October 16, 2011

My First Time


This was the first time for both of us.

I didn't know if she was more nervous or I was.

Being the guy, I couldn't admit that, of course. I had to carry my bluff as best I could. And then, there's only so much you can figure out from reading and talk. At some point, you just have to get naked and trust your instincts.

Would I be terrible? Would I be great? Would I fumble clumsily and make a mess of things? I couldn't know, but I did know this was something I had wanted to do for a very long time. And I was with someone who meant a lot to me, and finally, she was saying yes.

But I was soon amazed and delighted to learn that the little Laser performed just as the introduction to sailing book said it would. My wife and I cruised around the little cove for a whole hour without either of us getting dumped in the icy water. The tacks and even the jibes were just like in the book. Pulling in the sheet made the boat take off like a rocket. Turning into the wind slowed us down just as quick.

I had been thinking about sailing ever since that day we got swept out onto the lake and it took me an hour of sweating to paddle our little rubber dinghy back to shore. All around us, there had been jetskis and powerboats zooming around, but that wasn't for me. The cool guys were sailing - getting wherever they wanted to go by their wits and by mastering the forces of nature (oh alright, so I was a naive and romantic idiot back then).

I'd run out and gotten one of those "Yes, Anyone Can Learn to Sail" books and devoured it in a few days. In my typically obsessive way, I memorized all the funny-sounding sailing terms and boat part names, even though I had only vague notions of what any of them were. I studied the theory, learned about Mr. Bernouilli, and, in my head, was rounding up and bearing off and pointing and footing and easing and trimming and tacking and jibing until I couldn't stand it anymore.

Now, here on the water, all of the book's funny little arrows and diagrams were finally making sense. I could feel the power of the sail as the wind caught it just right. The sheet and the tiller were suddenly alive - not just ink drawings on a page. This was a peculiar kind of magic - unlike anything I'd ever felt before. The wind and the water and the boat and I were all part of the same carnival ride. Was the wind steering or was I?

I was dancing a delicious pas de deux with an unseen partner who could toss me over at her whim. I felt like I was somewhere I shouldn't be allowed to be. But I didn't want to leave.

Of course, I didn't realize at the time how much we'd lucked out with a steady, seven-knot breeze - just enough to keep us moving, but not enough to cause any trouble. As I'd discover, there would be plenty of opportunity in the years ahead to learn about trouble.

Way too soon, our rental hour was up. We headed back and sailed the Laser right up onto the beach. For a minute or two, I couldn't catch my breath. I felt like I'd just guided the Space Shuttle home. There was a little buzz in my head - a little glow. What the heck was that, anyway?

What started in a little cove on Lake Tahoe that day, some thirty years ago now, would be something we'd keep for the rest of our lives. I had no idea what doors had just been opened for us, the places they would lead to, or the things they would let us see. But never again would I stand on a shore and wonder what it was like to be 'out there'. Now, I would go and find out for myself.

If you're reading this, you probably already know the seductive draw of sailing - the feeling that as soon as you get back, you're already thinking about the next time.

I started thinking about all of this again the other day while reading a Tillerman post on learning to sail. For most of us, the best way to start out (and the safest) is to join a class and have an expert guide us through the awkward beginnings. But there have always been the adventurous and the crazy among us who prefer reading the theory and trying to figure things out on our own. Takes all kinds, I guess.

No matter how we get started, though, I've always wondered what exactly it is that gets stirred the first time we sail a boat on our own - the first time we feel that delicate balance between tiller and sheet. Why do some of us develop that addiction we can never explain to those who don't? Is every sail a subliminal quest to recapture the initial magic?

Do you remember your first time?