A Sleepless Night Aboard Bear

I am anxious. And perhaps a bit frustrated.

It is about halfway into our third season aboard the boat and I am realizing just how much I do not know about the most important part of the boat. Don’t get me wrong, I know more about sailboat maintenance, navigation, weather patterns, tides, and other essentials sailing components than your average Jane, but my knowledge is by no means extensive. However, I can hold my own with some salty sailors at a bar tossing out stories of foul weather and boatyard antics. I can also probably impress quiet a few of them with my boatyard skills. For instance, I can walk you through how to change the standing rigging on a sailboat using Stay-lok fittings. I can show you how to replace all of the components to your raw and fresh water systems. I can make you a new sailpack or sew you new v-berth cushions. I can tell you how to determine your average amp hours so that you can purchase the correct-sized solar panels. I can show you how to work with West Systems epoxy and Duraglass. I can help you move your chainplates from the interior of your hull to the exterior. I can sand and revarnish teak like a pro. I know how to change both a v-belt and an impeller.

I also have some other handy skills on the boat. I can pick up a mooring ball like a champ. I am not afraid to call grouchy bridge tenders on the VHF. I can tell the RPM of our diesel engine by sound alone. I can read a chart and plot a safe course. I can do a mean and clean pump out.

The really cool thing is that these are all new bits of knowledge that I have picked up during our last few seasons on the water. If you had asked me the difference between a fin keel and a full keel in 2012, I would have had no clue. And I am really proud of all of this new knowledge.

However, there is one serious skill that I lack. A really important one that has to do with those big, flapping white things flying above the deck. I don’t know how to sail.

There, I said it. It feels like an admission of guilt. A big, weighty sense of helplessness that is dragging me down and often ticking me off.

As I lie awake tonight, pondering our upcoming trip to Maine, I am feeling quiet anxious about the passage we are planning from Provincetown, RI to Mount Desert Island, ME. This will be the longest passage we have taken and it will be the furthest offshore we have sailed Bear. The more I read about sailing in Maine the more excited and worried I have become. The landscape sounds incredible. The wildlife and flora are beckoning me. However, the thought of sailing through a “pea-souper” does not excite me one bit. In fact, it makes me very uncomfortable. Perhaps anxious is a better word. You know, the kind of unnerving where your knees tremble and swallowing becomes challenging. I know that I don’t like sailing in fog because we have done it twice now. Once during our first season on Long Island Sound jumping from Port Jefferson to Oyster Bay. We ended up ducking into Mosquito Cove because I could not see more than 100 yard in front of the boat when I was standing on the bow. The second time was just a day ago as we travelled from Essex, CT to Block Island, RI. After we came through The Race, and bounced over the tidal rips into the ocean swells, bands of fog enveloped us. It felt suffocating to be riding up and down on undulating waves while not being able to see where the next one was coming from. At some points, it looked like we were going to sail off the end of the earth. Mix together the feeling of instability with a dash of anxiety and the sound, but not sight of, ships in the distance and you have created the perfect concoction of fear and seasickness in my belly. Luckily, the fog cleared about 2 miles off of Block and we sailed into the harbor safely as we discussed the merits of radar and AIS.

As I ponder our passage from RI to ME tonight, I am fearing the worst possible scenario. Let me paint you a picture. Jeff and I are sailing along comfortably and the auto-pilot dies. Not a huge deal (as it has happened before) but it becomes a tiring journey to have to hand steer for 160 miles. During this hand-steering debacle, Jeff becomes incapacitated – let’s say a boom to head collision – or African Sleeping Sickness – and I am left to manage the boat by myself. In the middle of the Maine Sound. 40 miles or more offshore. Now imagine that the engine won’t start.

First, I know that there are a lot of what-if’s here. But bear with me a few more moments. My point is that I don’t know how to sail the boat back to a safe harbor. I know that if the engine worked, I would drop the sails and check the charts for the nearest harbor with safe depths for our keel. But it makes me frustrated and a little angry with myself that I haven’t yet learned how to sail the boat. And because of this, I want to make shorter passages that are closer to shore. These trips feel safer, less exposed, less risky. I prefer five 60 mile days to one offshore jump that might cut that transit time in half. This limits our adventures. And that is what makes me the most frustrated.

I have wanted to take sailing lessons for a few years now. This late night blog writing has made me realize that I need to do this sooner than later – for my safety, for Jeff’s safety, for the safety of our boat, for the safely of those around us, and for the fact that I want to see things that are going to require longer hops offshore than a quick romp up the Jersey coast.

So, if you have any suggestions for sailing classes that are affordable, women-friendly, and offered in Florida during the winter months, please leave me a comment below.

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2 Responses to A Sleepless Night Aboard Bear

  1. Emily Harding says:

    To learn to sail better, I would look for sailing lists/forums on-line to join… and post a message saying where you’ll be; when you want sailing lessons (on your boat or theirs) for a reasonable price. Describe your boat and say you want to learn all points of sail; how to make a landing and pick up a mooring – without using your engine or any electronics. Mention you want to learn how to reef the sails while sailing in the event of the unexpected onset of heavy winds; how to negotiate big waves and heavy winds, tides and currents….and become proficient rescuing a man over-board (which is similar to making a mooring without an engine etc. You also want to know the rules of the road if you don’t already.

    Someone like Eanna from “Drake Paragon” would be ideal. Someone with racing experience on small boats as well as on larger boats would be your best bet. Someone who has racing experience, really understands how to maneuver a boat in all kinds of conditions as well as what to do if conditions change and still reach the destination in the shortest amount of time. Someone like this knows how to use the weather and currents with a view towards winning the race a/k/a reaching your destination the quickest.

    I would offer free day sails on your boat to experienced sailors, perhaps former owners of 35 foot or larger yachts who may be between sailboats, who are not necessarily certified, in exchange for sailing lessons.

    Another thing you could do is get a used row boat with a removable sail; rudder and center board and go out and play around on that and teach yourself 2/3 of what you’ll need to know or better yet have someone who knows how to sail come with you for the first few times.. Having that would be a nice, reliable back up in case something happens to the engine of your inflatable.

    All yacht clubs usually have some sort of sailing lessons available. So do colleges with sailing teams. They usually have sailing clubs for the community and offer sailing lessons through the club. So there are a lot of options.

  2. Patrick and Lisa says:

    My wife can sail better than me. And I’m cool with that. I’m sure you’ve met some other “boat chicks” in the fleet. Ask one of the qualified ladies to take you out of the anchorage on a daysail with the intent of sailing yourself back. Don’t bring along the men, women only. You most likely already know but have not had the oppurtunity to solo. This Aha moment will occur easily in a lesser pressured environment where you think unfettered. Think of the bragging rights when you do it. We knew a cruiser, an instructor on women only sail seminars in SanFran-this is their reason for being-most men make crappy sail instructors for women. But you have a boat and your female friends have boats so save yourself the coconuts and head out. If its gonna happen, its gonna happen out there. PS – Is Provincetown in RI or MA?

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