It’s 9 a.m. and instead of working at my computer, I’m preparing to board a J/80 for about six hours of sail training. It’s sunny, hot, and breezy, as it has been all week. I slather on sunscreen and fill my water bottle alongside my enthusiastic instructor and intriguing classmate, ready for another super-fun, yet intellectually and physically demanding day. We sail out of the creek and into the mouth of the Severn River. Off the port side, are the familiar steeples and domes of the Annapolis skyline, and in the opposite direction I glimpse the Bay Bridge and Eastern Shore. The sun glimmers on the water. Even though I know work, family, and volunteer responsibilities will be waiting for me at the end of the week, I can’t help feeling as if I am getting away with something, out here on a weekday as the breeze freshens and the boat begins to heel.
That’s basically how each day began for the participants in J/World Annapolis’s basic keelboat class the second week of September. You might wonder why I, who have been sailing for the better part of 40 years, would enroll in such a class. Certainly, I was not a beginner. I’d sailed with my family as a child, enjoyed the fun of my university sailing club, taught beginner sailing at a summer camp, and crewed for 15 years in local weeknight races. I’d even gingerly taken command of our 27-foot Cape Dory about a dozen years ago. Yet despite all my years on the water, my formal training had been sparse, consisting of a one-day sail trim class about a decade ago, a couple of sessions with a J/World coach aboard the family’s Cape Dory, and a few low-key lessons on a J/22 at my yacht club.
At the suggestion of J/World Director Kristen Berry, I enrolled in the course for three reasons. First, because of my lack of formal training I suspected that I had gaps in my knowledge (which proved, in fact, to be true). Second, the idea of earning a certificate appealed to me. Call me silly, but I liked the idea that the sport’s governing body would officially recognize my competency. And finally, I was looking to boost my confidence driving the boat as well as my understanding of sail shape and trim.
As any busy sailor knows, it isn’t easy to schedule a five-day course while juggling kids, a part-time job, and volunteer commitments. In fact, I spent a good year chewing on the idea and searching for a suitable gap in the calendar. I had some concerns that an entry level course would be below my skill set. Simultaneously, I was secretly worried that I’d discover I was a lot less competent than I perceived myself to be. Like most worries in life, however, neither came to pass. Although some of the basics were review for me, after a week of instruction, I had plugged some gaps in my knowledge and solidified my understanding of several more advanced concepts.
On the first day the calendar read September, but the weather screamed full-on summer. With the heat index over 100 degrees, a steady 10- to 15-knots of wind, and just two students working the boat, we were busy every minute and pretty darn tired at the end of each day. My classmate, who had never been on a sailboat, was, thankfully, a quick study. He appeared to be about my age and acknowledged the same muscle soreness and fatigue I was experiencing every night. But we weren’t complaining. It was, as he stated, a good kind of tired.
So what did I learn? Well, I already knew all the basics—the points of sail, parts of the boat, parts of a sail, how to determine wind direction, and nearly all the terminology, so I was able to comprehend and absorb the more technical and complex coaching tips. My biggest take-away was understanding when and why to adjust sail shape. I solidified my understanding of how the outhaul, cunningham, and backstay work together, and how to adjust draft and twist. I also learned more about reading telltales, and when and why to move the jib fairleads and the traveler.
Although I’d once been taught how to do a man overboard drill, I benefitted greatly from repeatedly practicing the drill. Likewise, I knew the theory of putting in a reef, but I’d never actually done it. The hands-on training was just what I needed. Throughout it all, I had the benefit of previous experience on my own boat, which allowed me to imagine how I’d take what I was learning and apply it on the Cape Dory.
I added a couple of new knots to my repertoire and gained a better understanding of boat balance. I learned to hold the tiller extension against my leg to keep it steady and conserve my energy. I also improved my technique for hauling in the main while driving the boat under heavy pressure. An introduction to chart reading and course plotting was also useful. In addition, I picked up some important safety routines. Because I had prior experience and my classmate had picked up the basics quickly, we had the opportunity to fly the kite on the last day, and we capped off the week with a beautiful spinnaker run from near the Bay Bridge home to Back Creek.
In the end, not only was it a great week of learning new skills, the course was also an impactful reminder to make time for sailing, which has been both a pleasurable activity and a platform for personal growth throughout my life. Carving out five days from my regular routine to spend time on the water really took me back to my younger days of adventure and self discovery. Maybe it was the familiar dark tan on the top of my legs, or my hair highlighted from the sun and tangled from the wind. Possibly it was wearing no makeup or jewelry all week, but most likely it was that awesome blend of tired, hungry, and happy that follows a day of outdoor exercise and new experiences. Whatever it was, it was certainly a week for recalling old adventures and inspiring new ones… A three-day cruising class, perhaps?
by Beth Crabtree