Sailors Are Made, Not Born

 Vol. 10, No. 41

October 10-16, 2002

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And Now’s the Best Time to Make That Discovery for Yourself
by Bob Bockting

“Though many may sing of the glories of spring, the fall is the crown of the year.” So sang Nelson Eddy, toward the middle of the last century, when you Baby Boomers were just being born. Eddy was right on in describing the fall sailing season on Chesapeake Bay. That’s when the breezes are best, as is the weather, with brilliant fall colors along the shores of the myriad inlets and anchorages.

On just such a day, a sloop clears the breakwater at the harbor entrance and heads into the Bay. The skipper slows the motor and points the boat into the wind. His companion takes the tiller as he raises the sails, then cuts the motor.

“It’s so quiet,” says the mate, her expression reflecting rapturous serenity.

“It’s the most restful occupation I know,” says the captain.

The boat keeps moving, now silently. You sailors know that sensation. All you hear is the soft swish of the bow wave as the boat’s prow cuts the water and a low gurgle of the wake from under the stern.

“Nice,” says the mate, leaning back against the cabin, arms raised, her legs extended along the seat. She shifts the cushions at her back and closes her eyes.

All Aboard
Cruising: That’s the fun stuff. The day sail, the overnight, the quiet anchorages, the sunsets, the sunrises, the fishing, the bird watching. All this may endure as long as you can stand your own cooking and as long as the contents of the ice chest last.

In the year 2002, emphasis is on speed. Sailing is a respite from getting somewhere fast. Its accent is on leisure, taking time to enjoy the trip, being on the water, in the open air and the breeze. That breeze is what’s filling those sails, moving you along. Remember, people have been doing this for thousands of years. Cleopatra did it. Saint Paul did it. The Phoenicians, for example, did it for a couple of thousand years before that. A lot of us still do it.

Sometimes, all it takes to appreciate the tranquillity of a sail on an open stretch of water is to remember that an hour ago you were sharing the inner-loop of the Washington Beltway with tractor-trailers, moving vans, tankers of hazardous material and a few hard-charging lane-changers. Now you can savor your sailboat’s quiet progress. You’ve time to gather your thoughts, daydream a little.

How else may we account for the upsurge in the number of folks taking up sailing? To keep it simple, it could be the influx of females into sailing — as well as into other sports formerly the almost-exclusive realm of males. This accents the change in attitudes about gender roles that occurred during the second half of the last century.

Safety’s also on the sailor’s side. Sailboats, at least those of cruising size, say 25 feet or longer, with a weighted keel, are inherently quite seaworthy. In a storm, should you be caught out in one, (and of course, you’ve been quick to get the sails down and secured and have the hatch boards in place), that keel will help to keep the boat steady and from capsizing even when the wind and waves get wild. Let’s mention here that motor boats are not as stable in heavy seas but are faster and usually run for port if a storm is seen approaching. Of course, the prudent thing is to stay off the water if the weather is threatening. Don’t take chances.

A Pair of New Sailors
You don’t have to wait until you retire, as I did, to learn to sail. You don’t even have to live on the water, as I learned from Catie Bartlett, my 12-year-old grandniece, who took sailing classes last summer and this.

Loitering, Wales Kennedy sailed 1,000 miles from Florida to the Potomac in six weeks, taking his time up the Intercoastal Waterway.
Catie’s “grand” because she’s the eldest daughter of my youngest niece, makes a lot of A’s in school and plays the violin. Her dad has sailed most of his life; still does at every opportunity. More than that, when he and my niece were married, he chartered a sailboat for their honeymoon in the Virgin Islands. Did Catie catch the sailing bug from them? I didn’t need to ask.

Catie’s classes were sponsored by her local YMCA in Bethesda. Each course lasted one week, Monday through Friday, from 8am to about 4:40pm. Parents delivered and picked up their kids at the Y. From there the three dozen kids, (a good mix of half boys and half girls, all about 12 years old), were bussed to the Washington Sailing Marina, on the Potomac, just south of Reagan National Airport.

On arrival, students sat on the grass, grouped around the instructor who briefed them on how to rig the boats, put on and raise the sails, that sort of thing. Boats assigned for these beginners’ courses were Sunfish, 13-foot, single or lateen sail-rigged craft that carried two kids per boat. Students learned a lot about the wind and the boat and how to right it after a capsize. When it was very hot, I was told, the kids capsized the boats on purpose, just to cool off.

Catie completed her second course this season on the same type boat and qualified for her skipper’s rating, which permits her to rent a boat on her own with a friend as crew.

Other more advanced courses are taught on other boats such as the Flying Scott, the Hobie Cat and the Wind Surfer. Catie expects to graduate on all of these in the coming years. I was pleased to learn that all wore life jackets and that there was excellent supervision and attention to safety.

My niece is not the only young woman I know who has embarked on a sailing course. Denise Oldham — a charter member of our Happy Hour assembly, that convenes on the patio at Sherman’s Marina to watch the sunsets across Rockhold Creek and, incidentally, over Happy Harbor Inn and the bungalow that’s home base for Bay Weekly — signed up and completed a sailing course at the Annapolis Sailing School last season.

Annapolis Sailing School features a kid course, a family course and several in between. If they offered an Old Duffer Refresher Course, I’d be tempted to enroll. The course Denise completed provided four classroom and four on-the-water sailing sessions, these on 24-foot, sloop-rigged Rainbow boats. These sessions took the students progressively through learning the boat and its rigging, getting underway, wind, sail-setting, maneuvering (tacking and all that) and returning, docking and of course, rescue and on-the-water safety.

Denise told me she intends to continue to sail and learn things like coastal navigation. I told her about the night courses I’d taken, taught by the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary in local high schools.

Cruising into Retirement
Sailing was my second choice as a retirement hobby. During my final years of federal service, I’d looked forward to buying, building and of course, flying, an ultra-light airplane. I possessed a commercial pilot’s certificate. Those pre-retirement years coincided with a great general interest in hang-gliding and ultra-light aircraft.

At the same time, though, I’d been sailing with boating friends. Naturally, I wanted to learn to help sail the boat and to know what I was doing. When the opportunity presented itself to join the sailing club at the National Institutes of Health, where my wife worked, I took the next sailing class offered. It was fun and increased my usefulness and enjoyment when sailing with my friends.

No matter what your age, it’s fun to sail. Here, spanning three generations, sailor Bockting with his ‘mate’ and wife; 12-year-old grandniece Catie Bartlett, who earned her skipper’s rating this summer; and Wales Kennedy, high-school chum and current sailing companion

As it then happened, just prior to my scheduled retirement date, I experienced an unscheduled heart attack. That event produced a lost pilot’s certificate and, among such other things as bypass surgery and a change of retirement plans.

You guessed it. The new plans included buying a small cruising sailboat.

About that time, my high-school classmate, Wales Kennedy, completed a six-week, thousand-mile trip from Florida to the Chesapeake via the Intercoastal Waterway. He set out from his home in Boca Raton on June 1 and arrived at Bel Haven Marina on the Potomac, just below the Wilson Bridge, on July 15.

Wales tells me that he didn’t travel every day but took his time. He loitered. Over a third of the distance, he was able to sail in open water, in river mouths and estuaries — even, when the wind was right, in the cuts. The rest he motored.

He sought sheltered anchorages at each stop, safe from barge traffic, which in the cuts on the curved stretches took up the waterway’s whole width. These tows were lighted, of course, but a little sailboat had better stay out of their way. The waterway is tidal and, when anchoring, one must allow for a range of up to seven feet on some stretches. He often stayed over at, and especially enjoyed, the nature preserves and their wildlife, particularly the water birds.

When he liked a place, he just sat it out for a day or two. We retired guys do that kind of thing a lot.

Small Pleasures
Back to our day-sail, where we started.

The skipper appears the epitome of relaxed contentment, leaning back on a cushion, one leg propped on the bench opposite, his forearm lying lightly along the tiller. His casual gaze rests on the curve of the sail, and the red tell-tails assure him the sails are drawing well in the mild 10-knot breeze.

The wind picks up a knot or two, causing the boat to swing a little (“head up,” in nautical terms) into the wind. The skipper feels the movement and, nearly unconsciously, gives the tiller a light tug to correct the ship’s heading to bring her back on course.

The sails tighten in the brisker breeze, and the boat picks up speed, heeling a little. The gurgle of the wake is a little more pronounced, as is the swish of the bow wave.

Great sailing, but it’s time to go in.

He says, “Honey, better slather on more of that sun-blocking stuff. The wind and the glare off the water are likely to burn you before you know it. We’re heading in now, and we’re going to get close to shore and other boats. Remember about that bikini. This is the Chesapeake, not the Riviera.” Or so he dreams.

About the Author:
Bob Bockting, 79, long ago enjoyed his own big fat Greek wedding and retired from the Army Corps of Engineers in time to write from Bethesda and sail from Deale. Thanks to a successful eye operation, he’ll be able to read this story.

Copyright 2002
Bay Weekly