There to Here - Learning to Sail

Some folks we know were brought up sailing, spending summers on their parent's boat and literally “learning the ropes”. Not us. Learning to sail for two people who'd never been on a sailboat before posed a few challenges. David expressed an interest in learning to sail back in the late 1980s. I never really thought about sailing, but I'm usually up for an adventure with a little prodding. Like any other skill, there are ways of obtaining the knowledge and experience necessary to become proficient and sailing is no exception. It just takes time and effort and you have to start somewhere.

First off, we read everything we could get on hands on. I'm using the royal “we” here, because honestly it was David who immersed himself in books on sailing and sailboats. He read about trimming sails and heavy weather sailing, about diesel engines and 12V circuitry. I, on the other hand, read Jimmy Cornell's World Cruising Routes and began subscribing to sailing magazines. I pored through every cruising article I could find, fascinated by all the exotic places we could visit by boat. After all, Earth is 70% water and that seemed like plenty of room for an adventure.

But reading alone doesn't cut it. We needed some training and experience. There was no Internet then, no on-line sailing classes. We couldn't just jump onto the computer and do some on-line research. We lived in Colorado and we certainly didn't have time for 6-weeks of classes. In the summer of 1991 while the kids were away for a week, we participated in a certified sailing course in San Diego with the thought of perhaps bareboat chartering (chartering a sailboat without a captain) in the future.

We wanted to fast track, so we hired a private instructor. Early each morning we spent several hours on-board going over the basic skills of navigation, reading charts, learning about the boat, learning about wind, weather, anchoring … the list went on and on. It seemed overwhelming. I also felt quite nauseous a few times sitting down below in the warm saloon poring over textbooks and charts. I sometimes thought maybe this sailing life was not for me, but the nausea would pass after awhile and I'd get absorbed in the subject matter and forget the seasickness.

In the afternoons, we'd take the boat into San Diego Harbor and sail. I remember an America's Cup contender sailing circles around us as they practiced maneuvers. The instructor worked us hard on tacking and jibing, sail trimming, safety, navigation rules and line handling. Then we'd practice maneuvers like docking and torque turns over and over again. At the end of the day, the instructor left and we lived on the boat for the week. By the end of the course, we were feeling mildly confident that we could, at least, handle a 35' sailboat in a protected harbor on a reasonably calm day.

As planned, that following September we booked our first charter with The Moorings in the Caribbean. We arrived in Tortola on a Saturday morning, all geared up and stressed out because the plane was delayed and our luggage was lost. The boat was all provisioned and ready to go. We took the boat out into the harbor and a charter captain put us through our paces with the boat. Satisfied that we could handle ourselves and the boat adequately, he cut us loose with appropriate cautions and we were on our own. Exhilaration and a new sense of freedom combined with apprehension as we puttered out of the marina.

The Moorings provided a recommended route and we stuck to it. We weren't going far on any given day. Each day, we sailed for awhile, experimenting with the sails, tacking and jibing, wing-on-wing downwind sailing, speeding up and slowing down based on our orientation to the wind. When we weren't sailing, we were exploring little islands. We visited little towns and walked the beaches. We snorkeled and soaked up the sun and fine weather. The evenings were spent sipping sundowners in the cockpit and watching for the elusive green flash as the tropical sun dipped below the horizon. It was glorious.


One thing we hadn't practiced with our sailing instructor was anchoring. Nor had we talked about dinghies and dinghy engines, nor how to best secure stuff on board so that when the wind whipped up and the boat heeled, we weren't pummeled with airborne gear. The weather, however, was settled and the wind was constant which provided a good learning environment. We had done our reading and figured out, sometimes through trial and error, what worked best for us and the boat.

There were so many aspects of sailing we needed to learn like storm tactics, offshore sailing and sailing at night and that didn't even take into consideration non-sailing issues like general maintenance, engine repair, refrigeration, provisioning, … the list went on and on. At the end of the week, no longer stressed, we leisurely returned to the marina. We had a lot to learn, but this sailing thing might be something we'd enjoy learning more about. We made another charter reservation.

Nowadays, the ASA (American Sailing Assn) offers several on-line course options for learning about sailing and  liveaboard cruising which we highly recommend. There's always lots more to learn, but this is a good start.