Sydney to Southport 2014, or my first long ocean race

Sunrise in the ocean

On the way to Southport – photo by Louise Bavin

4 a.m. Can I describe the night sky in a way that doesn’t sound completely banal? Probably not. Yet, I will still tell you that I have never seen stars this bright and beautiful and so I try to take it all in, puzzling over unfamiliar constellations of the Southern Hemisphere. The coast is on our port side, and the only way to tell it’s there is the glow above the landline. The starboard light on our bow is reflected in the sail, painting its tack green.

I have time to observe all that because there is very little wind and we are moving at a barely tolerable pace of 3 knots. The current against us is not helping either. I am holding a spinnaker sheet in my hand, staring at the sail and trying not to fall asleep. My body doesn’t want to be awake and neither does my brain, so I force myself to come up with silly little poems, first in Russian then English. The verses keep slipping away from me as I am trying to think of a rhyme so I repeat them to myself again and again: “My kite is trembling, almost sighing, a slave to currents and the breeze. I won’t give up, I’ll keep on trying and praying for a wind increase.”

This is my first long ocean race. I avoided having any expectations before the race, yet it still managed to surprise me, again and again. It’s not the strong winds and huge waves that presented a challenge but long hours of slowly ploughing through the areas of very little wind. Contrary to my experience on land, I do not get cranky despite sleeping 3 to 4 hours at a time, but my body and brain seem to be far less responsive during the night, as if half-frozen in suspended animation. The seasickness that went away relatively fast is different from what you’d think, too: it’s not the excited flatter in your stomach as you go down the wave, it’s a constant feeling of being unwell, your head heavy, your whole body weak.

We had a relatively good start in very light conditions, keeping up with much bigger boats and changing sails from an asymmetric to a code zero to a screecher back to the asymmetric. Brindabella gave way to us as as a starboard boat. I was trimming the kite, peeling layers of clothes off one by one in what turned out to be a warm sunny day, and we were all watching a seal who was lazying in the water, seemingly undisturbed by the fleet. Wild Oats was moving south in search of a better breeze. Then we got a bit more wind, too.

That first day turned out to be critical for us. I was woken up after dark by the call from upstairs, stumbling to get off my bunk and put my PFD on and then helping to get our asymmetric down – ripped. Unusable for the rest of the race. It was about 17 knots, and we discussed afterwards what sail we should’ve used after we tore that kite – symmetric? Fractional asymmetric? Code zero? As it happened, a jib top went up, an easy sail – but a not very fast sail. It was dark and it seemed as if were alone in the universe; very different from harbour races where the pressure to overtake other boats is almost palpable as you see them going around the mark in front. The boat was new to the owner and the entire crew, and most of the crew, including me, were new to ocean sailing. And so the jib top stayed, and we were slowly losing ground compared to other boats, for hours, as my parents on the other side of the world were looking at the race tracker online, curious about our progress. “They are falling behind for some reason,” – Mum said. “You must be wrong,” – Dad replied. “Our daughter is always among the winners!”

Racing sailors are a competitive bunch. We all hate losing. And in the heat of the moment it’s hard to think about the benefits of races that go wrong. You need someone with a very cool head to calmly assess tactical decisions and performance of the entire crew and instead of turning it into a fight of wounded egos make sure that the lessons to learn are very clear. If we don’t discuss our mistakes openly, we still assess ourselves and each other but do we learn as much?..

Girls

Before the race, Lou and I

I found out that I need to take seasickness tablets and that I require much more practice before I can steer properly in the open ocean; that I get bored while staring at a kite in very little wind for hours on end and that I care about what people think even when I wish I didn’t. And I learned that my friends can be incredibly cool, making me smile as they wake me up for the dreaded graveyard shift with a cheerful call and a cup of coffee; getting a tight spinnaker wrap out in the dark; climbing masts and not giving up until the very last moment; driving the rest of us even when we started losing hope; a lot of things that make sailing with friends different from sailing with a bunch of strangers, especially strangers who are sailing superstars, each with their own opinion and little concern for others. Can we still be competitive? Can we learn and make enough progress in the rest of the series? I would like to think so.

We saw a lot of whales, dolphins and flying fish during the race. It felt like a cruise to some, and in reality we were not at all isolated from the rest of the world. Not just because of the GPS and the yellow tracker and the skeds; some people never even ran out of batteries on their phones – and they did use them. Yet, it was not hard to tune out of the everyday life if you so desired. Turning my phone off for 4 days was one of the benefits of the race to me, and I slept better than I ever do on land (who knew that sleeping on sails could be this comfortable?). I felt free to be present where I am instead of worrying about what I temporarily left behind. And when we finally got to our destination, that feeling stayed with me just as much as the sense of accomplishment about my first long ocean race, done and dusted, more important to me than the daily grind of seemingly important things I have to do every day.

Women on Boats, or Don’t be a Dick

Before a race at Hamilton Island, 2012.

Waiting for the start of a race at Hamilton Island, 2012.

I am not big on feminist manifestos. I have worked in IT, a male dominated industry, for a while now, and my career so far has been virtually unaffected by my gender. My boyfriends were mostly supportive of my endeavours. I don’t remember my political rights ever being questioned because I am a woman. So I am all for equal opportunities but I also never felt the need to remind the public of my stance on feminism by exposing social injustice towards women. Yet today I am writing about gender issues here, in my sailing blog. There is a reason for that: it is something that I see again and again on boats, especially new boats I get on. It’s also something I discussed with more than one friend so I know I am not just imagining things.

It’s about how women get treated on some boats and in sailing in general.

I sail on different boats – mostly smaller yachts (30 to 40 foot), and these days mostly with people I like and respect. They never treat me as if I can’t do something just because I am a girl. They teach me when I ask for advice and they trust me to do stuff that I know how to do. In fact, I have been lucky enough to sail with great sailors from the very start of my sailing career who treated me as an equal regardless of my experience. And as I got better at what I do, I started enjoying sailing with this kind of people even more, and the banter and jokes make it better still. And we win races. Repeatedly.

And yet, sometimes I am reminded of the flip side of the coin. We get on a new boat, a 60 footer, and at some point the tactician starts talking about roles during the race. There is a main trimmer, two headsail/spinnaker trimmers, foredeck – all male, all mentioned by name. Three girls are just told, “The rest of you, well, there’s running backstays, buttons and general tidying up.” It’s fine, it’s a first race, you have to prove yourself, and there’s also a lot of ways to be useful on a boat even if you don’t have a glamorous job.

But be prepared. On some boats you can do these kind of jobs race after race and you are always going to be that girl who tidies up. You will never get a chance to show that you can trim, let alone learn something new about trim, and if you grind for a guy he might give you a few condescending remarks afterwards, even when you notice the kite collapsing before he does. Not because you are inexperienced – in fact, they might not even ask you about your experience at all – but because you just happen to be female. Hell, the other day I even heard someone say that Jessica Watson was invited on a boat for publicity only, as if she doesn’t have any experience on boats!

Sailing is a male-dominated world, and there are a few legitimate reasons for that. For starters, it can be physically demanding. It requires physical strength and stamina. It can be rather scary, too, and at times unpleasant. People race boats in all kinds of conditions and unless you want to be a champagne sailor – an insult for any dedicated racer – you will be there regardless of wind, rain, snow, swell, waves. On smaller boats people in the cockpit get thrown around. Sometimes you have to climb masts. Other times those mast can break – in fact, anything on a boat can break, and even if it doesn’t, it’s not that hard to injure yourself. Boats get out of control, run aground and in rare cases even sink. And don’t get me started on toilets, especially toilets on racing boats. In other words, it’s not a nice, comfortable world a lot of people prefer to live in. And it’s definitely not something that is normally associated with the female world.

Some women are not intimidated by any of that. They enjoy the adventure and competitiveness and the mastery as much as the next man, they joke and learn and sweat and never ask to be treated differently from the rest of the crew. Yet they will always be treated in a slightly different way. If they get on a new great boat, someone will probably nudge a friend and say that they must be sleeping with the skipper. I don’t know of a single girl who would sleep with a skipper specifically to get on a boat but I’ve heard of women who flirt with crew to get on a better boat. No matter what you do though, once you are sailing, it is profoundly clear what you can and cannot do. Unless you are never given a chance to demonstrate it – because you are a woman.

Look, I get it. Women are not as strong as men (on average). And there are not as many experienced women as men in sailing. Still. I can complain sometimes that I don’t get to do something because I don’t have as much experience as another person but at the same time I know it’s fair enough. I do everything I can to get better at what I do but you can’t jump over your head all the time – mastery takes time. I am happy to learn more and I will listen to advice and I will step down if it’s better for everyone.

But if you are condescending towards someone just because of their gender, you are a dick, and there is no way around it. Mind you, it’s not just men who do that. Women can be even bigger dicks towards other women, tactless, distrustful snobs. But it’s also men. Men who tell my wonderful friend who sailed all her life and worked as a sailing instructor, “But you are not a real sailor! You are a girl!” Men calling another insanely talented girl bossy because she’s a skipper who tells them what to do. Men yelling out, “Get me a real trimmer!” even though they wouldn’t even notice the same mistake if it was made by a man. Men who yell out to female skippers that a woman can’t steer a boat. Men who just assume that you will never be good at something just because you are a woman.

I don’t want reverse discrimination. I don’t think we need campaigns to attract more female sailors, there are enough Ladies’ days as it is. I don’t think we need marketing and PR and all that; and I know there are wonderful experienced men in sailing who don’t feel the need to constantly prop up their own egos by belittling women.

The only thing I ask you is this: don’t be a dick towards female sailors. Just be honest with yourself. Have you dismissed a sailor and never gave her a chance because she’s a woman? Do you think that girls are only good enough to be rail meat? Would it bother you if a woman turned out to be a better sailor than you? Do you feel the need to be an arrogant prick while sailing?

You don’t have to tell me. Just think about it next time you go sailing. Give us a chance to show what we can do. Give yourself a chance to be a better human being.

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.

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.

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 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