I wanted to shake up my life and go sailing (or learn on the job, so-to-speak) so headed to Florida to crew on a catamaran. This is about how it went or, rather, didn't - and my life since. Hopefully it will lead to a catamaran on the clear aqua blue waters of the Caribbean Sea, watching the sunset, a coconut rum and coke in hand. You must START AT THE BEGINNING of the blog, April 2009, to get the whole story...
I always had issues with left and right. I don't know why that is but I was worried it would prevent me from being a script supervisor, as being able to determine in a split second if something was happening on the actors right or left vs camera right or left is rather vital to the role (whatever is in the actor's right hand is on the left side of the screen when viewing, what we in the industry call 'camera left'). I have to admit, it took a long time for it to become second nature and, in the beginning, I had several moments of panic where continuity was involved and I wasn't sure if I'd mixed the two up.
So when I have to pull or push a tiller in the opposite direction I want the boat to go, well - lets just say I find it a challenge. Yesterday this became a bit of an issue.
I finally got to go sailing. A friend has just moved here from the east where he has a sailboat on one of the lakes there. He purchased the exact same sailboat here on the west coast, and yesterday he took me out for my first sailing lesson on a proper big (30') sailboat (I did have one lesson on a very small sailboat a year or so ago). I was very excited at the prospect of finally getting out on the water again, especially on such a gorgeous day. Not a cloud.
When we got to the boat, my friend John gave me great instructions as to various pieces of equipment and how they function. He is a really patient teacher and I appreciated that. Some of the things he told me I already knew well from my days of boating with my in-laws, but that was motor boating so there's lots more to learn when sailing. Some of what he told me I had learned by reading sailing books but I learn better when seeing so it really helped to have the practical application right in front of me, plus I really needed to refresh my memory as it's been a while since I read up on the topic. I learned when a line becomes sheet or a halyard; I learned the name for various parts of the sail and which sail is which, and I learned how to operate the winches.
At this marina, it is just a short motor down a canal to the open water. Once we were out of the canal, the wind was at 8 knots and John wanted my first sail to be a comfortable one so he put up the head sail only and we headed downwind. After a short while, he handed the tiller off to me and pointed out a landmark far ahead to aim for. Reminding myself to 'move it in the opposite way I want to go' I grabbed onto the tiller and maintained a fairly steady course - not that easy at first but I soon got the hang of it. After a while - it didn't feel like all that long but later I realized it was almost an hour later - the wind started to pick up a little and John decided to turn the boat about and try sailing into the wind. Once we turned around, our speed dropped and the waves seemed so much choppier - we had the engine on the whole time we were out as, when attempting to first start the engine, it wouldn't due to the batteries being very low so John wanted to get them back up. Shortly after coming about the wind picked up considerably and it wasn't long before it was blowing at 18 knots. John decided to roll up the sail and motor back to the marina. He handed me the tiller again and went forward to roll the sail. That's when things got scary.
Before things got scary
John wanted me to keep a course straight into the wind but I couldn't do it. I think I got confused as to the whole 'right - left - move the tiller opposite' thing and as a result, the wind got into the sail as he was rolling it and pushed us around to starboard. I had the tiller pushed as far to starboard as I could get it to try to bring us about to port and it wasn't making a bit of difference. I started to panic a little as John, while struggling with the flapping sail, was yelling from the front for me to head back to port and I was confused as to whether I was pushing the tiller the correct way. I was keeping my eye on an instrument panel mounted on the mast which showed which way we were headed in relation to the wind and so was sure I was pushing it the right way but then why wasn't the bow swinging to port?! John finally ran back to me and grabbed the tiller lifting the handle high and pushing it even further starboard, over the life line - I had no idea it could do that - and the boat gradually came back around into the wind. John explained to me later that the boat was not responding because the water was not flowing over the rudder at that point - not sure why. He handed the tiller back to me, and I reluctantly took it, as he went forward again to finish rolling the sail. This is where I believe we made a critical error. The sail should have been unfurled and rolled back up from the beginning because, about half an hour later, the wind caught some loose sail towards the top and whipped a long section of it open and it began lashing. John handed the tiller to me again, much to my dread, and attempted to fix the problem but the wind was so strong, and the sail had become double wrapped so he didn't make any headway and he decided the best thing to do would be to motor all the way back to the canal. With the sail lashing so loudly, I was sure it would tear. I said as much and John said it might but that it was the sail that was in the worst shape so he wouldn't mind as much as if it was one of the others.
John was sure the wind would die down once we got into the shelter of the canal, and it did a little but only to about 12 knots and the sail was still flapping madly in the wind. When we had motored out of the canal, John had pointed out a customs dock to me. We were coming up to it now and there was a man standing at the end and he motioned for us to come alongside. Instead, John pointed that we were going further up to the marina and kept going past. I almost said earlier that we should pull up to that dock to fix the sail before we attempted to get into the slip but I decided not to say anything; after all, I was the novice and John has sailed for a decade and races his sail boat back east as well as crewing on racing boats. I figured he knew what he was doing but it turned out that was where we made our second critical mistake; we should have pulled up there and fixed the sail.
John wanted me to take the tiller again while he moved the fenders from starboard to port because he figured it would be easier to go straight into the slip rather than back in as he usually did. There was no way I wanted to take that thing again, I was so anxious at this point I don't think I could have told you my left hand from my right let alone figure that out again, so I moved the fenders over as well as the line on the bow. As we turned into the section that housed the slip, I had a really bad feeling about how much the lashing sail would affect our ability to get into the slip itself and, sure enough, as he turned into it the wind in the sail began to push us sideways to starboard and we headed right for the boat beside. I asked John if he had a boat hook but he didn't. He said he had to push off and jumped down just in time to get his foot on the other boat's outboard motor and push away. Two guys came running from nearby boats, one of them the guy who had been at the customs dock, and thank God they did because we were in real trouble, unable to maneuver the boat with the engine running so slow and the wind in the sail. They grabbed onto whatever they could, I held the tiller to keep us as straight as I could, and between the two guys and John, we got into another empty slip two down from the one we had aimed for - our fenders now on the wrong side but, thankfully, the slip owner had lined the entire edge with fenders so we were okay. Once we were in and tied up, the fellow from the dock wanted to know why John hadn't pulled up there and fixed the sail. John admitted that he should have.
Breathing a huge sigh of relief, we were now able to fix the sail, unrolling and re-rolling it. Then I got off and helped to guide the boat out of the slip by holding on to the toe rail as John backed up, and then running down to his slip to help guide it in.
After a much needed bathroom break, we settled onto the boat to enjoy the sunshine and the lunch I had packed and talked about all that had contributed to what had happened. John said that, in the almost dozen times he's taken the boat out since buying it, the wind had never picked up like that and it had never gone above 10 knots. Figures it would do that on MY first time out. He felt badly as he had said when we started out that he wouldn't put the mainsail up as it would make the boat heel over quite far probably making me nervous and he wanted my first time sailing to be a fun and pleasant experience. Well... it was up until we brought the boat about. At one point, when John was trying to get the boat to port after I couldn't, I thought for sure we were going to be dashed on the rocks that were getting closer and closer. It probably wasn't something that would terrify the seasoned sailor, but it sure did me.
If I ever get the hang of sailing and if I ever get to have my own boat.... it won't have a tiller, that is for sure. Although John claims the only 'real' sailing is by tiller, I will be fine to 'pretend' sail with a wheel.