Cruising & Sailing Information

Like a Chicken to Water... Your First Steps on a Boat

Some people step onto a boat and are straight at home. For them the challenge, the mechanics, the simple joy of sailing all combine to make the sport less of a pastime and more of a necessity.

These people - let's call them fanatics - come alive on board a boat, forgetting the pressures of work and home in the sheer exhilaration of surfing down a wave on a tight reach, or coaxing the yacht upwind in a gusty force five.

I am married to one of these fanatics. He is trying to teach me to sail.

It is a difficult task, I admit, as I have absolutely no desire to set foot on the boat unless the wind (force 1 - 2), the weather (sunny) and the sea (calm) are just right. But, being a man of considerable determination and luck, he finally succeeded in giving me my first few lessons last month.

I learned a lot.

Sailing is, when you come down to it, incredibly simple - a matter of pointing the boat where you want to go, feeling for the wind, and adjusting the sails accordingly. Yet it is also incredibly complicated.

I used to race dinghies, sitting in the pointy end, pulling in the sails, but even so I learned a fair bit about lifts and headers, cunninghams and kickers. It all came flooding back to me as I helmed the yacht last month, dodging the ferries between Largs and Cumbrae.

For the first time I really began to understand the relationship between boat, sail and wind. I could feel the yacht responding to the helm; feel it spin in the water; surge down the waves, slow in the chop. I could see what was happening as the gusts hit and the sails either flapped in the header or the boat tipped over in the lift.

And that was my problem. The boat tipped over. I guess that I will get used to it eventually, but I just cannot be comfortable sitting at a 25 angle, staring down into black waves that look perilously close to my feet.

Dinghies don't tip over, or at least if they do they are not too hard to bring back upright again. Yachts are different. They are supposed to tip over, and you are not supposed to swear blindly and gibber at the helm when they do.

And the noise! I thought sailing was supposed to be quiet! What with the wind on the sails and the boat slooshing through the water and the depth gauge beeping every two minutes, it was hardly peaceful at all.

So I learned a lot: I learned that there was a lot I didn't know.

And my husband learned a few things too - most particularly, that there some things you just do not say to reluctant sailors who have consented to come on board:

  • 'Right! Well, why don't you try reversing us out from the berth and then take us out of the marina!'

  • 'It's only a tiny leak - nothing to worry about!'

  • 'No, of course yachts don't capsize - not unless it's really, really windy!'

  • 'I know the depth gauge is beeping. It's not really working properly at the moment.'

  • 'Look at it this way, the boat really can't tip over any more than it is already.'

  • 'When I said 'aim for the buoy', I didn't mean for you to hit it!'
I, on the other hand, now know that it is not good to say:

  • 'So these are big cabins, are they?'

  • 'Which way is the wind coming from, again?'

  • 'Is this a tack or a gybe?'

  • 'I want to go home!'

  • 'Wow! Is the engine supposed to give off that much smoke?'

  • 'Oh! Sorry! Were those hatches supposed to be shut?'

  • 'What happens if I press this button?'

  • 'You didn't tell me to tie it on!'; and finally

  • 'Well, it wasn't too bad?'
Looks like I have another lesson pencilled in for next Tuesday.

Previous article - July 2005 - In support of the reluctant sailor.

Helen MacKenzie is a freelance writer. She contributes to the web site at The Sea Dreamer web site has articles, guides and news on sailing and cruising on the West Coast of Scotland.


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