line and repeating the nudge again and again until the lesson is learned. They will let us stumble - failure is an excellent teacher - but they will never let us fall.

I quickly realized my good fortune that my teacher was the latter.

As my classmates worked the dock lines, our Captain stood beside me, speaking at a volume only I could hear, directing me towards this point, then that one, until we cleared the marina confines (hull unscathed) and headed for the Bay.

When we reached open water, the vessel was turned into the wind, the mainsail hoisted, and the motor was stopped. A moment of awe enshrouded everyone aboard, as our ears adjusted to the silence. The percussive thump of the engine was replaced by the snap of the canvas catching the wind, and the whispers of the water sliding along the hull. I recall holding my breath on that first day, afraid the magic of the moment would evaporate if I dared to make a sound. I'm still enrobed by that same enchantment every time the wind breathes life into the sails anew.

The wind catching the sails on a sailboat

Watching the wind fill the sails

It's difficult to put the emotions of that first sail into words, how to describe the feeling of oneness with the wind and water, the rhythmic patter of the waves, the exhilaration of the rogue wave that slapped into the bow, showering all of us in a misty curtain of prisms. The thrill of feeling the wind take hold of the vessel. The epiphany of the true, forceful power of the wind, and that a sailor is at its mercy until respect is learned, and the skills are acquired to finetune the sails to accommodate its whims.

As she moved through the water riding a gentle breeze, the boat initiated me into the sensations of rolling, swaying, and heaving (Mother Nature was kind enough to spare me surging, yawing, and pitching until my ASA 104 class...). I had seen pictures of sailboats, but the realization that the entire boat tilts in order to move had never crystallized. It's called "heeling", but on Day One it felt more like an impending injury. Anything over about 17° still has me reaching for a handhold while I move to the windward side, as my fight-or-flight reaction blasts in my head momentarily like a naval general alarm. On Day One, I felt like the boat would capsize; I know now that there's several tons of lead ballast in the keel keeping the boat upright, and that, so long as I do my job to maintain the balance of wind on the sails, she'll do hers to maintain her balance on the water.

From a sailor who has not forgotten Day One, I offer the following advice to aspiring ASA 101 students:

Take a deep breath and spend your first sail just present in the moment. Every sailor, including the Instructor, has had a Day One on the water. Your actions won't be perfect. Your first tack will stall the boat. Your first gybe will feel precarious. It's OK. Watch, listen, and learn. Boat handling skills take practice, and your ASA 101 crewmates are probably as unskilled as you are. You're not the first student to feel nervous, and you won't be the last. Someday, you'll accompany a new sailor on their maiden voyage, and you'll remember your Day One.

Yup, it's true; you'll live to tell the tale, just like we all have. Day One will have the honor of being the first in your lifetime of sea stories....

A pause in the wind while sailing on the water

Day One on the water

Past Ahoy! Articles:

June 2024: Wind and Water and Waves... Oh My

Kiki Mullen is The Gratitude Sailing Institute's webmaster and weathergirl. She keeps a close eye out for anything that would pose a weather safety issue for our students and Captains during the sailing season.

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