Friday, February 24, 2006

Sailing Philosophies and Sailing Full Circle

Some recent events made me reflect about how our family got into sailing, and about the reasons why, and the philosophies underlying the way we and different people approach the sport.

I grew up not too far from being a part-time water rat. Our family lived only 70 miles from South Padre Island, Texas, where we kept a mobile home just a block or two from the water. Though it was almost always on powerboats, I spent a good chunk of my childhood and teen years messing around boats of one sort or another (when I wasn't beachcombing or even "selling seashells by the seashore" one summer for pocket money when I was about eight year old). When I was about twelve, my parents bought me a copy of Chapman's Seamanship to entertain me during a vacation through the interior of Mexico; naturally I devoured the book and have kept it to this day (and now have a small collection of several editions of the book!).

There were also all sorts of nautical adventures and misadventures that I witnessed or took a part in; going out on a Coast Guard cutter when I was about seven years old to rescue some friends of the family who had gotten in a bit of a jam, going out on all sorts of craft, and watching the ever-entertaining antics of folks at the boat ramp. There was conning a 35-foot sloop through narrow bayside channels when a flogging jib had knocked the owner's eyeglasses off into the drink. One "Blessing of the Fleet" was a bit interesting; as an "acolyte" (like an altar boy) I was holding a heavy, tall metal cross when a hundred boats revved up their engines and roared out into the Gulf of Mexico, leaving a boiling cauldron of jumping water while I balanced on the heaving, exposed (no railings) bow of a Coast Guard cutter. Then there was the time I was bringing a small Boston Whaler coming back in from the Gulf of Mexico when my eyeglasses were broken and ... well, let's just say that things got exciting for a bit. There was watching people fix things on boats and one part-time job I had taking care of one guy's cabin cruiser.

As a teen I spent a couple of summers and many weekends working as a deckhand on a bay fishing (party) boat. If you think your boat takes a lot of work, think about being a teenager being given some responsibilities for 40- to 65-foot commercial work boats. When I learned to drive at age sixteen, I was simultaneously learning to back a boat trailer down the launch ramp. By the time I was eighteen I probably already had a year's worth of "sea service days" and knew my nautical way all over the area.

Sailing misadventures were part of my education during my freshman year in college, when I hung out briefly with the Rice U. sailing club and survived a distmasting on an O'Day daysailer and committee boat duty during a "Frozen Butt" regatta that really was held in bitter, rough conditions. All fond memories.

Carol Anne, by contrast, grew up as somewhat of a landlubber, other than for a bit of sailing with the Girl Scouts and some friends. She did have some warning as to what she was getting into; we spent some time on the beach and on boats after we met, and I proposed to her and gave her the engagement ring on a small boat in the Gulf of Mexico off the South Padre Island north jetty sea buoy. She also noticed that I couldn't spend more than several months to a year in New Mexico at a time without making a desperate break for the waterfront.

But, it was only after we had been married for some years that my gradually increasing dessication and longing for a boat could not be satisfied any more with occasional trips to one or another coast. I wanted a sailboat, as something that would provide for relatively peaceful, quiet escapes from life's turmoil, and something we could perhaps camp out on. The story of how we got the boat is told elsewhere, including how a condo timeshare salesperson unintentionally clinched the deal. Also told elsewhere is how we did some day charters and then spent some days taking sailing lessons as a family in Santa Barbara, CA, on a J-24, and how the crew-overboard drills were complicated by sea lions that played with the person-overboard dummy and how the instructor had us sail through the marina, tacking within a few feet of gold-plater rich people's yachts.

Flash forward through the past several years, including more sailing classes in Santa Barbara (but on one trip, we were all a bit embarrassed when the instructor let Gerald, then age 12, take a certification test for fun and he got a near-perfect score), and sailing club trips to California (we chartered a 38-foot Beneteau in 2004), and adventures at Heron, Elephant Butte, and Navajo lakes closer to home, plus a boat trailering trip all the back to South Padre Island.

Until recently Carol Anne and I were mostly lazy cruisers, participating in raftups, doing committee boat duty to help the racers, and taking pictures of regattas. Gerald, on the other hand, didn't lose much time in getting crew gigs on racing boats and by now has sailed with almost all of the active racers in the Rio Grande Sailing Club. Occasionally Carol Anne or I would crew on one or another friend's boat during a regatta, but we were never part of the real racing scene.

So, it was a surprise to folks when she took up racing with the Adams Cup group and them helmed Kachina (when Sue was under the weather) to a second-place finish (behind Larry Jessee's Constellation) in her first-ever race, this January's "Frostbite". Of course, a well-tested boat, a fine crew who worked together, and a coach who was a real "wind and weather wizard" were the secrets to that success, but Carol Anne was still proud that a lot of the folks on the race course didn't realize right away that Sue wasn't helming. Also, the J-boat victory brought her full circle in that her first formal sailing lessons had been years ago on that J-24 in Santa Barbara.

Carol Anne gets to see her "new" race boat in only about 7 days and 7 hours or so. She's at the Butte sailing this weekend, learning the finer points of boat control and recovery so she won't frighten her crew so much (grin; at least she was courteous enough to hide her bleeding from her crew last Sunday until she got the boat safe to the marina).

Carol Anne still rightly counts herself as a novice, though at least her sailing training's coming along far enough that Carol Anne's will often notice when she, or a competitor, or even one of the sailing coaches she's learning from makes a mistake. However, she wants to be really discreet about those latter mistakes (1) so she doesn't distract or scare any even-more-novice crew members more!, and (2) since she and every other sailor, no matter how proficient, will make mistakes.

In fact, my reckoning is that Carol Anne, in order to move up a level in her helming and sailing ability between now and the Adams Cup, probably needs to make and learn from at least a hundred more mistakes in order to learn enough to handle a good variety of situations at a decent level of proficiency.

Most of the best sailors recognize their mistakes or don't mind having a crew that will point out mistakes, equipment problems, or things that can be improved. Problems that are acknowledged get fixed, resulting in fewer future mistakes and in more successes. Skippers who don't listen to their crews or who don't want to acknowledge problems and fix them are the ones who aren't going to go far, in my firm opinion. Unacknowledged and uncorrected problems are the ones that, at best, are lost learning opportunities, and, at worst, could lead to future disasters.

One of our favorite couples on the water have also only been sailing for a relatively short time. While they aren't quite perfect people or at all perfect sailors - - far from it, as they themselves would admit - - we admire their attitude of never being afraid to try things. Likewise their attitude toward their boats. If something breaks or isn't quite right, B. is the first to admit that it should be fixed; he'll even spring for airfreight to get parts sent right away. If he's off-base on an opinion or action, it usually doesn't take him long at all to realize it and correct the fault. So, they've become fast learners as sailors. Likewise, another couple we know aren't the greatest sailors in the world, but they muddle through somehow, and they're always game to try something new and they come off the water at the end of the day with big smiles and kind words for their friends. These, and a lot of other folks with similar attitudes and generosity of spirit, are the people with whom we most enjoy sailing.

A favorite sailing philosophy of mine is to try to make mistakes as fast as I can learn from them or fix them [especially if it's in a relatively safe situation] so that I can learn faster. I think that's what a lot of the smartest sailors perhaps do, is deliberately put themselves in situations where they have to learn. And, since only sometimes do we take full advantage of learning from the mistakes of others, there are other times when we have to make the mistakes from which we and others can learn!

My favorite sailing saying is that a new sailor can learn the rudiments of sailing in an afternoon - - and then spend the rest of a lifetime trying to learn the rest.


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