06 July 2012

Lesson 1

For all the sailing couples out there... A new series of stories told from two sides: his and hers! It's all part of my 'No-Drama Sailing' collection. We'd love to hear comments from the sailor in your family (male or female) and -- perhaps more importantly -- from the sailing spouse. Please leave your comments below!

It's about her, stupid

It's amazing what you can do with wood and rope, once you get the hang of them. That is, once you get the feel for what they can do.

The other day, I realized I was starting to get that feel. I didn't expect to get it, I wasn't waiting for it, but all of a sudden, there it was: I had a problem with my topsail yard and I thought, "Oh, a bit of rope fill fix that."

Not, "Oh, a $55 fixture from the Wizbang Marine Shop will fix that." No, just a bit of rope. I felt pretty clever. And intrigued to see how it would actually work. And that's where the trouble began.

I had two tasks on my calendar for that day: 1) Helena's first sailing lesson, and 2) install a few bits of hardware on the Blue Moon for the topsail. There was no doubt in my mind which was the more important task. Without Helena's interest, the topsail wasn't much use to me. And, as Helena loves to say, "You can't make a second first impression." I had my priorities straight.

And yet, the simple beauty of my new topsail rigging was so alluring... I'd literally been thinking about it for 2 years. Bob -- the guy I bought the boat from -- had tried to explain the basic topsail hoisting concepts to me, but his explanation seemed highly unlikely to me. Surely no one in their right mind would come up with such a crazy scheme for hoisting a sail.

Eventually, I realized the broad outline of Bob's approach was correct. But the details... Oh, the details...

The essence of no-drama sailing is to make every part of the ship simple and fool-proof. And to make sure the crew knows how to handle each bit of gear surely and intuitively. With none of the loud, scrambled, wrong-handed mayhem that makes your cowering non-sailor wonder if she's going to ever see land again.

But that topsail seemed inherently dramatic.

It's a simple, triangular sail, laced to a 12' long pole (a yard, in sailing lingo.) This pole was as long as my main boom, and heavier built.  Hoisted on my shoulder, it seemed massive. Massive and nearly featureless. No wizbang fixtures screwed into it to make lacing the sail a little simpler. Just a long, white, featureless pole, tapered slightly at both ends to make it look like a javelin.

It's resemblance to a javelin was unfortunate, in terms of no-drama sailing. It was all too easy for me to imagine that yard plunging down from the masthead, piercing right through the deck, and punching a hole in the bottom. I figured first time I set it, we had a 50/50 chance of sinking.

Topsail laced to yard... I did figure it out.
Anyway, I will eventually devote an entire blog post to that topsail. Suffice to say I finally had figured out the 829 details required to prepare, hoist, set, adjust, lower, and store my topsail, and I was dying to try it out. I just needed to install the last few bits of required hardware on the Blue Moon: a cheek block on the end of the gaff for the topsail outhaul, a turning block under the gaff throat for the same line, and an eye-pad on the deck so I could store the yard vertically alongside the shrouds. Nothing complicated. Surely I could install those bits of hardware while giving Helena her first lesson, which was going to be pretty simple.

After some discussion, Helena and I had agreed that the first step would be to learn a few essential words, plus a few essential knots.

I thought she knew most of the words already, but I wanted to make sure she knew them cold: sails, mast, boom, sheets, cleats, tiller, hull, luff, telltails, bow, stern, port, starboard.

The initial selection of knots were focused on how to hitch a line to the different sort of cleats on the Blue Moon: belaying pins, normal two-horn cleats, and one-horn jam cleats. Also, coiling up lines, either to be stowed away or hooked to a belaying pin. I didn't expect Helena to be tying a bowline in a bight in the near future, but it sure would be helpful if she could belay a sheet or halyard to a cleat quickly and correctly.

These simple, basic skills would lay a firm foundation for the rest, and would give her a sense of confidence and usefulness on the boat.

So, the plan was to row out to the Blue Moon, where I would show Helena the basic knots and review the words with her while she practiced her hitches over and over again until she had them cold. Meanwhile, I could toddle around and install the few bits of hardware. I hoped to surprise my whole yacht club by hoisting my topsail that night, in the regular Thursday night race.

In short, we'd planned a nice, relaxing day on the boat. No sailing, just a bit of hitching, talking, and installing. Probably take an hour, tops.

What I hadn't counted on was the 95 degree heat, and a wrathful sun that reminded me of my worst days in Florida.

While Helena practiced coiling a jib sheet the way I showed her, I started drilling holes in the deck for that eye-pad. I've got a really nice old hand-brace that I enjoy using -- it's so easy that I never even think of lugging a power drill onto the boat. And when it came time to install the pad, I had Helena turn the screwdriver on deck, while I held the bolt underneath with a pair of pliers. Much the simpler job with two people.

Helena wasn't quite strong enough to put the last few turns on the bolt, so we switched positions.

"From bake to broil," I thought. Down in the cabin, you baked like in an oven. On deck, you broiled. Ha-ha.

I chuckled to myself, putting on those last few turns, to make sure the eye-pad was good and tight.

By then, I was sweating profusely and a slight throb had developed in my head. Not heat stroke or anything like that... getting heat stroke on the mooring definitely does not fit in with no-drama sailing. But it sure was bloody hot.

By the time I got to installing the block on the end of the mainsail gaff, I'd forgotten all about Helena's sailing lesson. I was trying to finish the install before I melted into a pool of elemental protoplasm, and Helena was trying to keep us both in a pool of shade, with a big golf umbrella that I keep in the cabin, for just that purpose. A kind of movable awning, if you will.

I had a headache, I was miserable, but I was determined to finish the job.

Two hours later, we finally finished installing those 3 bits, plus a few other last minute changes that I realized we needed. Helena had gamely pitched in and helped with whatever she could, but somehow the Lesson had been forgotten. And I don't mean Helena's sailing lesson. I mean the Big Lesson. The one I thought I'd learned just last week. The one, vital lesson.

It's about her, stupid.

I don't know if Helena will remember how to coil down that jib sheet, but I'm going to try very hard to remember the Big Lesson.

We try, try again...

* * *

A rope is a rope, is a rope.  Unless it is not a rope.

I met John 10 years ago on a dock.  Serendipity.  Ten years later we are still on a dock -- for a different reason.

It seems to me that my life is again at a rewind moment. Ten years ago, I decided to learn how to scull.  Not an easy task and I was looking for a coach. It was a lovely June Sunday morning and I was standing on the dock in Coindre Hall, in Huntington. I had just showed up to see if someone was available to give sculling lessons. A very handsome man volunteered and he has been my coach ever since.

Our first rowing lesson was on the dock: first standing next to, and then sitting in the boat. We never left the dock. It was a nice safe way to introduce me to a very, very, very hard sport.  

I remember learning about port and starboard, how to sit on the scull, basic balance, and names of the different boat parts. Subsequent lessons were a bit more theory, a bit more water, and finally the hardest lesson of them all.  John put me alone into a single scull and I was supposed to capsize. Either on my own, or he would 'help' me tip over. Scary but necessary.  I did capsize (nothing easier in a single!), climbed back into the boat, and eventually learned to row that pencil-like single. I graduated, and from then on, John and I were a team in a double scull.

We rowed together for about 6 months, after that, we decided that if we can be together on a small boat that's as hard to balance as a log floating in water, while keeping our oars in an unison rhythm, we can manage anything together.

Before I knew it, we were married.

Fast forward to our first sailing lesson.  We are again at the dock, he is my teacher and I am the fragile know-nothing student.  What did we do today?  We stayed on the boat. We never left the mooring.  John told me that since this is our first lesson, he was going to teach me the ropes.

He was not kidding about the ropes.  Once we got on the boat he picked up one of the million ropes we have on the Blue Moon and told me “See this rope? it’s not a rope, it’s a line. And in particular, it's a sheet.” What?

The puzzled look in my face was enough for him to smile and explain that rope is the basic material. As soon as a piece of rope is cut for a particular purpose on a boat, it becomes a line. And most lines on a boat have a more specific name, like sheet or halyard. For my first lesson, I was to learn how to coil these ropes, ooops, these lines, or sheets together.  

Did you ever know that a rope (pardon John, it is a rope after all) has a twist?  To coil the rope properly you have to untwist the twist.  You get that by twisting your hand in an odd little way when you coil the rope.  How cool is that?

So John grabs one end of this rope with his left hand, and with his right hand, pulls 2 or maybe 3 feet of rope straight.  You are suppose to pull it out and stretch it and then turn/twist your right hand and grab the rope with your left hand.  If you do it the right way, the coils are nice and straight, with no twist in them.

Sounds confusing, but I thought it was really cool.  I never looked at a rope this way. All of a sudden it became alive. It had its unruly personality, and I was in charge to tame it.

After coiling the length of the rope in my left hand, without any twists, I wrapped the leftover rope around the coil three times, pulled a loop of the rope through the top coils, flipped the loop over the top, and pulled it tight. This the part where we should insert a picture that tells a thousand words.  Trust me, I could use a thousand words or more to describe this very basic procedure.

After demonstrating this amazing rope trick to me, John told me to do it a hundred times until I got it perfect. I did it twice and he approved!!!

Best lesson ever! Never leaving the mooring, I learned how to coil a rope without any twists, and the captain thought I did great.  Did I mention it was a beautiful day?

At this rate, I can’t wait for lesson number two.  I think I am going to marry John all over again.

* * *

>>> Next Episode: Lesson 2


  1. John,
    STOP! A husband must NEVER Instruct a wife in anything! I began giving my wife flight instruction and and quickly realized I was ruining our marriage. Then I sent her out with a friend (CFI). That saved our marriage and I have a good pilot/wife who also likes to sail because someone else taught her. We enjoy flying together and sailing together. We swap legs flying (weather permitting) and share duties sailing. She never misses a chance to fly or sail.

  2. I would say John that I am not the best student, even in my school days but one thing I have learned from our 8 years of marriage, Life would be better if your husband isnt your teacher, or vice versa. hahah!


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