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.

A Breakup with a Boat

Sydney Harbour covered with smoke from bush fires, Nov 2, 2013.

Low visibility in the Sydney Harbour caused by smoke from bushfires, Nov 2, 2013

I haven’t been writing in my blog for a while as I have had a few things happening in my life. One is totally unrelated to sailing and another one is an impending breakup with a boat.

You may laugh at this point. If you have never been in love with a boat, not because she is the best boat in the world but because you get to know her every peculiarity – her slipping halyards, the way the starboard spinnaker sheet has to be rigged differently from the port one, her preference for one tack and even her temperamental radio – and because her crew feels like a family to you, laugh all you want.

Cruisers who cross oceans in boats are allowed to feel attached to boats. It’s their shelter, their only protection from the elements, their home. Racing crew don’t usually own the boat, so a lot of amateur racers don’t get attached. Some sailors switch boats so much, they call themselves boat sluts (and believe it or not, it can be said with a touch of pride). Once you have enough skills to be useful, it’s not that hard to find another boat to race on – boats always need crew. A lot of them will ask for a commitment but some are perfectly happy with a one-race stand. Some highly competitive boats have mile-long crew lists, other boats will offer a spot to an experienced sailor or a friend whenever they are available. Some boat owners make their crew show their loyalty and work their way up from skirting the jib to actually trimming the sail.

And sometimes you find a special boat and everything just clicks. You spend so much time on it, you get attached despite yourself. You show up for every single race and start scheduling the rest of your life around the racing calendar. Whether it’s bucketing down, or the harbour is covered with smoke from bush fires, whether it’s blowing 40 knots or there is not enough wind for the boat to move at all, you are still there, never giving up on a race and not even considering not showing up. You debrief and laugh over a drink at the club after the race is over, and at that moment there are no people in the world who feel closer to you than your fellow crew members. And when you get invited to another boat, no matter how fast and sexy she is, you turn her down because you have already committed to another boat.

And then it all comes crushing down. At times boats get sold. Owners can mourn for their boats when they sell them. There are a lot of jokes based on the fact that buying a boat is usually a very bad investment but despite all the jokes, real sailors – not the people who just buy a yacht as they have some extra cash and then leave her sitting on her mooring for months and months – are not happy when they have to sell, and not just because they don’t get the same amount of money that they bought the boat for. They just love their boats. Good skippers make boats go faster, and boats respond to their every touch. The crew of a sold boat usually have a more subdued reaction since missing a boat might seem weird, and sailors in general are not known for their gentle souls and being in touch with their feelings so they hop onto another boat – a rebound boat, if you will – and sometimes that turns into a long-term relationship.

It’s worse when the boat is still with her owners but a crew member has to leave for some reason. If you are loyal to a boat, you expect the same in return, and a lot of the time it’s not the case. You get taken off a job on a boat seemingly for no reason; or the boat cancels on you at the last moment because they have too many people on board for the conditions. Every now and again it’s not a big deal. And sometimes it is.

If you buy a plane ticket to do a delivery and then the boat cancels on you with no word of apology, it’s just rude. Most of the crew are not paid to do a delivery and they spend their own money to buy the tickets; getting them off the boat warrants at least a brief “sorry”.

Still, losing money over a cancelled delivery might look minor in comparison to the broken trust. If you are committed to a boat and are fiercely loyal to her through all weather conditions and other circumstances in your life, lack of loyalty from the boat – or rather the boat owners – feels personal. And sure it might seem funny to compare leaving a boat to a breakup with a special someone (and it also might have something to do with the fact that my comfort TV show at the moment is “How I Met Your Mother”) but such breakup might be as necessary and as upsetting as a breakup in a relationship where only one partner is fully committed.

I’m sorry, A., but I have to start seeing other boats.

Becoming a Racing Sailor: Part 3

Boats at CYCA

Boats at CYCA, Rushcutters Bay, Sydney.

Consistency Is Key

In Part 2, we had a look at the main roles on a sailing boat. Some of my non-sailing friends who are trying to read this blog reported complete confusion and a strong desire to lie down while reading that part of the blog entry. And that was me trying to explain everything as clearly as possible with a bare minimum of sailing terms. Imagine how confusing it can be for fairly new sailors when all those terms are thrown at them throughout the race. Granted, sometimes those terms are repeated in a very loud voice which makes remembering them easier (“Kicker! Get the kicker! I said the downhaul!”) but doesn’t help with stress that much.

Sailing is a sport that requires a lot of learning. You can sail for twenty years and still learn new stuff next time you are on the water. It can also be physically demanding, even though in photos it might look like sailors don’t do much apart from sitting on the rail. On relatively small yachts (around 30-40 foot) racing sailors do a lot of grinding and they get bumped around quite a bit. That’s why women, with their thinner skin, who sail on boats that size are often covered in bruises, sometimes in weird places. It’s not that rare to get a rope burn either. A few girls told me that when someone saw their legs they were asked whether their husbands were beating them. I have to say, I had a few concerns earlier this year about going on a trip where I was supposed to see my parents for the first time in a couple of years (they live far away). It was after a big regatta where we were short-handed, and my legs were covered in bruises. “Just tell them that Australia is great – but Aussie men – well, not so much,” – the skipper told me in his usual tongue-in-cheek manner.

On bigger boats you don’t get that many bruises. On the other hand, if something goes wrong on a bigger boat, you are more likely than on a smaller boat to, say, lose a finger.

Getting better at sailing requires patience, willingness to learn and – most importantly – time. Every position on a boat has its own challenges. At some point ever new sailor starts to specialise and chooses a favourite role on the boat: light people are often sent to the foredeck, strong people stay in the pit. The longer you stay on the same boat, the more you know about her quirks and peculiarities. A permanent spot on a boat might not be that easy to get though, so beginners often have to move around and talk to a few people to get a ride until they find a boat that is happy to have them on for an entire season. That helps with learning your new role and If you are lucky, you can even get a crew shirt.

Boat owners/skippers have their own problems. They need a group of people who know what they are doing and will turn up for every race. In reality, it is almost impossible to ensure that every single person is available every time – people tend to have lives and responsibilities outside sailing. That’s why some boats have long lists of backup crew which are called if someone can’t turn up this time. As long as everyone is aware of that arrangement, there are usually no hard feelings. It gets trickier if there are slightly more people in the permanent crew than required with no “reserve list” and no apparent priorities. Sometimes there are not enough people and the boat is short-handed and other times everyone might want to sail so someone has to sit it out or just do nothing after getting on the boat. It’s hard to keep everyone happy, and a happy team on a boat is essential, not only because it makes winning a race more likely but also because if you are not happy while doing something you love, what’s the point of doing it and do you really love it?

The ideal person for a boat owner is the one who sails well, who’s reliable and – probably – is fun to spend a lot of time with on the boat. That is why – and I know I said it before – being reliable is absolutely vital when you start sailing, especially if you don’t know that much. If you are not an experienced sailor, you have to make up for it somehow – and being consistent (and nice!) is the best way to go about it. And once you prove to people that you can be relied upon and meet more people who know you from the club, you will have more choices who to sail with and might even have to turn down a few offers of sailing just because you can’t sail on every single boat you are invited to.

It’s that easy – race consistently, go to the club regularly and talk to people. Chances are, you will find out that sailing doesn’t have to be an elite sport that requires a lot of money, it can also be a fun way to master new skills and hang out with people from very different backgrounds. And you will eventually get better at it.

Becoming a Racing Sailor: Part 1

Boat at Balmain

A boat finishing a club race at the Balmain Sailing Club, Sydney. Photo by Alena Abrosimova

I used to know nothing about cars until I met a guy who seemingly knew everything about them. He introduced me to a reality show about building custom cars called “American Hot Rod”. Initially I only agreed to watch an episode at a time with him as a way to bond and learn a little about his passion; however, not long after, I found myself hooked on the show despite my initial lack of interest. The reason was simple enough and long familiar to producers of popular TV: the show wasn’t so much about cars as it was about people, their relationships and tensions between them. And there were plenty of dramas in that shop.

It’s hard to talk about sailing in some ways; you either fall in love with being on the water and making the boat go faster, or don’t. If you don’t, I can talk all day about the primeval awe I experience when the boat slides from one wave to another in an offshore race, and it won’t move you much. The almost meditative feeling of presence, of being completely in the moment I experience while sailing can be described but not totally shared with someone who is not familiar with it. However, sailing and amateur racing is exactly the same as a TV show about building custom cars in one regard: it’s about people more than it is about the boat and the wind, and it’s as much about how people interact with each other and react to circumstances as it is about their objective sailing skills.

I won’t talk too much about points of sail here; for now I’ll concentrate on dramas of becoming an amateur racing sailor.

Humble Beginnings

Sailing is very popular in Australia. The easiest way to get on a boat for a grownup who was not initiated into sailing in a very young age by their parents is to show up in a sailing club before a race and put your name on a board or ask around whether anyone needs crew. Bringing some alcohol and/or snacks helps, too. I did that after taking a short sailing course for total beginners teaching the basics of sailing a dinghy.

The first few club races after getting on a yacht for the first time were overwhelming. I didn’t understand half of what was being said, no matter how hard I tried and how loud the skipper was. Mind you, the skipper, an old cranky man with a heart of gold who always welcomed newcomers and muppets on his boat but still cared quite a lot about winning, didn’t help much. “Pull on that blue rope! No, not that one, the other one!” – “Tommy, that’s not blue,” – someone less flustered than me would pipe in. “Well, the other blue then!”

From time to time (so rarely that I usually deny having ever done it) I would put the headsail sheet on the winch counter-clockwise instead of clockwise which made it impossible to pull it in. I also once wondered out loud about the dying wind on a downwind leg after going around the mark (you don’t feel the wind as much when the wind is behind you so this question really betrays you as a complete beginner). In other words, I made typical beginner’s mistakes.

On the other hand, I worked hard on the winch handle, grinding with all my might, and I was very grateful for a chance to crew on a boat. I was learning the timing of letting the lazy sheet go and pulling it in on the other side through every single tack and I was getting used to ignoring Tommy’s yelling. I felt invincible and very proud of myself (that didn’t last), especially once I knew that I would get a ride on the same boat for every race and wouldn’t have to compete for a spot with other absolute beginners.

There are other ways for people to get into racing; some are invited by a friend or an acquaintance, others start with a Competent Crew course. No matter what your beginnings are, however, for quite a while you are protected by low expectations of other people. If you are lucky enough to get on a boat with people who are happy to teach you, they will nurture your natural talents and show you what you don’t know; on most boats you are expected to pick a lot of the stuff yourself. Still, nobody in their right mind will expect you to know much in the beginning. And if they let you do any actual work and the boat happens to get a prize in that race (a hat or a bottle of beer), chances are, the race organiser will hand the prize to you as a way to encourage your further pursuits. Such are the perks of a total beginner in a friendly sailing club, and if you are a girl, all the better for you at that stage.

The most important thing you can do at that stage is to be reliable and always show up when you promise to. No, wait – that’s the most important thing you can do at any stage, and probably not just in sailing.

I started with Twilight races, just like hundreds of other people who come to a sailing club after a work day for a relaxed social race, with dinner and drinks after. How relaxed a race is depends on a few things. Each boat has a style, and it depends a lot on the skipper (who is generally also the owner of the boat) – how competitive and how patient he or she is.

Sometimes in the summer I go for a walk to a big nature reserve next to my place and watch a twilight race on Wednesday night from a huge rock overlooking the harbour. When you look at the fleet from that high up, it looks beautiful and very peaceful. The boats are moving smoothly, tacking near the shore, their sail trimmed perfectly (or so it looks from afar). Yet I know that on quite a few of them the skipper is yelling, “Bring it on, come on, faster!” and a poor person on the winch is sweating and trying his best to pull the huge genoa on as fast as possible. Remember me putting the sheet on the winch the wrong way a couple of times? Well, I’ve heard stories about a frustrated skipper who kept telling a beginner off for doing exactly that in the course of an entire race. At the end of the race, fuming, the skipper hit the unfortunate sailor on the head with the winch handle. They never sailed on the same boat again.

That was an exception rather than the rule, though. Skippers don’t usually go completely ballistic and get physical with their crew. If there is too much yelling on a boat, that’s not a good sign in general – and can be very demotivating, especially when you have just started doing something. Maybe there are some people who learn better when they are yelled at but I am not definitely not one of them. So the best sailing I’ve ever done has been with people who almost never yell.

Part 2