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 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.

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.