Monday, June 2, 2008

Sailing with Brad & Marnie

(Another ancient story. This one from June of '08. Still getting caught up... )

My life shifted and changed this weekend. I took a short sailing trip with Sarah and two friends. It was a short trip: overnight to spots we’ve visited before on other boats or by car. But this time, subtly, my mindset had changed. For the past year I’ve been taking sailing classes, reading sailing manuals, talking to other sailors. I’ve been surfing, windsurfing. I’ve sailed tiny boats designed to plane in the slightest puff of wind. I’ve sailed expensive race boats tricked out with carbon fiber and all the latest electronic gadgets. I’ve communed with the creaking anachronistic wood, bronze and leather fittings of our own boat.

I’ve felt drawn to the ocean for a long time. At first this took the form of separation. I windsurfed alone. I still feel that windsurfing is the purest form of sailing. A windsurfer is a craft with a single moving part that can be bought off the shelves for a few thousand dollars. Yet windsurfers hold the world speed sailing record against boats costing millions of dollars. Windsurfing for all its purity is a wordless, solitary pursuit. There are people I recognize from rigging our gear on the same beaches for years and to whom I’ve spoken ten words in my life. I first got into sailboats because I wanted to share the high I felt while windsurfing with others. A shared love of sailing is what brought me together with the woman who will be my wife. But ironically, as I’ve become more passionately obsessed with learning to sail our engineless gaff cutter, my sense of separation has intensified. Other sailors kept telling me we were crazy to sail without an engine. I felt crazy too, unsure of myself -- almost guilty for harboring some perverse desire for purity at the expense of convenience. Even long time sailing friends were surprised at my choice. When I owned my last boat, which had an inboard diesel, I was always impatient. I would be the first one on the boat to suggest firing up the engine when the wind died.

As I became more and more passionate about sailing engineless, I began taking sailing classes in earnest, working my way through the US Sailing series of classes. During the first set of classes, my instructor casually asked what my sailing plans were, I replied, “We want to go cruising in two years.” He then asked what kind of boat we own. “Macha is an Ingrid 38 rigged as a topsail gaff cutter.” I was shy at the time to admit she was engineless. I was afraid of his reaction. It was only the next day when we were practicing docking under power that he asked whether my propeller pulled to the left or right when backing up. Damn! My cover was blown. I couldn’t outright lie. “Umm. We don’t have… any… propeller… umm… engineless…” I managed to stammer. He stared at me for a moment in stunned silence. When he asked how much she weighed, I replied “34,000 lbs.” “Well”, he said, “you’ve got more balls than I do.” For a few heartbeats I felt honestly scared without rationally knowing why. I mean, what is the worst that this guy could say or do? Then he laughed a deep hearty laugh and the tension lifted. For the next two weekends and during subsequent classes, something had changed between us. He was still the master of his craft and I was still his student. Literally learning the ropes. But he seemed to regard Sarah and I with newfound respect. During our lessons, he would kindly point out how the maneuvers we were learning would work differently on a heavier boat. He had thousands of miles of blue water sailing beneath his keel, but humbly acknowledge he had little to no experience with gaff rigs, so asked for advice from another of his colleagues on my behalf. At lunch breaks or over beers after class, he would remark to other instructors “You’ll never guess what kind of boat these two sail!” And I’d be forced to tell my story again, and again. At first I was still tentative; I’d say something like, “Well, our boat is engineless now but we’re seeing how it goes. If we find we need an engine, we’ll get one.” But to my surprise, the higher the skill level of the sailors I talked to, the more likely they were to be completely nonplussed about our boat choice. They all reiterated that an engine should be a convenience device not a safety precaution for a competent sailor. After watching me sail for a few weeks, my teacher, said, “You’re a natural sailor. You two will do fine. You’ll love sailing down to Mexico” After watching Sarah glide to a perfect stop in front of a practice mooring he turned to me simply saying “You’re a lucky man.” He would continue to tease me about sailing a heavy boat, but continually reinforced that not having an engine was a perfectly seamanlike choice. Eventually, I started teasing other sailors we observed while maneuvering in class. We observed an elderly gentleman on a quarter million dollar, 50 foot sloop point his boat directly at a cement breakwater 200 yards away, engage his autopilot, and walk forward to drop his mainsail. Reflecting the engineless sailor’s view of the world, I remarked, “That man REALLY trusts that his fuel filter won’t clog just now.” The crew of our boat laughed and I think the point was made.

So this weekend we went sailing with another couple Brad and Marnie we met through the club where we take lessons. In the last few weeks we’d sailed with them quite a bit. We’d been flung into the water by a wildly broaching race boat and climbed back aboard smiling. We’d ghosted back into the dock at 4am after the outboard of our rented boat ran out of gas after an evening run to San Francisco. We knew they were skilled sailors, and more importantly we knew they had a calm and positive attitude.

The trip was an amazing mini-cruise packed into a weekend. Taking the knowledge we had learning individually and as a couple and sharing it with others. We short tacked out of our berth in the Oakland Estuary out into the open bay. We had timed our departure to the ebb tide, which helped pull us up the channel, but it still took dozens of zigzag maneuvers to reach the freedom of unrestricted waters of the bay. We crossed under the bay bridge, and then under the Golden Gate, then poked our nose out into the tangy rolling swells of the open ocean towards Point Bonita. Having enough of pounding upwind, we turned and rode the waves back into the bay, rounding the corner to seek slalom between Angel Island and the mainland to seek shelter in the lee of the Marin headlands. We dropped anchor at a spot called Paradise Cove. We talked. We drank wine and ate food rendered even more delicious by the special hunger you only feel after a long, satisfying day’s work. I slept soundly, waking only every few hours to verify our range against landmarks on shore to ensure our anchor was holding. We woke to the first rays of dawn; the anchorage was glassy, quiet. After taking in the sunrise we retired below to sleep for another few hours. Gradually we rose for coffee and oatmeal. The wind had shifted from West to Southeast, which required more careful coordination as we sailed off the anchor. Sailing home in the North Bay, we had every stitch of sail flying in the light wind: mainsail, topsail, staysail, jib, and jib topsail. And it’s then I realized that skippering a boat is a form of storytelling too. When windsurfing, it’s just me. I’m literally part of the craft -- the ballast and standing rigging. My semi-conscious changes in stance or grip affect the trim of the board with only peripheral awareness required on my part. When sailing a complicated sailboat with other people, the vessel is like a living organism. We’re her brains, muscle, and sinew. I realized all at once that as a skipper my job is to speak on behalf of the boat, to keep her moving through light air and on her feet in heavy air. In the past, I have felt frustrated when acting as skipper because it would feel for a moment that I was the only one noticing and responding to sail trim, boat speed, line handling. This day I realized that it was my job and no one else’s to notice and act as interlocutor between the boat and the crew. To communicate. To lead. As we moved out from behind the lee of the island and into the “Slot” of strong thermal wind in front of the Golden Gate the wind increased and we hustled to shorten sail by dousing topsail and jib topsail. We rollicked towards home in 25-knot wind. Macha really came alive. Where a lighter boat would leap from wave to wave, Macha just shouldered through the chop. Once at full hull speed, nothing slowed her down.

While we were rocking back across the slot, some guy in a Zodiac showed up and asked if he could take pictures of us. (Actually I thought he was my friend Zac who sometimes drives a Zodiac for the city of Oakland, so I greeted him with an apparently unexpected "Hey motherfucker!!!") I guess Mr. boat-Paparazzi runs a business taking pics of boats and selling them as stock photography. Anyways, fans of WN7435NN should check out:

Sailing back to the dock is always a tense time for me. Just as I’ve heard piloting a plane while landing is the most delicate part of a flight. Due to unanticipated light wind and strong flood earlier in the day, we missed the 4:30pm slack tide by about 45 minutes and instead docked in about 1.5 knots of flood. All the drunken powerboaters on our dock kept waving their arms and shouting useful comments like "watch out... there's a current" They always get really agitated when we take practice tacks across the estuary to line up the range on the end our dock. They think we’re in trouble, when we’re simply being deliberate. It's a classic case of human nature that these guy rarely leave the dock, and have certainly never docked a boat under sail. But sitting on the dock with a cold brew in their hands makes them self-appointed nautical experts. I realized in that moment that I’d unconsciously been looking to them for advice. Internalizing their fears, accepting their irrational doubts about engineless sailing as my own.

As we approached the dock, our neighbours all gathered at the "ready" to catch our docklines. We told them "No thanks, we've got it." Our boat's previous owner Jay Fitzgerald says "never hand a line to a bystander -- the first thing they'll do is pull it when you least expect it." With four aboard we had plenty of brains and muscle for the job. (If there is any doubt, Sarah is the brains and I'm the muscle...) Sarah practiced her precision tiller work on our approach. On our signal Marnie blew the staysail sheets at just the right time to kill our speed. Brad was on the bow line and I was at the shrouds holding the midship spring line and guiding Sarah's angle of approach. We just barely nudged the dock and lept off in unison to make off the lines. All our marina neighbours spontaneously broke out in applause and congratulated us on a textbook landing as we cleated off the dock lines. We celebrated silently for moment, sitting together on the foredeck in the sunshine, drinking warm beer, and talking. We then began methodically coiling down lines, flaking sails, and packing extra food and clothing to our cars.

I realized our neighbours were concerned because conventional wisdom says that no one docks a boat measuring 52 foot and weighing 16 tons under sail with a cross current and a 15 knot wind on the beam. It’s not impossible. It’s just a skill practiced so rarely in modern life that when you see it performed even crudely by a team of rank amateurs it seems like magic. I further realized in that moment that the sense of separation is a necessary pain to be born before you can do anything remarkable and return victorious (whatever victory means to you.) For months, my dock neighbours had been second-guessing and joking about our choice to sail engineless boat. I realized when someone tells you something is impossible, it really means it’s impossible for them. Their advice is useless to you. It’s not that you’re better or worse than them. Just different; their answer to your every question should in honest truth be “not applicable”. To even attempt to achieve anything different from others breeds separation and loneliness. The only cure for that loneliness is to find others who are seeking the same goals. When your goal is spending time in the ocean, my observation is that master sailors frequently manifest both confidence and humility. (It is hard to spend time on or near the ocean without feeling profoundly humbled by its power, beauty, and fury.) Those with lesser skill frequently have neither confidence nor humility, which is a deadly combination at sea. What we’ve set out to seek, and begun to find, is really self-selected community with those who have chosen the same crazy path; the joining of those who had previously thought separation from the “general population” was their only choice.

We had a final, ironic postscript to our journey. Across the Estuary from us upon our return was shiny new powerboat driven onto the rock breakwater in broad daylight by some careless drunk. His boat had bounced and splintered, landing about 3 feet above high tide line, so he must have really had the throttle wide open. The only thing crazier than a boat without an engine is a boat with a big engine and a guy at the helm with three neurons rattling around his skull immersed in a bath of alcohol and testosterone. One of our boat neighbors started in with his usual unwelcome patter, “If you want a motor, I bet you could buy that guy’s for cheap.” “Yeah”, I joked back, “lot a good it did him.”

1 comment:

kristjan vanwissen said...

Nice blog, great looking boat. Where is it at now? I looked at a gaff Ingrid a little while ago but had to pass unfortunately.