Confessions of a Boat Slut

Watching boats race on the walk from Manly to Spit.

Watching boats race on the walk from Manly to Spit.

Believe it or not, I am very loyal and dependable. I don’t like to disappoint. I commit and I follow through. In fact, I once wrote a blog post about getting attached and about difficulties of letting go.

Yet, as I was waiting for our boat before a race a couple of months ago, a skipper I know asked me while walking past, “So what boat are you on today? Do you even remember the name?” and I blushed. He was long gone and I was still muttering to myself. “I commit to boats for an entire season! What did he even mean? I always sail winters on the Tiger! And I sail Sundays on another boat!” My fellow crew members, always happy to help out with a smart-arse comment or two, chuckled at how close to heart I took that comment. “He called me a boat slut!” – I said finally. Although technically he didn’t.

I don’t think there is such thing as boat slut shaming. I am almost positive there isn’t. The first time I heard the term, quite a while ago, it was a self-description and the guy who used it was quite casual about it, almost self-congratulatory. After all, being invited to a lot of boats is flattering, especially when you are invited for the right reasons.

Still, the term doesn’t sound neutral. It implies lack of loyalty if not morality, and its parallels with romantic relationships are obvious. When we fall in love with a boat and commit to it for a long time, we get to know its every quirk, every nook and cranny, the preferred tack, the slipping halyards, the thin line between going fast and being overpowered, the best way to position yourself while trimming and a thousand other things. Racing on a familiar boat is comforting in its familiarity, not unlike sex in a long-term committed relationship – you both know how to get each other going, you work together really well to reach the desired outcome and you feel safe and protected, even if that last bit is an illusion.

Yet in many cases you learn more about sailing and yourself when you sail on different boats with different people. The fundamental principles might be the same, yet every boat behaves in its own unique way. There is a different dynamic in every crew, and it pays off to do a different role to what you usually do every now and again. You might get burned sometimes. The worst race I’ve ever had finished on the rocks because someone put on the running backstay too early so the boat slid sideways past the mark and into the shore. It was a valuable if embarrassing lesson. During better races you learn from other people – how to roll tack better and how trimmers interact with each other, how not to panic when a boat starts rounding up. You compare strings and the way the winches are positioned on boats. You see people tracking target speeds or struggling with stuck canting keels as the shore gets closer. You learn something new every time. And as opposed to romantic relationships, it’s not morally reprehensible, especially if you are loyal for as long as people need you to be.

Sailing on a new boat can also be extremely enjoyable. It’s hard to describe what it’s like to feel a boat tremble and surge forward as you play with its kite sheet. If there’s trust between the skipper and the crew, if you are allowed to do your job and it all goes well, if the boat is going fast, what more can you ask for? Even a bad race is usually enjoyable on our beautiful harbour with its dolphins, seals and penguins, its brilliant sun reflecting in the water and the rugged coast line – and a good race feels nothing short of amazing.

I still enjoy sailing on the same boat for a season or more. I always show up on time and I don’t remember the last time I cancelled. Going steady with a boat is exciting in its own right, all that getting to know the crew and the way the boat behaves in different situations. Yet sometimes, when there are no prior commitments, it feels great to hop on to another boat and see what it’s like. And if that makes me a boat slut then so be it, even if I do get uncomfortable about the term and mutter in self-defence for a minute or two when I hear it.

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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.

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.