Blue Sails at Boracay

Paraw at Boracay at sunset. Photo by me

A paraw boat at Boracay at sunset

“We changed the block on the main to a double one so it’s easier for you to control,” – said Jony.

I was sitting in the driving seat of a paraw, a traditional boat in the Philippines. Those boats are out on the water all day in Boracay, taking tourists around the island and out to the reef. Around 4:30 pm their renting rates double as the sun starts to go down. By 5:30 the entire horizon is full of blue sails in the rays of yet another stunning sunset.

By the time I decided to try and control one of those boats my holiday was almost over. The very next day I was flying back to Australia and my parents were heading back to Russia. I missed three twilights on my own boat while being on holidays and felt very homesick every Friday from 6 pm Sydney time onwards, checking the results to make sure that my crew were destroying my handicap while I was away. They were. I am the least experienced person on my own boat so it was to be expected. The crew posted photos of the trophy glasses, rum and beer on my Facebook wall to celebrate another win. I was staring at the perfect beach on Boracay, drinking cocktails and thinking about what I left at home.

The White Beach is about 5 kilometres long and it’s covered with – you guessed it – very fine white sand. We would usually drop our towels under a beautiful big tree and go swimming or paddle boarding. The beach is full of hawkers, mostly selling sunglasses, hats and selfie sticks. Lots of them also sell water sports, including a cruise on a blue sailed traditional boat with two outriggers on each side. They didn’t call the boats “paraws”, at least not while talking to tourists (I had to look up the correct name on Wikipedia). Filipinos speak fairly good English in general but a lot of the time their vocabulary is very functional, just enough to sell whatever they are selling. I still managed to talk to a few sailing people who described capsizes around marks during races, explained divisions in regattas and talked about sponsors and money prizes.

Jony was probably the most talkative hawker and he was the one who convinced me to try to steer the boat after my parents and I had already gone on a couple of cruises. “There was this woman from Singapore who told me she’s a sailor,” – he told me. “But when I tried to get her to steer she just wouldn’t do it!” I knew then that I would have to do better than the unnamed woman from Singapore, even though I’ve been told that I was not allowed to capsize the boat.

He told me that paraws can go as fast as 19-20 knots. They certainly never go that fast with tourists on. As soon as you turn the corner away from the White Beach, the water gets rougher, the wind starts to blow, tourists get wet and slightly uncomfortable. The boats mostly reach around, avoiding gybes in too much wind. When the locals race the boats, one person steers and trims the sails, the rest of the crew (usually 4 people) move around for better weight distribution. There are no kites. The outriggers make the boat look stable like a pair of skis attached to a plane but it’s just an illusion. When one side starts lifting too much out of the water, tourists are asked to move closer to the windward side (usually with gestures). Waves inevitably find a way to make every single tourist wet from head to toe, even if they decide not to go snorkelling. “It was so much fun,” – my Mum said after our first cruise. “I just wish there was no wind.”

At the beach - photo by me
Jony was late on the day when I was supposed to take the boat out. Other people from different boats said hi to me and suggested to go on a cruise with them instead but I decided to wait. When he finally showed up, he was wearing a short wetsuit. “I thought I was not allowed to capsize?” – I said. “Just in case,” – he answered. Mum looked at me anxiously and asked me to be safe. I was pretty sure she didn’t know what “capsizing” meant and it was something to be grateful for.

When we got on the boat, both sails were already up, two local boys looking at me curiously. Jony decided to get the boat out of the busy area before we swapped places. When I finally sat down in the driving seat, I was excited but cautious. There is a rudder but no tiller on the boat – instead, you have to pull on ropes on each side of the hull and do finer control with the sails. You can’t really see the headsail while sitting down. There are knots along the headsail sheet that allow trim for a particular angle. No finer controls, no boom vang or cunningham, no lead cars or outhaul. No telltales or a windex, it’s driven entirely by feel.

First time I tried to bear away in a gust I was not very successful. The weather helm was impressive but easing the main didn’t help much. “Don’t ease, you are losing power!” – Jony said. We were reaching at around 10 knots in 15 knots of wind, and the other two boys were jumping on the outrigger making encouraging noises and yelling “Faster! Faster!” The other outrigger lifted out of the water, waves splashing over the bow. “Um, I guess burying the bow is not that big of a problem on this boat?” – I asked Jony. “No, never had a problem with it.” – He reassured. Jony lives on the mainland and catches a boat to Boracay and back every day. He asked me not to gybe.

My first tacking manoeuvre turned out to be fairly easy – I had enough momentum not to stall the boat. The second one, however, stopped midway so Jony had to backwind the jib. I wasn’t too concerned though as every single tack during our previous cruises was like that. Soon enough I was able to bear away again and we reached back with a lot of splashing and lifting.

“Do you know Harken?” – Jony asked when we got back.

“Yes,” – I said.

“If you have some spare blocks, can you send them here? They are so expensive here!”

“Not exactly cheap in Australia either,” – I said. He gave me his postal address anyway, just in case.

When I connected to Wifi, there was a bill from a rigger in my email inbox and a Facebook message from my main trimmer. “You gotta learn to sail your boat by feel,” – the message said. “That’s how you become a good sailor.” I could still feel the breeze on my face and my palms holding the main sheet without gloves. I closed my eyes. A week later I would race my own boat again.

The Race That Wasn’t Mine: a Celebration

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When my plane landed in Hobart, it started raining. By the time I got into a cab to the city, it was pouring down. “You were lucky that the plane landed at all,” – said the cab driver. “It’s a big storm so planes are very likely to be diverted to Melbourne.”

I didn’t feel very lucky. That was my first time in Hobart, and the original plan was to get here by boat as part of the 70th Sydney to Hobart race, yet we had to abandon 2.5 hours into the race due to mechanical problems with the boat. “There is always next year,” – said the cab driver, echoing numerous other people, and I nodded and smiled.

The flight from Sydney to Hobart takes less than 2 hours. The record on a sailing boat is currently 1 day 18 hours and 20 minutes. I was on a much slower boat than Wild Oats that still holds this record, a boat in the slowest division, so we would still have been in Bass Strait by the time I landed, had the circumstances been different. As it was, I was going to watch a few of my friends finish the race and celebrate with them.

Despite abandoning the race, I still had a crew pass with my name on it to get into the sailing club in Hobart but almost nobody goes there after the race. After parking the boat in the Constitution dock, most crews head straight to the Customs House Hotel across the road.

It’s a nice coastal walk from the club to the dock despite a fairly steep hill at the start of it, and as I was walking I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to see my friends finish the race. I was tracking several boats’ progress; Southern Excellence (Volvo 70), Khaleesi (DK 46), Dare Devil (Farr/Cookson 47), Pazazz (Cookson 40) and TSA Management (Sydney 38). I wished my mates who were sailing these boats well and I was cheering for them as they climbed up the IRC standings. It was still hard not to think how unfair it was that we were out of the race so fast that we didn’t have a chance to make a single mistake let alone experience the race in full. And as I read reports about other boats having issues and abandoning the race I couldn’t help being a little comforted by the fact that we were not alone; I was not proud of that feeling and I hoped to shake it by going to Hobart and by celebrating my mates’ achievements – instead of my own.

My first glimpse of the finish line was sudden. I saw a boat before anything else; then I saw the yellow buoys. The rain was over yet there were white caps and huge gusts all over the water. The boat was carrying a storm jib and deeply reefed main and it was till heeling a little too much as gusts hit it.

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As the boat reached the finish line, there was a loud horn sound from the tower and a few people gathered on the shore clapped and cheered. And I cheered too. My friends from Khaleesi were due to finish about half an hour later.

They chose the right side of the course and were tacking painfully all the way to the line; my heart was racing as if it hoped to win, too. My eyes tingled and my chest felt too full as if I breathed in too much air. I was extremely happy and unbelievably upset at the same time, the bitter-sweet combination normally alien to me. I clapped and I cheered and I ran to the Constitution dock to see the boats come in and I hugged my mates and congratulated them on what they had achieved.

They were tired and sunburnt and their lips were dry and blistering from the sun. They grumbled that they could’ve done better as I helped them pack their storm jib. They didn’t want crowds and cheering as they were rafting up at the dock. They told me there were sorry about what happened to our boat.

We were lucky that our rudder gave out when it did and not in Bass Strait; we couldn’t have done anything to prevent it. Yet all the reasonable explanations and logic fade in the face of a major disappointment, when you try to come to grips with reality; reason is just not enough sometimes.

And amid the stories of my friends being hit by unpredicted 50 knots, about owners and unreasonable crew members, about code zeros dragged behind the boat and 30 knot boat speed, amid all the drinking, rum, beers, wine, amid the crowds that felt like CYCA without non-sailing people, amid all the noise and conversations, I felt like I was still part of it all; that despite being heart-broken I could still go on and be happy – genuinely happy – for the friends who have completed the race and weren’t robbed of that achievement.

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.

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.

What’s In a Name?..

I have a weird first name.

Actually, it’s not at all weird in Russia where I grew up. In fact, it’s a traditional name from a well-known folktale. The plot of the folktale might sound a bit odd when translated into English for someone who didn’t grow up with the story; essentially, it’s about a girl who was babysitting her little brother but left him alone for a while so she could play with her friends. While unsupervised, he drank from a puddle and turned into a baby goat. It only gets more depressing after that. There is a famous painting displaying my namesake sitting by the side of a pond mourning her brother and regretting her unfortunate decisions. Back in Russia the occasional smart arse would ask me where my little brother was after hearing my name. At least I don’t have that problem anymore.

My namesake from the Russian folkstale

My namesake from the Russian folktale

In Australia I have completely different problems related to my name. For starters, it is spelled “Alena” so people who see it in writing pronounce it the way it is spelled. The first two years in Australia I didn’t fight it very hard. A lot of Asian people just take a new, westernised name to make it easy for everyone and I can understand why. The perpetual struggle to make people pronounce your name correctly, let alone remember it, can be as tiring as answering the question about where you came from. Eventually, I decided that my name is part of my identity that I didn’t want to let go of. If I intended to talk to a person again I introduced myself using the real pronunciation of my name. By the way, my ex-boyfriend avoided the problem altogether by always calling me “babe”.

I meet a lot of new people through sailing and I have to introduce myself ALL. THE. TIME.

“Well, I am not going to remember THAT!” – that was probably the least impressive reaction I’ve heard to date but definitely the most honest one. I used a few conversational gambits to make it easier: “It’s like a loner but I am not actually a loner hehe. Well, actually it sounds more like a learner. Yes, it’s spelled with an e because there is a letter exactly like that but with two dots above it in the Russian language and it sounds more like o”. Some people tried hard to remember all that but I came to expect them to revert to “Alana” after a while. I once corrected my manager during an interstate team meeting when he called me “Alana” and there was much less confusion about my name in the company after that. I have recently changed jobs and it’s an uphill battle to teach all these new people again.

When you are sailing, it’s pretty important sometimes to be able to address someone quickly and “hey you” is fairly ambiguous. I’ve sailed with some very nice people who tried to use my proper name again and again and eventually got it right – and I’m grateful.

And then I started sailing on “Orbit”.

I was trimming the jib one day and the rest of the crew were hanging out at the front of the boat (light conditions make the weight distribution on the boat very important).

“It’s not easy to remember her name, is it,” – one of them remarked, sipping his beer. The others agreed. I glared. “We should give her an easier name. Let’s call her Dave”.

“No, not Dave!” – I said. OK, maybe I yelled. I didn’t take the suggestion very seriously then but I still didn’t like it. They asked me whether I would prefer Lenin or Trotsky instead and I said that I didn’t mind either as long as it wasn’t Dave. That was probably the dumbest thing I have ever said because ever since they’ve been calling me Dave. Half the time they are dead serious about it, too. “Dave, ease me!” – yells Matt (the skipper) as we get close to the start line. “Dave, can you get the outhaul?” – says the main trimmer.

They all have nicknames, too, but they almost never use them during a race. They do use mine. It confuses new people on the boat and I never fail to roll my eyes. After sailing, they sometimes introduce me to new people as Dave and then I start my dance about my real name so people get even more puzzled because my name sounds too much like “a loner”.

“So are you?” – they say.

“Am I what?”

“A loner?”

And I sigh and I think that maybe I should just introduce myself as Dave to everyone. It has already started sipping through to other boats. I am learning to skipper a boat while racing so a couple of my sailing friends call me “Captain Dave” now. And I am secretly pleased when I hear it, even if I frown and even shake my fist at them (which of course makes everyone laugh even harder).

Because ultimately, my weird Russian name will always be part of my identity. At the same time, my sailing nickname from “Orbit” is not entirely alien to me anymore either. I’ve been one of the boys on a few boats now and it feels good to be an essential part of the crew, not some girl who’s invited to sit on a rail and look pretty. A silly nickname can make you feel accepted and at home as much as kind words – and sometimes more. It’s a grand Australian tradition to make fun of your mates. Also, “Dave” IS much easier to pronounce during a race than my real name. So I am happy to roll with it.

Although I still wish it was anything else but Dave sometimes.

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