Updated: Mar 9
I grew up on an inland lake in a family of power-boaters. The summers of my childhood were spent roaring across the water to the exhilarating thrum of an all American V8. There wasn’t much wind on our lake and more often than not the sailboats there were resigned to bobbing lazily at their moorings or unused in their slips. We would often joke about the “poor ‘snail boaters’” who probably didn’t get much use out of their boats. Despite these light-hearted jabs I had always been intrigued on the occasion that I saw white sails on the water, and every-time I would feel a small spark of intrigue that I can’t quite describe. Nevertheless, my love affair with sailing would not begin until much later.
Like most of the uninitiated, I first thought that sailing was an activity that required a significant amount of money and technical skill to become involved in. As a result, I had never truly considered pursuing it until I went to college on the coast. After seeing a flyer for the school sailing club I seized the opportunity. For $50 and a case of beer I was standing on a dock with a semester of sailing ahead of me.
The school sailing club was a group of fairly inexperienced sailors with access to a fleet of 420’s and a willingness to learn. With a positive attitude and the help of some Youtube videos, and the one out of us who had actually sailed before, we were able to rig our boat and traverse the channel leading out into the bay. I will never forget the feeling when the wind first caught our sails and the boat began to power up. To this day it remains the best feeling in the world.
The sailboat is the epitome of grace. When your sails are trimmed just right and the boat heels exactly to where she wants to be; when you hit that sweet spot, it is as if balancing on a knife’s edge, slicing across the water upwind. Running is riding the wind and water in perfect harmony together, harnessing some of nature’s most powerful forces and bending them to your will. The similarities between sailing and flying don’t just end with the physics of fluid dynamics. The sensation of catching the wind and gliding effortlessly over the water feels as natural as the seagulls that wheel above your head.
On a particularly windy and overcast day I had taken a friend of mine along as crew. With limited formal instruction my fellow club members and I often found our best teachers to be the conditions of the day and the mistakes that we made. This day was no different and as we entered the bay from our sheltered marina, we discovered high winds and more chop than I had yet experienced. Bouncing along, I was both thrilled by the speed and sense of power that we were able to get from the boat and nervous as I had yet to learn how to de-power my sails. The standing rigging trembled as we smashed across this water, chilled by constant spray coming over our bow.
Everything had been going fairly well and I found myself becoming more confident, listening to the boat and responding to the best of my limited abilities. Despite the continued darkening of the clouds and increase in both wind and waves my nerves started to fade. That is, until we caught a large puff midway through an amateur tack. Turning past our desired close-reach course we were blasted by wind across the beam. With the mainsheet under my feet the boat listed violently and my friend jumped up just as quickly in a knee-jerk reaction. All of this excitement knocked the tiller from my hand, the back of the boat kicked out sharply… and we went over.
Fortunately, our panic-filled move to the high side of the boat had prevented us from fully capsizing and we were able to right the boat. Unfortunately, we had taken on a good deal of water and the wind had not relented. The boat was now facing downwind, and the pressure of that wind on our mast had caused our bow to dip slightly. With that change in elevation water that was now up to my knees rushed to the front of the boat. With the immense change in weight our bow dipped lower and lower until it disappeared under the brown water, and we began to sink.
Fortunately, we had been close to shore and as we began our descent to the bottom were able to use our forward momentum to run the boat onto a nearby beach where some of our fellow sailors were having lunch. With some helpful hands we dragged her out and let her drain. Nothing had been damaged and another member and I were able to take the boat and sail it safely back to the marina. After that incident my friend never sailed again, preferring to follow us in the chase boat instead and I can’t say I blame him. For me however, the spark I had felt when I first saw those white sails was now a steady flame. I learned many lessons that day and many more followed as I continued to sail as often as I could. The more exposure I had to this sport, the stronger that feeling became.
Many other sailors I’ve met express similar sentiment, even those who have been met with difficulty or even tragedy on the water. Sailing becomes as much a part of your character as the changes it exacts upon it. Sailing is where a person can truly find themself in a challenging medium that builds skill, perseverance, resourcefulness, and a healthy respect for the forces of nature. But the feeling I’ve described goes beyond that. It’s a connection, something deep within your soul that is filled when you smell the salt air and a steady breeze. That bit of you that lights up as you hoist the mainsheet. The spirit of adventure that lays dormant within all of us.
After graduating from college I moved back inland and away from the sport, but not the impression it had made. For a year I was land-bound, and reminded by any sizable body of water or stiff breeze on a warm day. But those calls are not to be ignored and I’ve since bought a boat and come home to the lifestyle I love, and a feeling I cannot shake.
For Andrew H, sailing is both a thrill and a place to relax, whether racing hard against the competition, or unwinding with a simple cruise, he is at home on the water and seeks to share this passion with others.