The Follow-Up

 

Trimming a kite on a 60 footer and looking in the wrong direction

Trimming a kite on a 60 footer and looking in the wrong direction. Hamilton Island 2012

The story about women on boats is my most popular blog post ever. It generated more unique visitors and views than all the other posts taken together and started a lively discussion on Reddit where, among other things, I was accused of being sexist and entitled, rebuked for not submitting my sailing resume and invited to sail in San Francisco and Maine. I got downvoted and then upvoted and then downvoted again. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that my story about dreaming of blueberry bagels while soaking wet offshore didn’t merit the same response.

The blog post about women and being a dick also started a few interesting conversations in real life. First, a sailing mate of mine pointed out that he is an excellent example of being serious about sailing and still avoiding sailing in bad weather. Of all the things I wrote, I would not have predicted that someone could be offended by that part. My sincere apologies, mate, we all know that you are an exceptional sailor, and I look forward to hearing more horror stories about sailing in the cold and miserable waters of the UK. As a person who grew up in Siberia, I am also familiar with the anguish of dashed expectations when Australia does not live up to its image of perpetually sunny land (it’s been raining for two days here in Sydney).

Second, I appreciated all the jokes that I heard once I got on a boat after that blog post. “I hope we will get real trimmers this time, not these girls!” – that was my first clue that someone read my blog. It was fun. I think I got to trim more than ever that day (we came third, not a bad result, considering that we crossed the start line early and had to go back). For the record, that was one of my regular boats. For some reason, a lot of people on Reddit think that I don’t stay on one boat long enough.

Third, the same helpful people who kept making fun of me for writing that story told me that there is an official name for those who do all these tiny and unglamorous jobs on the boat – “fluffers”. Fluffers coil ropes and generally tidy up the deck, they often take care of running backstays, they press buttons on boats with electric winches, they grind for people – you get the idea. “We don’t have fluffers on our Volvo 70 right now, and it’s a pain in the proverbial!” – they said (they might not have used the euphemism). The same day I heard that “fluffer” is also a porn term that should not be used lightly. My friends always teach me something new, even when I actively resist some of their expertise.

We also discussed that trimming on a bigger boat can be genuinely dangerous. Where a bigger guy flies three metres through the air, raising concerns about safety of the boat, a smaller person of any gender might seriously injure themselves. A girl showed me a fairly big scar – a rope burn from dropping a kite on a big boat. Not that I wasn’t aware that a big boat can be dangerous; not that I ever protested against sensible choices when it comes to physically and intellectually demanding jobs.

I realised that I am probably not ready to be a very popular blogger who writes about controversial issues. Anger in some people is astounding and quite depressing. The main message of my story was not even about women per se. It was about some people making unnecessary assumptions and acting like dicks, sometimes without even realising it. All I asked for is honesty and self-reflection. If you’ve never acted in a less than ideal way then you have no reason to worry; also, you are probably a robot (or completely lack self-awareness). Otherwise, it’s a good idea to stop and think about the way we act towards other people sometimes, regardless of their gender.

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.

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.

So Many Stories

Sunset at Balmain after a twilight race, March 2014

Sunset at Balmain after a twilight race, March 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blueberry Bagel

Clouds before the start

Clouds before the start. Photo by me

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

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

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

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

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

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