March 4, 2010

It's Just Us Women Out Here


A while back, I posted about being the only guy in an all-woman sailing class - and on the very day that every manly man on San Francisco Bay was out sailing the Three Bridge Fiasco.

As you might expect, it took most of the post to explain how I got to be in such a predicament, so I never really got to the main point.

Which is that my wife is learning to sail, and that I've had the chance to watch the learning process happen.

As I've explained quite a few times now, my wife and I have been sailing together for many years. She knows a lot of the tasks involved in sailing a mid-sized keelboat, but she's never before wanted to learn to skipper the boat - to make the jump from doing an appointed task to thinking about what the next task needs to be.

I was asked to fill in at the last minute for a student who dropped out of the class, so there we were a few weeks ago - my wife, the instructor, and me on a Capri 22 in a quiet corner of the Bay that's perfect for learning to sail.

My wife is a school teacher and had been taking the approach of an academician in learning to sail. She'd been poring over the textbook and studying all of the explanations about weather, charts, right of way, parts of a boat, points of sail, lines, knots, pfd's, hypothermia, navigation marks - geesh, was learning to sail really all that complicated?

When you see everything you have to know spelled out in black and white in one long list, it can seem daunting. No wonder so many beginners throw up their hands and just give up or retreat to the nether world of powerboats.

But, as our first day on the water unfolded, I realized that learning to sail really has nothing to do with all of those terms, diagrams, and complicated explanations from Mr. Bernouilli.

As we made our way out of the harbor, we passed the Richmond Yacht Club, home to one of the best training programs on the Bay for junior sailors. Two classes were out doing drills - a Laser class of 12-year-old Paul Cayard pretenders, and some eight-year-olds in El Toro's - San Francisco's answer to the Optimist dinghy.

That morning, things hadn't been going so hot for my wife. We were doing points of sail and she was having a hard time relating all of those diagrams in the book to how a real sail works. The instructor was barking orders - beam reach, close hauled, close reach, bearing off, coming up, coming about. The words and the pictures and the little angle diagrams were swirling in my wife's head and she was getting more flustered and frustrated as the morning wore on.

As I watched an 8-year-old in one of the El Toro's pop through a tacking drill like he had been born in that boat, it hit me - he wasn't thinking about a bunch of diagrams in some book and a lot of confusing terms. He was just dropping into the groove and having a blast.

For each of us, that magic moment comes. The acceleration of a small boat, the angle of heel, and something inside that you just can't explain suddenly tell you when the sail is drawing. You start to feel that groove and what you need to do to stay in it. The wind is no longer a blue arrow on a white page.

The folks who draw all of those diagrams and write the long explanations must know that feeling and try their best to get it down on paper. But it starts with the feeling and before you get that, all the words and pictures are pretty useless.

It would be another week before that moment would come for my wife.

Late the following Saturday afternoon, after a discouraging day of docking practice and the umpteenth jibing drill, the instructor's exercises were wrapped up for the day. My wife took the helm and started steering us across the harbor. She looked up at the sail, and I saw a little glint in her eye. Our boatspeed was picking up. The sun was dropping, about the time she would usually be getting cold, but she wanted to go around the harbor again. We were close to the dock and could head in at any time.

But she wanted to go around yet again. Just this once. Just this one more time. The glint in her eye was becoming a smile.

In that moment, I knew we had another sailor in the family.

By the time we got back to the dock, I could tell she was excited. The next day, she got every single question on the written test right. She wanted to know how we sign up to take the training boats out again.

My wife wanted to take us out sailing.

I have been informed that this summer we will not be taking a long trip in the big boat. We will be spending our time in the little boats. And guess who will be driving.

I am a very lucky man.



  1. I am a researcher by nature, so I read and studied my way into sailing. My wife learns by doing, so she had read nothing before taking the helm. Atypically, I gave her the helm and just let her sail the boat without explaining every single thing I thought I knew. The giant grin on her face was my reward and continues to be my favorite thing about sailing with my wife. We are both lucky men, O'Docker.

  2. Actually, my wife has always liked being on the helm in light air, but she's never had the 'big picture' enough to feel confident if I step below for very long.

    I saw a whole new confidence, and I think she felt it, too, on the last day of the lesson. She definitely wants to get out there now and drive the boat.

    I'm wondering, with the internet tools now available, if the major training guys (ASA and USS) shouldn't present more of the textbook stuff online and free up more instructor time for hands-on with the student.

    I don't know how most junior programs start out the really young kids, but I'm guessing they throw a lot less jargon at them in the beginning and try to get them in the boats as soon as possible.

  3. Before Pat and I took our first Basic Keelboat class, we got the book. Pat studied it in depth for days. I skimmed it.

    What really mattered was getting out on the water and feeling it and seeing the sails. I don't know that Pat has ever really figured that out -- he keeps reading books and magazine articles and stuff. He knows such things as when the wind is a certain speed, the draft of the sail should be 35% aft of the luff (or something like that); I just see that there are wrinkles where there shouldn't be, and the curve of the sail doesn't look right.

    I make my living as a college English instructor, which means words are my life, but in this case words are far less useful than actual kinesthetic experiences. I wonder whether that's something women figure out faster than men do.

  4. When I was trained as a sailing instructor I was taught that there are three kinds of learning - visual, verbal and kinetic - and that different people depend on each mode to varying degrees. So in teaching a class it is good to use all three methods - show it, talk about it, have the students do it - as one method won't work for all the students.

    To O Docker's question about young kids, yes I did try and get them on the water as soon as possible. But we also did quite a lot of "land drills", practicing maneuvers like tacking in the boat (Optimist) on dry land first before doing it on the water. That way the kid got at least an approximation of the "kinesthetic experience" before risking the chance of screwing it up on the water and possibly capsizing or bangin her head on the boom.

  5. Tillerman, you reminded me about my driveway sailing days. I practiced the basic maneuvers I had recently read about to get a feel for it. I'm guessing that was amusing for the neighbors to watch. My wife just wanted to get out on the water and do it.

    Carol Anne, Much like you, my wife was not interested in studying about sailing beforehand. I must admit that she picked up on the feel of the wind and sails quicker than I did. Now she likes to read about some of more technical stuff, but not at first. I am still reading every thing I can get my hands on though.

    O'Docker, I like your idea about using the internet to free up more time for on the water. I have a friend who is a college professor that uses the internet to teach cello. I would think that if you can do that then sailing should be possible as well. I have seen someone offering web learning for sailing, but I can't remember where. I think it was geared for bareboat certification path.

  6. Has your wife any comment to make about that day? It would be nice to hear what she has to say too.

  7. To borrow a Bubbles-ism...


    :D :D :D

    BTW, seriously, I think this post had something to do with how much of a yen to sail I suddenly found myself having last week when circumstances suddenly aligned in such a way that it was an actual possibility for Saturday.

  8. Bonnie, what a kick that something i wrote might have actually inspired someone to go sailing. Try to keep Bubbles in the boat.

    Frankie, I must admit, I try to discourage my wife from commenting here. She's too smart and knows too many of my secrets.

    I'll see if she wants to write something about her adventures.