October 25, 2009

How I Got My Groove Back


A few years ago, some buddies of mine were taking sailing lessons and invited me along for one of their practice sails. We sat in the cockpit of the 30-foot cruiser and took turns at the helm as we beat up the bay. When it was my turn, the boatspeed bumped up half a knot and stayed there. When I passed the helm back to my friends, the boatspeed dropped back down again. Eyebrows went up, and they wanted to know what I "was doing".

I really couldn't explain it. I'm no genius sailor. On any racing boat, I'd be lucky just to be railmeat. So what magic was I working on the helm that day that my friends in the sailing school weren't?

I wondered about that myself until just a few days ago when I was reading some comments over on Tillerman's blog about what is the best boat to learn on - a dinghy or a keelboat. Hmm, I'd spent a lot of time in dinghies before I moved to keelboats, but my friends in the sailing school hadn't. And it was in the dinghy that I'd discovered 'the groove'.

One of the first things you learn in a dinghy is how to find just where that elusive 'groove' is - that course to windward where the boat is fastest for a given trim of the sails. It's something you just have to feel, and once you do, you never forget it. Keelboats have grooves too, but they can be harder to find. You roll into them more gradually and drift out of them sometimes without even realizing it. In the dinghy, the boat takes off like a rocket when you find the groove and wallows to a stop when you lose it.

I had gone through the same ASA keelboat program my friends were going through and never heard the groove mentioned in the course of instruction at all. I remember coming out of that program thinking the school was maybe more concerned with teaching us how to get their boats into and out of a slip safely than with the finer points of sailing. Of course, knowing how to get out of the slip without putting holes in the boat or banging into other boats is a good thing, too, especially when those other boats cost more than I make in a year. Or in two years. Or in three years.

Before I went to the sailing school, I had spent a few years teaching myself in a 'family-style' daysailer. I would read everything I could get my hands on about sailing and then go out in my little boat to try things out. Besides learning about the groove, I discovered all kinds of stuff that would come in handy later.

Like learning to steer a dinghy by just shifting my weight to windward or leeward. Who knew that would one day save my marriage? It happened when I was showing my lovely wife the joys of taking a Catalina 30 across San Francisco Bay's infamous 'slot' in 25 knots of wind.

Catalinas 30's are very nice boats but they don't like to be heeled a lot. And they know when your wife is on the helm. They try to throw your wife in the water if she foolishly holds onto the wheel and attempts to steer a straight course. I discovered that no matter what the books told me about sail trim, the way to get my boat to stop trying to throw my wife in the water was to reef way down and minimize that heeling. If the dinghy hadn't shown me that too much heeling will make a boat round up regardless of sail trim, I never would have figured that out and my wife would be married to someone else today.

So, I am grateful to that little dinghy I sailed for so many years. When I finally moved up to bigger boats, it helped me get my groove back. But please don't tell my buddies in the sailing school.

They still think I'm a good sailor.



  1. Ummm. Am I in the wrong place? This post appears to be about sailing.

  2. I tried to find my groove in the very class of dinghy pictured in your post, a mutineer. It was the first boat I ever owned. My mistake (first of many) was to sail with my wife before either of one of us had found a sailing groove. In spinnaker lesson # 1, we raised the sail, I was setting the pole, she accidentally gybed the boat, the boom knocked me in the water, she couldn’t sail back upwind to get me (Heck, I still can’t sail upwind with an un-tethered spinnaker flying at ¾ mast), and I was rescued by a passing powerboater. I failed to find either my sailing or marriage groove in that particular dinghy. She and I still share some funny stories, but we have both found our groove in other dinghies and other spouses.

  3. T-man: I too thought I took the wrong turn and ended up reading about sailing.

    Yarg: That is kind of a sad story but...kind of like fate was tellling you something that day eh!

    O-Dude: The secret is out!

  4. Yarg, you are a better man than I.

    Not only have you gone on to become a sailing instructor, but, much more impressive, you have the courage to admit that you once owned a Mutineer.

    That photo was not chosen at random. Yes, yes, I admit it, the boat I always refer to as a 'family-style' dinghy was, in fact, a Mutineer. After all of the abuse Joe Rouse suffers for sailing a Force 5, I thought I would never admit publicly to any association with the Mutineer.

    I notice there's now an online Mutineer group, not so much to foster class activity, but to help counter snarky attacks and to seek out group rates for psychological counseling.

    Zen, yes, more than one dirty secret is out.

  5. O Docker, I really think you should reconsider this latest diversification in the subjects of your blog. If you are going to be successful as a blogger you have to define a "niche" for yourself and stick to it.

    For example, after years of beating back the competition, Proper Course is now #1 in the niche "old geezer writing about sailing a Laser really badly".

    Apparent Wind is #1 in "highly educated guy who knows a lot about English, architecture and philosophy writes about teaching high school sailing on a small puddle in Barney Frank's constituency." Admittedly not a lot of competition in that particular niche.

    For a while I thought that O Dock had established a strong presence in the niche of "erudite guy wearing horns writes nothing about sailing on a sailing blog." But now you've blown it by actually writing about the S-word. It's as if the National Catholic Register came out in favor of gay marriage, or Fox News started reporting news.


  6. Tillerman, you're probably right.

    I should write about things I actually know about - waiting for the engine guy, leaving blank lines at the beginning of blog posts, and absolutely nothing.

    Although there may be a new niche I hadn't thought about - sailing dinghies built by American car companies with roller furlers made from PVC pipe and hose clamps.


  7. Mutineer is a really bad name for a boat.

  8. ^^^^^

    anybody notice the impressive linebreaks? I'm going to use two (and only two) to separate myself from the ordinary folk who use zero or one.

    I know that this topic is so last week but I really want to help this blog get back off track. It's the least I can do.

  9. Good thinking O Docker. Write about nothing -- with perhaps the occasional foray into writing about something very trivial and totally incidental to sailing just to tease your readers -- and I predict that you will be as famous as a not-about-sailing-blogger as you were as a not-a-blogger-about-sailing.

  10. This is what I like. A nice, unfocused discussion in the comments page about several completely unrelated topics.

    This must have been where Joyce got the idea for stream of consciousness writing.

    Edward, you're right, Mutineer is a truly bad name for a boat. But, it could have been much worse. Remember, this is the company that gave us Corinthian leather (aha - a sailing connection, perhaps). I wonder if Ricardo Montalban ever did any promotional work for the Mutineer.

    And your line breaks are truly


    Tillerman, thanks for the advice about selecting appropriate blogging topics. This is the most diplomatic way anyone has ever told me that I know absolutely nothing about sailing.

  11. How dare you accuse me of being diplomatic. In real life I am renowned for my bluntness and directness and undiplomaticness.

    I never said you know absolutely nothing about sailing. I just meant you know more about nothing than you do about sailing.

    The captcha word is "stailing". Maybe you should write a blog about stailing?

  12. Very nice. Thanks for this one, despite the fact that I didn't come here for sailing content, I enjoyed myself. I guess I'll just have to adjust my expectations in the future. Sorta like all the people who probably clicked on my Erotic Funky Trombone link and got Hot Japanese Alternative Musicians in Bikinis instead.

  13. I rest my case! Not the briefcase.

  14. Joe, if not the briefcase, was it the boxercase?

  15. Tillerman, I have, at the top of my wish list for birthday presents, a suitable case for my laptop -- as I've been telling Pat, a "unified luggage solution" that will carry the 17" laptop plus some books and on occasion a really thick stack of papers.

    Boxer Case would provide the perfect solution -- except that the case would cost a whole lot more than the laptop ever did!

  16. I really like how a good comments thread takes on a life of its own without any involvement by the blogger at all.

    At one point does the comments thread become the post? And at whom am I directing this question?

  17. Not the boxercase
    Not the briefcase
    Not the bikinicase
    I do not like them, Sam-I-am.
    ...ah, nut case.
    Whose blog is this?

  18. OK, I'm goin' out for a pizza.

    The key's under the mat.