How Sailing Changes Us

Alpha Carinae

Alpha Carinae, CYCA Winter Series 2013. Photo from the CYCA’s website

Learning a new skill often changes our perspective on things around us. A boxer once told me that when he was younger he would look at people while walking down the street and think of a strategy and a combination of punches to win a fight with the passers by who looked bigger and stronger than him.

A slightly less disturbing example is driving. A person who doesn’t know how to drive tends to trust the driver to get them from point A to B, at most giving directions if the driver is not familiar with the surroundings. There are people who can be perfect passengers even after they learn to drive. They are in the minority though. Most drivers, even while they are in the passenger seat, automatically notice cars around them going too slowly or braking too hard and some of them also can’t help thinking of real or perceived opportunities to go faster and overtake a few cars that the current driver might have missed. Sometimes passengers unconsciously push the floor in a futile attempt to slow down or give helpful advice to the driver about changing lanes. I usually tell taxi drivers which lane to be in. Surprisingly, I have never been punched by a cabbie – none of them has even given me a dirty look – but that’s probably because cabs in Australia are so expensive that customers are allowed to choose which lane to be in.

Sailing – and especially racing – also changes the way we look at things and the way we act. Here are the main changes that I have noticed and feel free to contribute if you think of more things:

1. Wind and weather in general

My non-sailing colleagues who go to lunch with me rarely check the weather forecast anymore, they just ask me about it. I usually look at the weather forecast for at least a few days in advance and I can tell them that the southerly is supposed to come at 6 pm tomorrow after which the weather is going to completely change. They stare blankly at me when I tell them that the wind is going to be over 20 knots so I convert it to kilometres per hour. After more blank stares I just say that it is going to be pretty windy and they tell me that I should have said so to begin with.

Sometimes I try to explain rain, fog and changes in temperature by looking at weather maps but I usually double check my predictions by looking at the forecast for the next few days. Once I am sure that my explanation of the weather maps is in full accordance with the official BOM predictions, I impress my coworkers with my spiel about areas of high and low pressure. OK, I don’t do it that much, I just felt like I had to do it a couple of times after my Day Skipper theory course.

I usually start checking wind for the weekend in the middle of the week in preparation for the upcoming races. This winter a few races were cancelled because of too much wind so I anxiously checked for official warnings before every Sunday. Unfortunately, sometimes clubs don’t tell you that the race is abandoned until you are half way there, driving through a thick rain that is almost horizontal. Still, knowing that it’s going to be pissing down all weekend can be useful.

And of course every time I walk around the Sydney Harbour Bridge I look up at the flags on top of it and check out the wind direction. Then I look at the boats moored around and check that they are all aligned according to the wind direction. Then I start looking at the water for gusts. Walking around the Sydney Harbour is great, it’s never boring!

2. Crossing paths

Sailors have to judge distances all the time to make sure their boat doesn’t collide with other boats. That is why when they are not sailing they still sometimes try to tell other people that they are on a collision course and that they need to tack. Or they might not say it but just think about it. Probably out loud. You are lucky if they don’t yell “Starboard!” to claim right of way.

3. Sailing gear

Let’s face it: wet weather gear for sailing is awesome. When it’s raining really hard and it’s windy and uncomfortable (even in the Sydney Harbour that is generally not a very cold place), foul weather gear is the best thing to keep you (mostly) sane. That is why it’s so tempting to wear it to events unrelated to sailing when it is raining. I entertained the thought of wearing my foulies to the office many a time. I have to walk for about 20 minutes to get to work and when it is both windy and raining, umbrellas don’t help much. Putting my red sailing pants over my business pants/skirt with my offshore jacket on top and my sailing boots on my feet seems like a brilliant idea, and I giggle every time I imagine the faces of all the office workers in the area staring at my outfit. Sadly, I have never had enough courage to do that so far. One day.

Sailors less conscious of other people’s opinions wear wet weather gear to sporting events of various kinds and they are often the most comfortable people in the audience.

Some crew shirts and jackets also make sailors stand out in a crowd. I used to sail on a boat called “Jessica Rabbit”. The crew jackets had the picture of the cartoon character on the back – and the crew members got whistled at when wearing the jacket outside the sailing club.

4. Knots

Sailors can get obsessed with knots. Some of them will practice tying a bowline with one hand or with their eyes closed and lots of them will give you advice on how to tie a parcel together.

5. Beer

Strictly speaking, this is not a skill directly related to sailing… but then it is. Sailors drink a lot of beer. And rum. But mostly beer – before, after or even during a race when it’s relatively calm (especially on a downwind leg). As a result, a lot of sailors can open a beer bottle with a winch handle or a lighter and they can also finish a bottle of beer really, really fast when required.

Can you think of anything else? Feel free to leave a comment.

P.S. Thanks to /u/GritsConQueso from /r/sailing who came up with the idea for this blog entry.

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Becoming a Racing Sailor: Part 3

Boats at CYCA

Boats at CYCA, Rushcutters Bay, Sydney.

Consistency Is Key

In Part 2, we had a look at the main roles on a sailing boat. Some of my non-sailing friends who are trying to read this blog reported complete confusion and a strong desire to lie down while reading that part of the blog entry. And that was me trying to explain everything as clearly as possible with a bare minimum of sailing terms. Imagine how confusing it can be for fairly new sailors when all those terms are thrown at them throughout the race. Granted, sometimes those terms are repeated in a very loud voice which makes remembering them easier (“Kicker! Get the kicker! I said the downhaul!”) but doesn’t help with stress that much.

Sailing is a sport that requires a lot of learning. You can sail for twenty years and still learn new stuff next time you are on the water. It can also be physically demanding, even though in photos it might look like sailors don’t do much apart from sitting on the rail. On relatively small yachts (around 30-40 foot) racing sailors do a lot of grinding and they get bumped around quite a bit. That’s why women, with their thinner skin, who sail on boats that size are often covered in bruises, sometimes in weird places. It’s not that rare to get a rope burn either. A few girls told me that when someone saw their legs they were asked whether their husbands were beating them. I have to say, I had a few concerns earlier this year about going on a trip where I was supposed to see my parents for the first time in a couple of years (they live far away). It was after a big regatta where we were short-handed, and my legs were covered in bruises. “Just tell them that Australia is great – but Aussie men – well, not so much,” – the skipper told me in his usual tongue-in-cheek manner.

On bigger boats you don’t get that many bruises. On the other hand, if something goes wrong on a bigger boat, you are more likely than on a smaller boat to, say, lose a finger.

Getting better at sailing requires patience, willingness to learn and – most importantly – time. Every position on a boat has its own challenges. At some point ever new sailor starts to specialise and chooses a favourite role on the boat: light people are often sent to the foredeck, strong people stay in the pit. The longer you stay on the same boat, the more you know about her quirks and peculiarities. A permanent spot on a boat might not be that easy to get though, so beginners often have to move around and talk to a few people to get a ride until they find a boat that is happy to have them on for an entire season. That helps with learning your new role and If you are lucky, you can even get a crew shirt.

Boat owners/skippers have their own problems. They need a group of people who know what they are doing and will turn up for every race. In reality, it is almost impossible to ensure that every single person is available every time – people tend to have lives and responsibilities outside sailing. That’s why some boats have long lists of backup crew which are called if someone can’t turn up this time. As long as everyone is aware of that arrangement, there are usually no hard feelings. It gets trickier if there are slightly more people in the permanent crew than required with no “reserve list” and no apparent priorities. Sometimes there are not enough people and the boat is short-handed and other times everyone might want to sail so someone has to sit it out or just do nothing after getting on the boat. It’s hard to keep everyone happy, and a happy team on a boat is essential, not only because it makes winning a race more likely but also because if you are not happy while doing something you love, what’s the point of doing it and do you really love it?

The ideal person for a boat owner is the one who sails well, who’s reliable and – probably – is fun to spend a lot of time with on the boat. That is why – and I know I said it before – being reliable is absolutely vital when you start sailing, especially if you don’t know that much. If you are not an experienced sailor, you have to make up for it somehow – and being consistent (and nice!) is the best way to go about it. And once you prove to people that you can be relied upon and meet more people who know you from the club, you will have more choices who to sail with and might even have to turn down a few offers of sailing just because you can’t sail on every single boat you are invited to.

It’s that easy – race consistently, go to the club regularly and talk to people. Chances are, you will find out that sailing doesn’t have to be an elite sport that requires a lot of money, it can also be a fun way to master new skills and hang out with people from very different backgrounds. And you will eventually get better at it.

Becoming a Racing Sailor: Part 2

Image

Western Channel Pile Light, also known as the “Wedding Cake”, an active pile lighthouse in the Sydney Harbour. Photo by Alena Abrosimova

Part 1 is here.

A Little Knowledge

At some point absolute beginners get enough experience to feel more confident around the boat, and unless they know how to be content with little things and just enjoy the ride, they start looking around for ways to get better, learn from experienced sailors and move on to more competitive boats. That’s the time when a lot of illusions die as our new sailors slowly start to realise that there is much more to sailing than they initially thought, and the original euphoria of being part of the action is replaced by constant questions: Where should I sail next? Will I ever be as good as that guy who’s been sailing for 20 years? Will it really take me 20 years to be as good as him? Will the skipper let me trim today? Why are all my muscles sore?

Disclaimer: I generalise quite a bit in the previous paragraph. In some ways, I am a typical example of someone who started to race by coming to a sailing club one day and getting on a boat. On the other hand, I believe that I am slightly more prone to retrospection, self-doubts and obsession with the things I like than an average person. So it is totally possible that a lot people don’t question everything quite to the same extent as me. Then again, almost everyone has to figure out which boat they are going to sail on and what exactly they are going to do.

A lot of competitive boats, especially big ones, don’t mind inviting new people – but if you don’t know anyone there, chances are, you will be invited as “rail meat”. That means sitting on the rail and moving around as per the tactician’s orders to keep the boat balanced. Some of my non-sailing friends sometimes wonder why sailors spend so much time hanging out on the side of the boat like a pack of birds, seemingly doing nothing, so I explain to them that sitting on a rail is an important part of being a sailor, albeit hardly the most exciting one (well, doing anything in over 30 knots of wind is fun, including sitting on the rail but those are fairly extreme conditions). If the only thing you are allowed to do is to move from one side of the boat to the other through each tack, it can be relaxing – but might get frustrating if you want to get better at say, trimming sails.

Each boat has several distinct crew positions. They can vary depending on the size of the boat: a bigger boat might require a couple of management roles to coordinate the crew and relay the messages from the back of the boat to the front (always a challenge) while on a 26 foot boat a couple of people can multitask. Still, the basic positions are still essentially the same.

If you are a relative beginner and you don’t sail on your own boat or a boat of a friend who trusts you way too much, chances are, you are not going to be a skipper/tactician (in club races it’s usually the same person – the person who owns the boat). You might get involved in navigation looking for buoys and laid marks so not being short-sighted comes in handy.

The next position is a mainsail trimmer. That role generally requires physical strength as well as extensive knowledge about adjusting the mainsail. If you are a small(ish) girl like me who doesn’t look like Hulk and you are not sailing on a boat with electric winches, you are probably not going to be asked to fill in that position. The stronger the wind is, the more strength you are going to need to bring the sail on. That’s why strong looking men, even when they don’t know that much about sailing, have a much better chance of being asked to be on the mainsail. Not being able to sufficiently ease the mainsail in time can get a boat into a lot of trouble.

Headsail/jib trimmers are in charge of the sail in front of the boat. That is my usual role. A lot of people start with this position as it looks deceptively simple at first – let the sail off on one side and pull it on the other side through tacks, adjust the sail on the reach and downwind. In reality, this role also requires physical strength on boats with big overlapping headsails (unless you are sailing on a bigger boat with so called coffee grinders and someone else does all the grinding for you) and, more importantly, a lot of skill. Generally speaking, the headsail has a lot of influence on the speed of the boat.

Comment: if you are confused by the term “coffee grinder”, don’t be. If you are really interested, read more about different types of winches here. Otherwise, here is the nitty-gritty: on most boats I sail on (roughly up to 40 foot) winches look like this. Generally the same person who adjusts (trims) the sail have to grind (turn the handle that is inserted into the top of the winch as fast as possible). On bigger boats the winches look different – there are two handles, and a dedicated person (usually a big strong man) keeps grinding according to the trimmer’s orders. This kind of winches are called “coffee grinders”.

The same people are usually controlling the sheet and brace for a spinnaker if that sail is used in the race, and that is the next stage in every beginner’s education. Using a spinnaker requires smooth cooperation between several positions on the boat and can get very messy unless everyone knows exactly what they are doing. That’s why beginners are often excluded from the entire process apart from grinding and helping with getting the spinnaker down on the deck (or down the hatch).

Another important position is strings (also called pit). The person on strings is placed in the middle of the boat near the mast and pulls on more ropes than anyone else on the boat  so it’s usually someone who knows the boat fairly well.

And last but not least, there’s a foredecker, a person on the bow. That is usually the lightest person on the boat. Becoming a foredecker can be a steep learning curve. You have to do a lot of things fast – get sails up and down, change them if required, jibe the spinnaker pole and – everyone’s favourite – skirt the big genoa (make sure that the sail is not stuck on the rail while being pulled on). That’s a lot of stress for a beginner.

Some people stick to one position on the boat at all times but trying everything on the boat makes you a better sailor. On the other hand, racing is by definition competitive. Experienced sailors usually love winning (who doesn’t?) so they prefer other experienced people in all positions. There is a Catch-22 kind of situation right there: to get better you need experience and to get more experience you need to be good. Gaining trust of the boat’s tactician and the rest of the crew can be a long process. And a lot of the time it requires a very thick skin.

I remember being upset for days when someone on a boat implied that I wasn’t experienced enough to trim the jib in one of the final races of the series. Another time, I got on a boat where one of the owners didn’t trust me at all. On one of the tacks I couldn’t get the winch handle out in time and the sheet wasn’t let off fast enough – so he took me off the job and put me on the rail where I sat in a deep sulk, stewing in my own disappointment. Later during the same race I was helping the same owner to get the spinnaker down and in the process his elbow connected with my eye, adding an injury to an already received insult. I vouched not to sail on that boat again and I kept my word for about a year.
It does get better though.

Part 3

Becoming a Racing Sailor: Part 1

Boat at Balmain

A boat finishing a club race at the Balmain Sailing Club, Sydney. Photo by Alena Abrosimova

I used to know nothing about cars until I met a guy who seemingly knew everything about them. He introduced me to a reality show about building custom cars called “American Hot Rod”. Initially I only agreed to watch an episode at a time with him as a way to bond and learn a little about his passion; however, not long after, I found myself hooked on the show despite my initial lack of interest. The reason was simple enough and long familiar to producers of popular TV: the show wasn’t so much about cars as it was about people, their relationships and tensions between them. And there were plenty of dramas in that shop.

It’s hard to talk about sailing in some ways; you either fall in love with being on the water and making the boat go faster, or don’t. If you don’t, I can talk all day about the primeval awe I experience when the boat slides from one wave to another in an offshore race, and it won’t move you much. The almost meditative feeling of presence, of being completely in the moment I experience while sailing can be described but not totally shared with someone who is not familiar with it. However, sailing and amateur racing is exactly the same as a TV show about building custom cars in one regard: it’s about people more than it is about the boat and the wind, and it’s as much about how people interact with each other and react to circumstances as it is about their objective sailing skills.

I won’t talk too much about points of sail here; for now I’ll concentrate on dramas of becoming an amateur racing sailor.

Humble Beginnings

Sailing is very popular in Australia. The easiest way to get on a boat for a grownup who was not initiated into sailing in a very young age by their parents is to show up in a sailing club before a race and put your name on a board or ask around whether anyone needs crew. Bringing some alcohol and/or snacks helps, too. I did that after taking a short sailing course for total beginners teaching the basics of sailing a dinghy.

The first few club races after getting on a yacht for the first time were overwhelming. I didn’t understand half of what was being said, no matter how hard I tried and how loud the skipper was. Mind you, the skipper, an old cranky man with a heart of gold who always welcomed newcomers and muppets on his boat but still cared quite a lot about winning, didn’t help much. “Pull on that blue rope! No, not that one, the other one!” – “Tommy, that’s not blue,” – someone less flustered than me would pipe in. “Well, the other blue then!”

From time to time (so rarely that I usually deny having ever done it) I would put the headsail sheet on the winch counter-clockwise instead of clockwise which made it impossible to pull it in. I also once wondered out loud about the dying wind on a downwind leg after going around the mark (you don’t feel the wind as much when the wind is behind you so this question really betrays you as a complete beginner). In other words, I made typical beginner’s mistakes.

On the other hand, I worked hard on the winch handle, grinding with all my might, and I was very grateful for a chance to crew on a boat. I was learning the timing of letting the lazy sheet go and pulling it in on the other side through every single tack and I was getting used to ignoring Tommy’s yelling. I felt invincible and very proud of myself (that didn’t last), especially once I knew that I would get a ride on the same boat for every race and wouldn’t have to compete for a spot with other absolute beginners.

There are other ways for people to get into racing; some are invited by a friend or an acquaintance, others start with a Competent Crew course. No matter what your beginnings are, however, for quite a while you are protected by low expectations of other people. If you are lucky enough to get on a boat with people who are happy to teach you, they will nurture your natural talents and show you what you don’t know; on most boats you are expected to pick a lot of the stuff yourself. Still, nobody in their right mind will expect you to know much in the beginning. And if they let you do any actual work and the boat happens to get a prize in that race (a hat or a bottle of beer), chances are, the race organiser will hand the prize to you as a way to encourage your further pursuits. Such are the perks of a total beginner in a friendly sailing club, and if you are a girl, all the better for you at that stage.

The most important thing you can do at that stage is to be reliable and always show up when you promise to. No, wait – that’s the most important thing you can do at any stage, and probably not just in sailing.

I started with Twilight races, just like hundreds of other people who come to a sailing club after a work day for a relaxed social race, with dinner and drinks after. How relaxed a race is depends on a few things. Each boat has a style, and it depends a lot on the skipper (who is generally also the owner of the boat) – how competitive and how patient he or she is.

Sometimes in the summer I go for a walk to a big nature reserve next to my place and watch a twilight race on Wednesday night from a huge rock overlooking the harbour. When you look at the fleet from that high up, it looks beautiful and very peaceful. The boats are moving smoothly, tacking near the shore, their sail trimmed perfectly (or so it looks from afar). Yet I know that on quite a few of them the skipper is yelling, “Bring it on, come on, faster!” and a poor person on the winch is sweating and trying his best to pull the huge genoa on as fast as possible. Remember me putting the sheet on the winch the wrong way a couple of times? Well, I’ve heard stories about a frustrated skipper who kept telling a beginner off for doing exactly that in the course of an entire race. At the end of the race, fuming, the skipper hit the unfortunate sailor on the head with the winch handle. They never sailed on the same boat again.

That was an exception rather than the rule, though. Skippers don’t usually go completely ballistic and get physical with their crew. If there is too much yelling on a boat, that’s not a good sign in general – and can be very demotivating, especially when you have just started doing something. Maybe there are some people who learn better when they are yelled at but I am not definitely not one of them. So the best sailing I’ve ever done has been with people who almost never yell.

Part 2

How To Make Your Dreams Come True

When I tell people that I dreamed about sailing when I was a little girl growing up in landlocked Siberia, they are usually impressed. It is a good story, not in the least because it’s true. I sewed a ridiculous looking sailor’s hat for myself and glued pictures of boats into a special notebook. My Dad brought books about sailing from his business trips and built impressive tall ship models for my benefit. The books I read were about adventures and high seas and boys who loved sailing, and I would go to sleep wishing that I saw the ocean in my dreams. These days, 20 years later, I live in Sydney, Australia, and I go sailing one or two days a week (yes, my weekends are pretty full). It’s a dream come true, and people who are patient enough to listen or read to the end of my sailing story usually tell me, that’s great, keep manifesting your dreams!

That’s not the whole story though.

When I was seven, I knew nothing about modern sailboats. I had never heard of Sydney to Hobart or America’s Cup or a Voyage for Madmen; when I thought of a sailing boat I imagined a square rig and a bunch of frivolously dressed pirates. Women on a boat were supposed to be bad luck (these days sailors seem to object to bananas much more than to women). I had never seen a big body of water so my imagination was pretty vague on the subject of wind, waves and my reaction to them. Being able to regularly sail a dinghy (like a couple of boys in one of my favourite books) seemed inconceivable, a privilege for much luckier people than me. To be honest, I never thought it possible that I would be sailing for real.

On the other hand, it didn’t make me unhappy and it never stopped me from dreaming.

I had other dreams when I was little, too. First, there was my love for music. I insisted on learning to play the piano. My singing never failed to tug at adults’ heartstrings and they encouraged me to sing the sweetest and saddest songs I knew. Sometimes when I sang for myself I imagined that a world expert in singing would be walking past our apartment’s door by a pure coincidence and he would suddenly stop, stricken by the sheer power and magnetic quality of my voice (which was not, alas, that powerful in reality). He would ring the doorbell and tell my proud parents that I am extremely talented. I wasn’t quite sure what was supposed to happen after that. The funniest thing is that I sang in a choir until I turned 14 and was not particularly interested in singing solo. These days I do tend to hog the microphone when we have a karaoke night but I am reluctant to say that it has anything to do with manifesting my dreams.

Another fantasy of mine was being a reporter on TV. I would be standing in one of those famous Soviet queues with my mother and would imagine holding a microphone and commenting on everything around me to amuse and educate a captivated audience. Too bad I don’t remember any of my commentary. Many years later when I had a chance to choose between specialising in TV/radio or newspapers/magazines for my degree in journalism I didn’t hesitate to pick the print media.

I also wished I could draw but even then it didn’t seem like I was any good at it.

And of course my biggest dream was about writing.

Here in Australia I talk to good surfers and sailors who seem to be light years ahead of me in terms of expertise (if I try really hard, I can probably catch a small wave by myself. On a pretty big board. If I’m lucky). They all tell me that they started surfing/sailing when they were pretty small. It is about as much use to me as telling me that inheriting money is a good way to get rich. I did start writing as soon as I learned the alphabet though. First I started keeping a diary and I regularly consulted my parents on rules and traditions of writing in a journal. For example, I was reluctant to mention the diary in the diary itself (I wasn’t a big fan of recursion). After a while I tried my hand at writing adventure novels (never finished) and stories about perfect families (so that my parents could learn from example. I read a magazine about bringing up children on a regular basis and couldn’t help feeling that my parents could use some of my newly found wisdom).

These days I am still writing and still having troubles finishing my novels.

My point is, I had plenty of dreams while growing up. Some of them came true, most of them didn’t. I at least tried a few of the things I dreamed about. I also tried a lot of stuff that I never imagined doing while growing up – like moving to another country all by myself, speaking a completely different language, surfing, joking with a recruitment agent, driving a car on the left side of the road and parking it in a giant shopping centre. And I enjoyed almost all of it (except parking).

And I think that ultimately this is an even more compelling story.

It’s impossible to realise all your dreams, every single one of them. Dreams are evasive and they tend to evaporate when you look at them too closely. The more dreams you have though, the better off you are. At least one of them might come true one day – and be even better than you have ever imagined. At least that’s true about my sailing.

And it also makes sense to try new things. You can never do everything but you sure can enjoy whatever the hell you have the opportunity to experience. And as long as you keep your heart open, you can find something that is worth dreaming about when you least expect it.