Written January ’12
Having grown up around boats since the early days of my childhood, Iʼve had a lot of time to learn and enhance my ability to sail. That said, the skill has not been and will not be perfected, simply due to the very nature of the sailing, with few rules and many variables. As a sport, sailing becomes almost impossibly technical, requiring incredible coaching and experience to be the best. As a leisurely activity, however, sailing becomes something entirely different. My years of racing and coaching means that not all moments on the water have been good ones. The following are four short stories, learning experiences which have consequentially grown into my love for sailing. When I step aboard to begin a sail, I forget about everything else.
My early days of learning to sail consisted of not only many “Aha!” moments but also many “I think Iʼm about to die.” moments involving lots of water in the boat and capsizes galore. In 2003, I was sailing Optimists, small boats roughly eight feet in length with gaff-like rigs, in the intermediate class. Toward the end of a two-week session, we began learning to race against each other. The first race, I was in the lead across the start line, and sailing swiftly toward the first mark. As I looked behind, I saw my best friend in third place but gaining on me quickly. I rounded the mark, and he had already gained to places, rounding just behind me. I was bursting with anxiety to sail faster, but he overtook me and I was left speechless. I began shouting playfully and wishing for some sort of intervention. In the midst of his celebration, he forgot to pull up the daggerboard, slowing him slightly on the downwind leg. I didnʼt make the same mistake, and was able to pass him on the inside of the next buoy rounding. Needless to say he was filled with contempt by this point. Nearing the finish, I was bursting with joy. I crossed the line in first place and celebrated. My friend was right behind in second, enraged by his mistake and my win. I jibed, and before I knew it, I was smacked upside the head by the metal boom during my jibe. My instructor noticed and immediately told me to begin sailing toward the dock, which wasnʼt very close. The very same friend followed closely behind me to comfort and support me. Another coach boat came out to meet us and help me in. I felt fine, but this was part of the process. I met with Vinny, the Head Instructor and one of my favorite coaches. He took a look and my head was bleeding only slightly. We went over to the hose, gave my head a good washing, then I held ice on the wound until lunch. Thankfully, they decided it wasnʼt bad enough to require medical attention, but I was furious not being able to continue racing. After lunch, I went right back on the water, though we unfortunately decided to end the racing for that day. This taught me to suppress the cockiness when winning, or else karma will come right back and hit you where it hurts.
During the summer of 2005, I participated in “Monday Night Madness,” a youth dinghy racing series. I was sailing an Optimist and the first night of this series was no nice day. It was cold, dark, and cloudy, with winds blowing about 20 knots consistently, and gusting up to 30. As the first race of the night was starting, I was on port-tack headed on a crash course for the rest of the fleet. I was able to make a sudden tack in my favor and dodge the fleet. This put me on the opposite tack of everyone else, though we all were sailing for the same buoy. I wondered why none of the others decided to take my route, though my choice wasnʼt exactly an educated one. I didnʼt bother trying to get back to the popular course for it would surely put me in last place. That decision, however, would have saved me from the mess that was about to ensue. I was getting closer to the first buoy in one direction, but the current was forcing me sideways. Then things went quite literally awry. As I began the roll-tack to get back on course, my boat, “Fly,” decided to tip and gain water. I had to think quickly to stabilize the boat before I capsized, and fortunately I didnʼt go all the way over. My plight had left me about 100 yards from the buoy and my boat filled with water. I realized then that my bailer had fallen out during my close encounter with the chilly bay. I thought for sure I was doomed. Drifting ever closer to Goat Island, with little control of my boat, I was in panic and utterly afraid. Race Committee was tending to other boats in closer proximity to the course, while I was miserably standing in my boat, shouting at the top of my lungs. “Help! Iʼll give you a million dollars.” I said. Of course I had nowhere near that money, but by that point I was totally okay with making false promises in order to receive help. Then I was struck with a welcomed noise. I heard the beautiful sound of a Race Committee Whaler getting louder and louder. They helped tow me and others back, and the race was called off. Later I found out that my father had called the main office at Sail Newport, giving word of a sailboat veered off course. Little did he know, that sailor was his kid.
On a beautiful, serene summerʼs night, I decided to join my father in the Tuesday night J-22 racing series. A J-22 is a small, dinghy-like keelboat with a mainsail, jib, and spinnaker. This night, we were sailing with simply a mainsail and jib, so only two of us were required. We struggled to make it to the line before the first race due to the minimal wind, but managed to secure a great start and take the lead right off the bat. We were cruising upwind with a slight heel and perfect trim thanks to my fatherʼs stellar inner-helmsman. The first buoy came, and went, then the second, and before we knew it the finish was just a hundred yards away. We carried on steadily and took a first for the first race. We were to then wait a short period before the start of the next race. Just when the Race Committee began the second start sequence, 15 minutes after which we should start, a gloomy cloud came creeping closer and closer from the other side of the bridge. As the storm grew so close that we began to brace ourselves, we expected to hear long, sharp, horns to signal abandonment of the race. To our dismay, we heard nothing and were forced to stay in the sequence and wait it out. Just as the rain began pelting down on our faces, our race began. I wish I could say it was just as smooth sailing as the first race, but it was not. Sailing upwind, we were only putting ourselves closer to the stormʼs full force. My father was paying full attention to sailing the boat forwards, as neither of us could see more than a few yards in front of the boat. Not only was the rain worsening, falling faster and in greater amounts, but the wind was whipping, lines were flailing around my vision, but there was nothing I could do. I asked dad what I could do to help and he told me to just keep tending the jib. After I asked, I felt the wind subside only slightly, but it was enough for me to get excited. The rain also stopped crashing so hard and my spirits were lifted knowing that I had endured the worst of it already. I was frightened but always felt comfortable sailing with someone as competent as my father who could help me tough it out.
Sailing at school has been bitter-sweet. I enjoy the sailing but definitely not the conditions. There was a miserable day when we were scheduled to race against Prout at Rocky Hill On our way out from the dock, my skipperʼs poor jibe resulted in a messy capsize into freezing cold water. Though my drysuit keeps the water off of my skin, it canʼt keep my head or hands dry, and it certainly canʼt keep any of me warm. After a failed attempt to dry capsize, I plunged into the chilly river and swam around to the centerboard, or at least where it should. The centerboard had retracted itself back up into the boat, making the boat nearly impossible to right without the aid of our coach, Mr. Lee. I took off a glove and tried to help the board come back out but it was lodged and stuck. I kept trying as my skipper kept trying to lift the mast. By this point, I was absolutely frigid and thought that any colder water would surely be the death of me. Absolutely nothing was helping make the process of righting this boat any easier. The wind persisted and the current made it difficult to remain near the boat. All of my energy was being expended just trying to keep myself close to my skipper and my boat with none left to alleviate the situation. To make things worse, the coach boat had been at the edge of the bay for some time, helping others in similar positions. Eventually, after the boat had flipped to a near-turtle position, my skipper was able to push the centerboard from underwater, inside the boat, allowing me to quickly grab and pull out the rest of it. Then I could finally stand on the centerboard and succeed in turning the boat the right way around. I could barely move after being in the water for so long, and my body temperature had dropped dramatically. I was freezing and felt like I was going to die, but warmed up quickly nevertheless.
These were all miserable moments in my sailing career, but they have culminated into my love for sailing. I can enjoy a nice sail with the knowledge that it will likely be eons better than some times in the past. This does not mean I wonʼt have more moments like these, but I find comfort in experience. After messing up a number of times in any other field, one may likely give up, but thatʼs not right. I was born into a world of sailing, and Iʼll live with the passion until the day I die.