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.