Tacking? I’m all over that stuff now. Jibing is a bit more stressful because the boom is involved, but I can do that too. I can even tell you what tack or which point of sail we’re on with some degree of accuracy. But what I really needed to learn was what to do in a man overboard situation. As we’ve been making our plans to go cruising I’ve definitely spent some time thinking about what I would do if we were all alone out in the middle of the ocean and Rich fell overboard.
I’ve been wanting to take a sailing lesson for a while now, so I was excited when Rich surprised me by arranging one for me with our neighbor Jay. He used to be an instructor at Offshore, the sailing school near us, so Jay knows what he’s doing. Last Sunday I met him at his boat Dauntless for a quick classroom session. Among other things, I learned all the parts of the boat and the sails and the difference between tacking (turning when the boat is heading into the wind) and jibing (turning when the boat is headed away from the wind).
We borrowed our friend Rene’s boat for the occasion, a J/24 that’s the perfect size for learning to sail. After the classroom session, we took it out to practice everything. I was feeling kind of proud of myself for managing to sail the boat out of the marina without mishap. As I guided us out into New York harbor it felt like the perfect day for a sailing lesson. The sky was that gorgeous summery blue and there was just enough of a breeze for us to sail along without the motor. We decided to head for Governor’s Island, practicing tacking along the way. I was just starting to think “I can do this” when the wind picked up and the boat started to heel. Uh oh. I tried to tell myself that heeling was perfectly normal as I frantically steered us upwind. But little gusts of wind kept pushing us over on our side and I was really starting to freak out. “Please!” I wailed, begging Jay to take the tiller. But Jay just kept telling me I was in control and I could do it. This is why you hire professionals to teach you how to sail. If I was sailing with Rich, there’s a good chance he would have coddled me and taken over. But since I was with Jay I had to at least try to tough it out.
Of course, he was right and despite the way my stomach lurched every time we heeled, the boat didn’t flip over and we didn’t die.
Now that I’ve finished my lesson I understand that the fact that we stayed up actually has very little to do with me and a lot to do with the smart way that sailboats are designed. For starters the boat has a heavy lead keel. As Jay explained, the weight of the keel counters the boat when it heels, kind of like a Weeble. Remember those? He kept saying “Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down,” which is a perfect non-science-y way to explain the concept to someone like me. But basically the keel keeps the center of gravity below the level of buoyancy, which means that even if we did go over, the weight of the keel would cause the boat to pop right back up as soon as the sails lost wind. There’s also this thing called weather helm, which means that the boat wants to sail into the wind. To demonstrate this, Jay had me take my hand off the tiller, and as soon as I did, the boat sailed slightly off to the left and into the wind and we lost speed. In theory, this all makes me feel a lot better. But in practice, I’m still pretty nervous about what going over and then popping up might feel like. Though I’m starting to get an idea from a great book I just started reading called Maiden Voyage. It’sabout Tania Aebi, a woman who sailed solo around the world when she was just 18. Here’s an excerpt:
October 23, 1982, another dawn—my thirty-seventh alone on the North Atlantic. Around me, the sea is a liquid mountain range of heaving swells, and I’m really scared. The winds and waves have been steadily increasing since yesterday, when they veered from southeast to northeast. Varuna has been knocked mast-down to the water countless times during the night and I haven’t been able to sleep, eat or think about anything other than staying alive. Following now are the biggest waves I’ve ever seen—probably 25 feet. It’s almost winter and I’ve pushed my luck. The weather can only get worse.
That’s right, “knocked mast-down to the water countless times,” but she survived. I’ll try to remember that the next time the boat heels.
After a break for lunch we had another classroom session, this time to go over the man overboard drill. The plan: When you realize someone’s fallen overboard, immediately tack, keeping the person in the water on your beam (or the side of the boat) and then when the boat jibes, aim straight for him. Sounds easy enough, right? Except that I was a little gun-shy after our windy sail earlier in the day. Anticipating this, Jay suggested we do the drill with only the mainsail up. No jib meant we’d go slower and no heeling. I perked up a little. “Really?”
“Sure,” Jay said. “You can’t reef this jib. Besides, it’s kind of like a baby jib anyway.” Yes, I’m a wuss, but who cares? I performed the maneuver perfectly the first time. The second time, we had to circle back because I didn’t get close enough, but we got “Bob” (aka, one of our fenders) on the second try. Now I’ll just have to practice it on our boat, with both sails. But I’m really glad I know what to do now. I just I hope I never have to perform this maneuver in real life.