How I Learned to Sail
Sailing had always intrigued me but only as a spectator and a reader of sailing stories. My father had also told me stories of his experiences with a small sailboat he had shared ownership in with a friend when he was a teenager in Germany. The city he lived in was on the Baltic Sea and had a harbor in which they sailed in the summer. In the winter they sank the boat and kept it under water weighted down with rocks while the ice formed over and closed the harbor. But I never had the time or wherewithal to expand my interest to the point of actually sailing.
In one of my business trips when I was in my early fifties I found myself in San Diego at a hotel that was situated on the shore of San Diego Bay. Following a morning meeting we were told we would not have to meet again until the next morning so I changed into shorts and a T Shirt, grabbed a quick lunch, and started a stroll down the boardwalk that passed in back of the hotel alongside a number of long finger piers extending into the harbor at which were moored a great number of pleasure craft.
Also along the boardwalk were all sorts of businesses – souvenir shops, fishing supplies and bait shops, small bars and restaurants, etc. One was a boat rental establishment that I would have passed by if it hadn’t been for a small white sign in their front window that read “Sailboats for Rent and Sailing Lessons $25 an hour.” I had all afternoon off, it was a beautiful sunny day with a light breeze; I couldn’t resist that.
Inside the dimly lit and cluttered shop I was met by a gnarly, skinny, short old man. He had to be eighty if he was a day (today I consider that young) with a seamed, sun-burned face that looked like it was made of leather. I asked him if he could explain what that sign in his window proposed. He answered, “Exactly what it says. If you want to rent a sailboat it’ll cost you $25 an hour and if you don’t know how to sail I’ll include a sailing lesson.”
“Well that certainly sounds reasonable,” I answered, “Can I make an appointment for sometime today yet.”
“Sure,” he said, “How about right now.”
That took me by surprise but I thought, “What the heck? Why not?” I took out my wallet, shuffled out $25 in bills and handed them to him. “O.K.” I said, if you’re ready, let’s go.”
He turned to a teen ager that had entered the store from the back and said, “Mind the store,” and then led me out to the dock where we walked to a group of small sail boats.
The boats were all the same type and size. I don’t remember the name of the make but found out later they were a very popular model used by individuals and clubs for racing. About fourteen to fifteen feet long they were sloop rigged with a main sail and jib and had a weighted, fixed keel. They had no motor of any kind. The old man, who had told me to call him “Joe”, showed me how to raise the main sail by pulling down and cleating the main halyard. Then, pushing us backwards out of the finger slip we were moored at, he got us into open water and maneuvered us so the main sail filled and started moving the boat out into San Diego Bay.
Fortunately we had a light wind so everything he showed worked fairly easily and well. It wasn’t until a long time later when I got my own boat that I learned the bitter experience of the difficulty of handling a boat without a motor when the wind is up.
Once we were well clear into the bay, which only took a couple of minutes, he showed me the different sailing maneuvers and positions – tacking, close-hauled, reaching, running, etc. then had me take the tiller and repeat them all doing a couple of 360s. Then he raised the jib and had me go through the same drill with jib and main. All of this used up about twenty minutes. At this point he noticed something floating in the water and asked me to maneuver close to it. As we got near we could see it was about a four foot long chunk of a wood post; possibly broken off from a marker or pier. Joe said that this is something we couldn’t leave floating because it was a hazard so he had me maneuver right next to it and the two of us hauled it across the bow of the boat. Then he had me sail back to the slip and bring the boat into it. Please remember I’d only had a few minutes of experience with wind and sail up to that point and I thought he was being awfully loose with our safety. But, I did manage to do so without any major catastrophes and, when we were in the slip he stepped onto the pier with one leg still in the boat holding us against it. With my help pushing, he dragged the post onto the pier. Then, without warning he pushed the boat hard back away from the slip and stayed on the pier. “Hey! I yelled, “Where’re you going?”
“You go ahead and sail,” he yelled back. “You’ve learned enough and are doing fine. Have fun.” And with that he walked away. I was in a state of shock. Then I could feel the wind take hold, the main filled and the jib bellied out and the rudder grabbed the water and I had a ball. I was in a different world – master of my destiny, Lord of the open sea.
Well, at least until I had to return and maneuver into the slip. Thankfully, the teenager from the shop was outside and saw me coming in. With his shouted instructions and help in staving me off I managed to dock without damage to pier or boat
The bug had bitten. It wasn't long after that we christened our Chrysler Mutineer, a 15' dinghy as "Winsome" and many years later our Precision 23, a 24' center-board sloop as "Winsome II." Over the years I learned many of the finer points of sailing and enjoyed its freedom and adventure immensely, with crew or alone. But those first basics that “Joe” taught me were sufficient to put me on that path and never changed for the length of the journey.