boats

How to Learn to Sail

Boat projects abound. Still, it's fun to reflect on how I got to this point. A few people have asked me for advice on learning to sail, since that's probably a pretty important part of this sailing life. Right? 

Optis ready for Junior Week

Optis ready for Junior Week

I learned to sail on a glacier lake in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, where the boats we have are old and water-logged and sluggish in the best of winds. My version of sailing, shared by others who also had no real clue about the sport, was one of flogging sails and a whole lot of paddling, spiced by a too-short tiller extension and a centerboard that slipped out if we heeled too far. I learned that sailing was a sport of independence, of frequent mishaps, and maybe, if you were lucky, some moments of sheer bliss. There was also a lot of paddling and swimming.

 

This is not the ideal way to learn to sail.

Laughter, even in Averill.

Laughter, even in Averill.

My best friend in high school went on to represent the United States on the sailing team in 2 separate Olympic games. From her, I learned the importance of the proper terminology for all parts of the boat, as well as the joys of actually sailing a boat that moved with the power of the wind. When I had the chance to sail with her, on her family’s boat on Lake Ontario, I was treated to a world where the wind was your partner, not something you fought against every second of the time. I learned that sailboats are gorgeous, you can’t tell how much closer you are to the finish line than the other guy until you’re pretty close to it, and big boats shouldn’t involve swimming as a way to get back to shore.

 

This was a better way to learn to sail.

Random dock photo. Just because.

Random dock photo. Just because.

When I got to college, I decided I’d further my sailing education and joined the sailing club. I went to the University of Virginia, which is situated in land-locked Charlottesville, and we practiced on a man-made lake 30 minutes away from the school. My skipper took pity on me and taught me about hiking out to keep the boat flat, the joys of a well-executed roll tack, and how to rig a 420 while trying to keep your fingers warm. We did, often, sail in cold weather. These college sailing days were filled with laughter and work, endless road trips and late nights of car rides and conversations. Friends introduced me to teaching at Sail Caribbean, a teen sailing camp in the Caribbean where I spent my days teaching teenagers on 50’ sailboats the joys of all aspects of life aboard. Sailing is friendship, cooperation, muscle memory, and travel – and maybe, if you’re lucky, a little money-making on the side.

 

This was, so far, the best way to learn to sail.

 

After college graduation, my husband and I bought our own 28’ boat and took off, spending 3 years wandering the Bahamas and the Eastern Caribbean before heading up the East Coast and settling down in Charlottesville. We had to be self-sufficient in ways no 20-year-old thinks about, and every 20 year old ought to experience. From learning the hard way that you better fill your water tanks to the brim before you shove off the docks the first time, to anchoring 5 times for 4 named storms our first year out, to blissful days tacking in and out of anchorages along Venezuela’s bay-studded coast – life was full of adventures both amazing and terrifying. 

Then, when you get older, you can teach your parents.

Then, when you get older, you can teach your parents.

If I had to choose it all over again, I’d pick the last one as my favorite way to learn this sailing thing.

 

Maybe. Maybe not.

 

Thing is, all of these had one thing in common. Whether good or bad, all of these involved actually getting on a boat and shoving off from land. I learned something from every single encounter I had with a hull that had a mast stuck in it; actually, I still do. The best way to learn to sail is to get out there and sail, no matter how you get a chance to do it.

 

If you’ve got access to a cold lake and a heavy old boat, go for it. If you can learn from someone who’s the best of the best, go for it. If you pick up a book, or watch YouTube videos, and then get on a boat and try and try and try again – that’s a perfect way to learn to sail. If you have the opportunity to sail on a large boat in the sun-filled Virgin Islands, or somewhere in the tropics, I can promise you you will learn something.

Start young, if you can!

Start young, if you can!

But what if you’re older, not starting out as a kid or in high school or in college. What then? Is it too late?

 

There’s a favorite saying that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The next best time is now. Same holds true with sailing. You might have more patience now, more ability to be deliberate. You might listen better, or research more, or have the funds to pay a decent instructor. Don’t let age deter you from trying something new!

 

If you’re a parent, lamenting the fact that you are just learning and you want your kid to learn earlier in life than you did, get out on the water. Sure, let them join a junior program or do a sailing-focused camp or send them off to Sail Caribbean or another of the sailing schools designed for teens around the world. Just get them on the water, messing about in boats. Go with them, learn together, and play.

 

The best way to learn to sail? That’s the way you do it. Stop researching, grab your PFD*, and get out on the water. I bet you won’t regret it.

See you out there.

*As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

How Big a Boat do You Need?

IMG_3410.JPG

The title of this blog really could be “why don’t you buy a bigger boat?” We’ve been sailing Calypso, our 28’ Bristol Channel Cutter, since we bought her in 1992 (okay, fine, we spent a few months actually getting her ready to go in the water . . .). She’s carried us, when it was just Jeremy and me and our beagle, Toby, from Texas to Florida, down the Eastern Caribbean all the way to Trinidad and west to Bonaire. Back up the East coast of the US to Virginia. She’s carried us, as a family of 4, from Virginia to the Bahamas and Dominican Republic and back again. And we’re getting her ready to take us, just the two of us, no kids or dog, on the next adventure, though where that adventure will be remains up in the air.

 

Yes, she’s cozy. The current set up down below has the head under our bunk. This was fine when we were in our 20s, but now, ahem, the bladder doesn’t last all night. There’s no way to take a shower down below. I don’t mind jumping over the side for the bulk of my bathing, but these days I’d like to make sure I can get clean even if it’s not the best weather outside or we’re on passage for longer than 4 days. Jeremy, who’s 6’2” tall, can stand up only under the hatches.

 

So why not buy a bigger boat? One that has, say, a dedicated space for a head and shower down below, with an actual door that closes? One that has, say, standing head room all through for my vertically-endowed husband? Why not spend the money, save the effort of an interior refit, and get something more comfortable?

                                   Under construction. Looking aft from the forward bulkhead.

                                   Under construction. Looking aft from the forward bulkhead.

Believe me, we’ve discussed this one to pieces. We’ve chased boats on Yachtworld, flirted with the idea of weekend trips to see some, and even exchanged emails with a builder. I send Jeremy links to interesting looking boats when they flit like fairies across my screen.

 

There aren’t a lot of boats that fit our criteria. Boats that look gorgeous (and unique) in our eyes as we dinghy away from them in an anchorage. Boats that sail well. Boats that can carry sufficient supplies for the passagemaking we plan to do. Boats that are simple, robust. Boats that offer substantially more of most of these items than we’ve already got with Calypso, which means we’re looking likely at boats in the 40’ range. Boats that won’t require a mortgage.

 

Here’s what it comes down to, for us. Comfort is in more than space. Comfort is in knowing the boat. I know where to store things, how to access them. Jeremy installed the engine, installed the watermaker, ran the wiring. I can hoist the main by hand, no need for a winch until that last bit of tightening. We’ve got our anchoring hand signals down, know the routine about how to tack, and can put a full coat of topsides paint on in an hour.

 

Comfort is in knowing the issues we face. Any boat that would fit our budget, the budget we’ve settled on that will enable us to sail for a long time, will have to be one that’s older. One that requires a lot of work, likely. We know the work Calypso needs. Any new-to-us-boat would come with challenges known and unknown – we might spend a lot of time and money on a different boat and realize that she doesn’t work for other reasons. 

                                               28'. 4 people. 4 jerry jugs. 2 kayaks. 

                                               28'. 4 people. 4 jerry jugs. 2 kayaks. 

We’ve had enough experience with cruising on Calypso to feel reasonably sure of our projected budget, though of course healthcare and health insurance is the hugest unknown factor out there. We are also practical enough to know that at some point, we’ll be no longer able to live on the boat. We want to have a cushion for that eventuality.

 

This isn’t to say we won’t get out cruising and decide we need a larger boat. We’re keeping that possibility in mind. But maybe, with the changes we’re making to the interior of the boat, we’ll find that cruising in her is as possible now as it’s been since 1992.

 

When we first bought Calypso, we were (and remain) heavily influenced by Lin and Larry Pardey, whose philosophy is “Go small, go simple, and go now.” Other boats on our short list included boats like the Beneteau 30. A Jeanneau 32. A NorSea 27. Even an F-27 trimaran. They were boats we could afford, not only to buy but to maintain and cruise on. The choice we made has stood the test of time.

 

I know that a lot of people reading this are thinking we’re nuts. I’m not sure, if I were making the decision as a boatless person right now, I’d choose something quite as cozy as Calypso. But there is deep value in changing the question from “how big a boat should I buy” to “how small a boat can I make work for me?”

 

Your boat may have a separate head and shower. But when we share an anchorage, we’ll still see the same sunset.

 

See you out there.

2010-12-15 192000 DSC_0002.JPG