How I Got Punched in the Face

Photo by me

Photo by me

One of the strangest days on my life happened about two and a half years ago.

It was a weekend, and a mate of mine invited me to crew on a boat he was sailing on. I didn’t know much about the boat except that it was quite competitive and fast. To be honest, I was somewhat intimidated. I didn’t have much experience back then and I didn’t know the people I was supposed to sail with. In my nervousness I got to the club an hour early and sat on a chair listening to the sailing school’s instructor explaining points of sail to a bunch of students wearing life vests. Listening to him was quite relaxing as I already knew everything he was saying. I felt a little smug. I had real sailing gloves as opposed to those rookies and I also had a ride on a fast boat.

Finally, the boat and my mate got to the club, too, and we took off to the start line of the race on the other side of the bridge. I didn’t know which race we were doing or what the course was. I did know that I was given an actual job though – I was allowed to let off the lazy sheet through a tack. The rest of the time I was sitting on the rail and listening to the bowman who was explaining gusts and different shapes of waves to me. The boat owner shouted once, telling us to shut up, and there was silence for a minute or two; then the bowman started teaching me again, his monotone voice taking the edge off the owner’s yelling. It was a warm day, the sun bright in the sky, and it was good to be on the water.

Then a disaster came – the handle got stuck in the winch and I couldn’t let the lazy sheet off fast enough. “That’s it, you’re off the job!” – the owner yelled and took the handle from my hands. I didn’t argue. I got on the rail, bitter and miserable.

I couldn’t tell if we were winning; I didn’t really care. The rest of the crew was sailing the boat, a spinnaker went up and then it was time to drop it. “Help me to get the sail in!” – I heard and I got in the pit next to the owner, directing the spinnaker down the hatch. We were both trying to get the sail down as fast as possible without pulling on the gentle fabric too much, and then the next thing I knew, the owner’s elbow connected with my eye.

“O-ouch”, – I said. “My eye!”

We finished the race soon after that, all shouting stopped. Beer was out of the esky. “Sorry, did I get you in the eye?” – asked the owner, visibly concerned. I nodded. “You should put ice on it.. Or at least a cold beer,” – someone said. The bottle was cold against my skin and I thought that nobody would probably believe me if I told them that I got punched in the eye. I also thought that I didn’t want a black eye. There would be too much explaining to do.

That night I met up with friends to go to a free opera. Australians love the outdoors, they are so down to earth (quite literally) that a picnic blanket is much more comfortable to them than a chair in the famous Sydney Opera house – which doesn’t mean that they do not enjoy an opera every now and again. There were hundreds of people on the grass, eating cheese with crackers, drinking wine and listening to the opera. My friends were reading the subtitles on the huge screens next to the stage and giggling; I just lay down on the blanket and looked up in the sky.

It was getting darker and the sky was dark blue. Groups of bats were flying overhead every now and again. The voices were majestic. I remembered my seven years of music school: my choir practice and piano lessons, hours of listening to classics and the metronome ticking as I was trying to get another piece right. I hated opera back in music school but that night I could finally feel the magic. I filled my lungs with air as if I was singing together with the opera singers, and my head was spinning a bit as their voices flew higher, full and powerful, the air trembling with music.

It was beautiful. It touched strings inside me I wasn’t sure I even had. And the absurdity of being elbowed in the eye and then being transported into this higher state of mind, appreciating fine art, was not lost on me. I didn’t get a black eye, after all, but I vouched to never sail on that boat again – it was more about the shouting and taking me off the job than about damage to my face.

Two years later I was back on the same boat with different people, and one of them complained about a handle getting stuck. I remembered the day when I was taken off a job for the same thing, then the elbow and the opera, and I thought that I wasn’t that dead set against getting punched in the eye as long as there was something beautiful to make up for it. Like music. And a story I could get out of it.

The one about My First Season. And Superman

A weather front coming in. Photo by me

A weather front coming in. Photo by me

The season of twilights has just finished. It was my first season of skippering a boat. The very first post-Christmas twilight was regular enough, although not without its own dramas: I was crewing on my regular boat while the owners were away.

After the race we got to drinking red wine at the club, discussing Sydney to Hobart and a boat that one of the crew just bought for a ridiculously low amount of money. That night there was much more red wine than usual; the more we drank, the louder we laughed at Kiwi accent jokes. Late into the night Dave said, well, since you didn’t buy a boat, why don’t you enter Troy’s boat into the series and skipper it?

“Oh Troy would love it, I’m sure” – I said and looked at Troy. And Troy said, “I would let you do it.”

I am sure Troy had his doubts and regrets the next day. Dave made me promise I would do it – so I entered the boat into the series the moment I opened my laptop the next morning, my head still throbbing from the red wine. “I did it, it’s happening!” – I texted both of them. I didn’t get a reply for a very long time and all that time I was thinking, “No backsies now…”

My first race as a skipper, the second race in the series, happened to be on a very windy day. It was gusting over 20 knots. To me it felt like 50. The boat, a Sonata 8, doesn’t have lifelines – and it has a tiller, not a wheel. The night before the race I had troubles sleeping and practiced turning the boat and tacking in my head. I imagined sitting on the port side and turning the tiller away from me to turn into the wind. I was checking the forecast obsessively for five days before the race. I also organised the crew – Troy (the owner of the boat), Jo the French guy and a very nice, polite girl Nelly (not the real name).

That race was pretty exciting. We didn’t reef and started the race with number 1 headsail. The boat began to round up straight away while Troy tried to give me instructions and ease the sail at the same time. I didn’t yell – Troy was yelling for both of us. I also wasn’t scared – I suspect because Nelly was scared for both of us. A 26 foot boat with no lifelines that keeps rounding up can be a frightening place, especially when you know that the person on the helm has never skippered in a race before. We ended up reefing the main and changing the headsail after the first leg and we came last, far behind everyone else; but we didn’t kill anyone and there was no damage to our or any other boat.

I was proud of myself and said, “Sorry that it was a bit scary” to Nelly.

“No no no”, she said. “I think you were very brave and did very well in this weather.”

I beamed. How nice was this girl!

“By the way, did I mention that I have to babysit in March?” – she said.

She never sailed with me again.

That was okay; a friend of mine volunteered to trim the headsail for the entire series. It was a bit more complicated with the main. I needed someone who would be really good and could help me with the tactics; someone who could teach me to get better. Troy couldn’t make it to most of the races, and I was struggling to find someone who could help me out. That was the time for me to really appreciate reliable crew. One time after feverishly trying to find someone I got so discouraged that I was ready to give up. I sulked and even cried a little (my tough Siberian nature doesn’t always help me in the soft Sydney climate). That day I ended up sailing with John, one of the ex-commodores of the club. We came third and there was hardly anyone happier than me at the club that night.

Very gradually, I started getting the hang of it. I wasn’t stopping mid-tack anymore and most of the time I pointed as high as I could but no higher; sometimes I even remembered to bear away in gusts while going downwind. I found out how annoying it can be when the main trimmer wouldn’t do what you ask him to do (and complained to way too many people about that after the race). Another time I didn’t expect a huge knock, lost control for a second and the main trimmer got submerged in the water. Sadly, that was not the same trimmer who wouldn’t listen to me, so I had to apologise again and again.

There were a lot of windy races and a few with not much wind at all. We weren’t last anymore but I couldn’t get anywhere near that third place again. At some point the crew from my regular boat became available and sailed with me. I was still extremely tense near the start line and they made fun of my heavy breathing, asking me whether I was scared or excited. If you are interested, it was both. On the other hand, they didn’t have to point out nearly as many boats or give me nearly as much advice anymore as I was starting to evade boats before the start more or less on my own. I was also mildly annoyed when they didn’t listen to my instructions and in my turn ignored some of their – potentially useful – remarks.

Finally, a day has come when I only had one trimmer available and it didn’t look like there would be anyone else sailing with us. I cursed at the charity regatta that took away the rest of my crew. “We’ll be right,” – Tony said as we got on the boat. I wasn’t nearly as optimistic. It was 10 to 15 but gusting; I had serious doubts about the whole enterprise. The start line is fairly short and there are a lot of boats around. And Tony would have to trim both sails. We cruised like that before in 20 knots – but cruising is very different from racing; there’s normally no other boats yelling “Starboard” at you…

As I was thinking that this was a very bad idea, a rubber ducky appeared out of nowhere, and Dave told me to luff up. I would have been equally surprised and relieved if it had been Superman. I wasn’t tense and scared anymore; and I had the most amazing race in my life. A couple of years prior to that Dave had invited me to his boat and taught me stuff; that’s when I started learning sailing in honest. Somehow he managed not to be even a little bit patronising. I was very unsure of my value on a boat back then; I knew little and I was slow on the winch; not being yelled at felt like a great deal already. Someone who actually taught me seemed to be a semi-god. A pretty humble semi-god at that. Now my teacher was finally back; and I wasn’t afraid of anything anymore. We had a few closer tacks than usual that day – and we also sailed much better than usual.

We came first and I was jumping around all over the club, hugging people and telling them what a wonderful world we live in. People laughed and I laughed too, and the world WAS wonderful that night.

Now the series are over. I didn’t get a result for the last race – there was not enough wind and we finished a couple of minutes after the cut-off time. I didn’t mind that much. It was my first season as a skipper and I will always remember it. Thanks Troy and Dave and my entire crew, that was unforgettable.