Pulling and Grinding

Cruising after the Sydney Harbour Regatta, March 2014

Cruising after the Sydney Harbour Regatta, March 2014

When I first started sailing on yachts, my main goal was to be part of a real crew – that meant doing something rather than just sitting on a rail. It is still important to me and I don’t think I will ever prefer doing nothing on a boat rather than doing something (unless while being in a state of a total physical exhaustion), even if the definition of “something” changes over time. Sailing requires strength and some purely physical skills; and it took me a while to get fairly efficient in bringing in the headsail after a tack. I am still not as strong as some men (and probably never will be) but I am definitely much faster and stronger than I used to be. Two years ago, grinding after a tack took so much energy out of me that I hardly noticed anything else. I was very keen to get faster and stronger and be more useful, and any critical remark about my ability to bring in the jib in time was devastating; so I was concentrating on the physical aspect of sailing while also trying to understand a bit more about sailing.

Back then no matter how many times I read a book about trimming the headsail, a lot of information just didn’t stick. I drew sail shapes and wrote instructions about optimal trim in different weather conditions but the moment I got on a boat, I concentrated on pulling and grinding. I was so pre-occupied that I hardly even noticed where the wind was going to be once we were at the top or bottom mark; I looked at the course before a race but didn’t stop to think which leg was the windward one. I had a one-track mind and I had clear goals: tack faster. And after that: keep telltales flying while on a reach.

It took me a while to get to the stage when pulling and grinding became automatic (and there’s still room for improvement; it’s not just strength, there is definitely a skill to it as well as team work and it makes a huge difference) and I started paying attention to the rest of what was happening around me. I was lucky enough to have people beside me who were happy to teach me some of the stuff about sail trim and sailing in general; and I started adjusting cars and seeing parallels in controlling the main and the headsail. Suddenly there was more time for me to think about the strings and finer details, the compromise between the power and the pointing ability, between making all telltales fly and closing the slot too much. I also knew when we were going to bear away and when we were going to get the spinnaker up; and controlling the brace while looking at the wind indicator started to feel natural after a season and a half. It was like a whole new world again – I could almost do several jobs at once (not that it’s the most efficient way to race).

That was an evolution – from working very hard to do one job without understanding the wider context at all to looking at the boat as a whole and keeping track of several things at once. It feels like enormous change, something to be proud of. Yet it’s also the very start of real sailing.

Dinghy sailors usually have a vastly different progression if they start sailing on yachts; by then they are already very much aware of the wind direction and used to looking for gusts; they notice how high other boats point and think of starting strategies and tactical manoeuvres while rounding marks. Sail trim can be slightly different but the principles are the same. So a dinghy sailor starting sailing on a yacht has an enormous advantage over a total rookie like me who came straight to yachts. Sailing courses help somewhat; but they will never be a substitute for experience. Skills cannot be taught in a course unless the course in question lasts a year or two; usually students get some pointers and theory and then practice independently. I certainly didn’t know enough when I started sailing, and a lot of the theory flew right out of my head the moment I took the winch handle (and not because I was trying to hit someone with it).

This season I started steering a boat. Not my own boat but a mate’s boat which means that I am even more conservative than I would be otherwise. I had read a lot of books before my first race but then I suddenly realised that the theory wouldn’t help me for a while. It’s a similar story again – I am learning a skill that is physical and almost mystical at the same time; controlling the boat. Feeling the boat. I was very nervous before my first race, and I am still very tense around the start line. I am tacking better now without losing too much speed, not stopping half-way through the tack and not bearing away too much and I am getting better at judging distances. Holding the tiller doesn’t feel awkward anymore and sometimes I don’t even think about the tiller as much as about where I want to go. Yet, the effort of controlling the boat, avoiding immediate collisions , taking lifts and bearing away in knocks takes it all out of me. I can manage to squeeze a random thought about weight distribution and sail trim every now and again; but my focus is on steering the boat, doing the course and not killing anyone in the process. No time to think about tactics too much while being a rookie skipper. At the same time, I started seeing so much more while crewing on other boats; and now I realise how useful a crew member can be even when they don’t actually grind or pull on any ropes – but can call gusts and navigate around the course.

This time I am more patient. I know that progressing to the next level takes time. And I have faith that a moment will come when the physical process of steering will be so natural that I will be thinking of strategies and tactics and ways to make the boat go faster, not just avoiding collisions at the start line and beyond. Then I will be thinking more of which side of the line is more advantageous and of sailing the longer tack first and not hugging the corners; I will pay more attention to particular shifts in the area where I race; and I will be ready to learn so much more from people who have something to teach me.

Patience, grasshopper. Practice and patience.

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So Many Stories

Sunset at Balmain after a twilight race, March 2014

Sunset at Balmain after a twilight race, March 2014

I am a sucker for a good story. That is one of the main reasons why I love reading; but listening to other people’s stories in real life is a special treat. A story that is told personally feels like it’s been born in front of your eyes, no matter how many times it’s been told before. I still stare in a wide-eyed wonder at a person who can tell a good story and I listen in fascination, like a kid who forgot about going to sleep, too engrossed in a good-night tale. I like writing; but I still enjoy listening to other people’s stories more than telling my own.

When I was growing up, my favourite nights were when the electricity went out. It didn’t happen that often but when it did, the entire family would gather in the kitchen. There would be candles, my sister and I would make a half-hearted attempt at doing our homework and then at some point Dad would start telling stories about his childhood in the countryside. He grew up in a place right next to the Mongolian border and spent a lot of time riding horses and looking after his father’s bees. One of my favourite stories was about his collection of old coins half of which he lost while riding a motorbike, coins slipping out of the bag in his pocket one by one. I tried writing some of those memories down once but I couldn’t quite catch the magic, so I gave up, frustrated.

One of my best friends in university was a master story-teller; something would happen to her or both of us and she would find a way to turn a fairly minor event into a polished anecdote, most often with a sarcastic twist. Then I met a man whose stories from his own life were so various and at times outrageous, they made me want to live a bigger, more interesting life. Since then I moved to another city then to another continent, changed careers and started sailing; I’d like to believe that enough interesting stuff happened to me. Yet it still fascinates me to listen to others.

When you sail on different boats, you meet lots of people – and they all have stories to tell. Sometimes the stories are pretty personal. I’ve heard of two different divorces, painful memories retold in a matter-of-fact way to a stranger who just happened to sit on the rail next to them. That is not a regular occurrence though; most of the stories I heard on boats are about sailboats and sailing and people who sail. They can be funny or tragic, and some of them are as polished by being retold many times as my uni friend’s anecdotes; and I can never get enough of them.

There were a few about naming boats; a boat called “BOOTS” because the letter refusing the registration of a boat with the original (fairly offensive) name started with the words “By order of the secretary…” and a boat called “Gomez” because someone yelled out “Go, Mez!” when the owner took the boat out for the first time. There’s other stories that turned into jokes (like the exchange between a port on a starboard tack and a boat with a steel hull; the triumph of a boat that is hard to damage over the boat that has more rights during a race) and there are personal accounts of impersonating a kangaroo or racing in pyjamas in a regatta, both after quite a few drinks.

And wherever you go, there will always be stories about sailing mishaps. Sailing can be easy; and it can be incredibly complex. It’s easy to get into trouble when you depend on the elements so much, and there are many things that can go wrong. I’ve heard of a mast touching the water because someone put a knot on a spinnaker sheet; a mast collapsing completely because the skipper of a small catamaran doing over 20 knots got distracted for 30 seconds and ran smack into a wave (the skipper ended up with a broken arm, lucky to be alive); boats running into reefs rendering people unconscious; boats sinking… These are things that happened to people I know, and my own somewhat embarrassing memory of ending up on the rocks in front of an entire fleet because a running backstay was put on too early, pales in comparison.

Stories are fun and there is no doubt some educational value to some of them. I will never put a knots on a spinnaker sheet after hearing the story from the Whitsundays so many times – just like I will always check for lines in the water before putting the motor on after something that happened while I was on the same boat in Sydney. Yet, the most compelling stories are not just cautionary, they make you look at things in a different way. I might forget about a funny name of a boat but I will never forget a story about a power boat capsizing, not just because it was dramatic, but because the girl who told it also said that you never know how you will react in a situation like that. She told us about a boy who stumbled in a pool, hit his head and floated face down, unconscious – and her first instinctive reaction was to run away, despite her first aid training. That initial reaction stayed with her long after she helped the boy, it made her wonder and reflect; and when the power boat capsized, she knew to look out for the first inkling of panic in herself and stifle it successfully.

I’ve had time to think why stories like that are so compelling, the self-awareness of the story-teller probably as important as the event itself. And that’s the way I want the story of my life to be, not full of drowning boys but not just a sequence of amusing anecdotes either; a story reflected on and lived fully, even thoroughly, a story that will stay with you for a very long time.

Blueberry Bagel

Clouds before the start

Clouds before the start. Photo by me

One of my non-sailing friends once told me that the only item on his bucket list that has anything to do with sailing is going out on a boat far enough offshore to be completely surrounded by water, no land in sight. Last Sunday I was sitting on a rail during an offshore race and suddenly became aware that I couldn’t see land anywhere, it was all just water. I realised then that I was waiting for that moment for a while, albeit perhaps not fully conscious of it, and took stock of the thoughts going through my head. It didn’t take long: my thoughts were entirely dominated by a blueberry bagel.

It was a miserable day. It was drizzling before the start of the race but the dark clouds on the horizon promised much, much more and they didn’t disappoint; by the time we got out of the heads after a short spinnaker run, it was pouring down. We were all wearing specialised sailing wet weather gear, the kind that never seems overpriced when you wear it during a heavy rain. I did regret leaving my sea boots at home. Then the wind died leaving the boat bobbing around a couple of miles away from the shore. The rain subsided a little and we had to do a couple of excruciatingly slow tacks to make sure that at least we were pointing in the right direction (south). The breeze picked up a bit and the rain intensified again. Water was pooling in the creases of my jacket and running down my sailing gloves. I tried not to move my feet so I couldn’t feel my wet socks. Yes, it was a miserable day. Yet none of us was miserable.

When I get up too late to have breakfast at home, I sometimes get a blueberry bagel on the way to work. I have it toasted, with butter or creme cheese. When I was sitting on the rail that day, a hot delicious bagel was everything I could dream of; yet that dream was devoid of bitterness and disappointment about my present situation. Craig, our bowman, said, “I am definitely having a hot bath tonight.” Alex said something about coffee and I mentioned hot chocolate. JD said he would add some alcohol to both (although not the bath). Our skipper was concentrating on steering. We couldn’t see land anywhere, it was bucketing down with not much wind but none of us was wishing we were somewhere else.

It’s hard to explain to non-sailors what is so addictive about sailing. I could mention beautiful sunsets during twilight races and the perfect blue and green of the clear water on a sunny day in the harbour. Or the excitement of a race, the company of like-minded people, the gradual mastery of technical skills, a combination of tactical decisions, knowledge and physical coordination. Yet that’s not all. It’s not about harnessing the power of nature or overcoming obstacles for me either. It’s more about the feeling of being where you are supposed to be, no matter what the conditions are. Even on days like Sunday when you are getting increasingly cold, the water is dripping off your hat and lands on your face and you are still totally accepting of that. At some point you might bear away and trim a very shy spinnaker in an exciting dash into the harbour – but last Sunday it took us about 6 hours to get to that stage. It’s a bonus – but not the purpose of it all.

We all had days when we felt miserable while perfectly comfortable. You might be sitting on a couch under a comfy blanket and sipping your favourite beverage – and still feel like your life is lacking something substantial. That feeling of unease when it feels like there’s more to life than even the best TV show and that you are missing it? You don’t get that while sailing. It can be frustrating at times as any human activity involving more than one person – yet you will feel truly alive, connected to other people and facing your own true self at the same time. You can reduce travelling, the universally accepted way of broadening your horizons, to a search for better food and more entertainment; but the very nature of sailing forces you to look both outside and inside – for the traces of a lift in the water and for a plan for the future in your head. Its immediate reality gives you focus, teaches you to use the forces outside of your control instead of resenting them and really be where you are instead of trying to flee from it. That’s what is bigger than any of the politics surrounding bigger boats or any troubles with unreliable crew; it is ultimately more important than winning a race.

And the moment when you realise that you are doing something from your friend’s bucket list is by no means less significant because of your thoughts of a blueberry bagel; if anything, it’s much more beautiful in its reality than any dream of a paradise place that is so appealing just because it’s so far away from your actual life.