We’ve had a few sailing lessons now, the first one did not have any wind, so it was more of an exercise in learning the parts of the boat, running the motor, when there was wind, trying to figure out where it was coming from. The next two lessons had wind! So, we could sail! The boat we are learning on is a J22, it’s made by Jboats. It’s nice little boat to learn the basic mechanics of sailing. You learn how to gybe, tack, reef the mainsail (reduce the sail area), use the winches, etc. We also learned about the importance of having the proper position of the mainsail relative to the boat, and the wind. Aspects of it are challenging because the J22 uses a tiller, not a steering wheel, so you have to push the tiller the opposite direction you want to go…which is difficult when aren’t doing it daily.
It’s been an interesting experience for a variety of reasons. First, sailing is romanticized, on TV, movies, YouTube, books, etc. It’s portrayed as this peace, put the sails up and let the wind carry you…there’s a lot more too it. You have to watch the wind, watch the water, watch your sails. When you are in the vicinity of other boats, you need to keep your eye out for other boats. Is your point of sail the best for the wind and the direction you are going, if you’re approaching another boat, do you need to tack or gybe to avoid it? There are, just like driving, dozens if not hundreds of questions that you are asking yourself at a given moment to avoid hurting yourself or others.
I recognize that these lessons are designed to teach you the mechanics of sailing, not necessarily the joy of sailing, though, I at least, did find some moments, when I was manning the jib sheet, that I was able to just relax a bit and enjoy the feel of the wind and knowing that the wind is what is driving you across the water. There really were some peaceful moments then, but they were short lived because you had to snap to and watch what was going on.
There’s also some excitement, and fear involved too. Trimming the sail is adjusting the position of the sail relative to the centerline of the boat. If the sail isn’t trimmed properly, you either a) won’t go anywhere because your sail will be flapping in the wind or b) the wind will drive the boat toward the water, this is called heeling. A little bit of heeling is normal and probably pretty good if you are trying to get some speed. However, you can heel too much. I was on the mainsheet, which means I was responsible for trimming the mainsail. We were in the midst of a tack (running the bow through the wind) and I when I changed which side of the boat I was sitting on, I didn’t release mainsail right away. Which meant that the trim was tight for our point of sail. This then caused the boat to heel pretty dramatically, and we did have some water splashing over the rails. The instructor was yelling for me to release the mainsail, I was trying to remember how to do it, everyone else was hanging on hoping not to have a man overboard event!
As soon as I released the mainsail and loosened the trim on the sail, we popped upright. We hit that normal sailing position that is desirable, and things went right back to normal. Several YouTubers that we watch have said, “Sailing is 90% boredom punctuated by 10% terror”. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, maybe not, but the 1% of terror that we experienced was a good lesson. It’s not just the romantic throw of the sails and call it good. There’s a lot to pay attention to. It’s hard to put this event into words. The feeling of gravity pulling you toward the water, the wind pushing you over, knowing that you need to do something right now. I don’t know that words ever do the experience justice.
I imagine that it’s a bit different on the open ocean in a much larger boat, where you don’t have to worry as much about the boom hitting you because it’s more than 7’ above the deck. You have a destination in mind and once you set your sails, you aren’t changing much about the sails, unless you have a major shift in the wind.
We are learning a lot. Each time we’ve been on the open water, it’s been good learning. The mechanics are slowly coming along, but I recognize that until we are really on the open water in a boat day in and day out, those mechanics aren’t going to come naturally. You need to live it to really know what you are doing. But at least now, we won’t be in a position where we won’t know a sheet from a halyard and running from standing rigging when we get our own boat. That’s really the goal of these lessons. I want to know how to trim a sail properly. How do you know when a gust of wind is coming before you feel it? These things that we are learning, which really will put us in a good spot when we throw off the lines for the first time!