Being the Captain of My Ship

The college I attended offered classes in sailing and I really wanted to take one.  The marina used wasn’t on campus, though the campus was on the coast.  I was one of the poor students on financial aid who didn’t have a car (among other things), and the campus shuttle didn’t go to the marina and the local bus schedules and routes wouldn’t get me there either.  I would first have to find another student with transpo to take the class with me.  Didn’t happen.  But learning to sail stayed on my To Do list.

A few years after graduation I noticed sailing classes offered through adult ed in the area.  The Coast Guard offered one, however it was a classroom only course. What good is just reading a book on the subject?  I wouldn’t trust a surgeon to cut me open if he only read a book and never actually performed the surgery.  I wanted to be the Captain of My Ship.  Anyone with older siblings can relate.  And then I found a class offered in another town by SEAS.  12 hours in the classroom, 16 hours on the water.  Limited class size.  Must be able to swim.  I quickly dashed off a check to enroll and went out to buy a lifejacket – required for the class.

We learned nomenclature, the rules of the road (even on water there are rules regarding passing and right of way), the different knots used for rigging, practiced tying knots and running rigging on a boat they brought to class, even had to pass a written exam to earn our certificates.  We also practiced capsizing – on dry land no easy feat – in preparation for the knockdown test we needed to pass before we could go out on the water in our boats.

Finally, after having passed our written exam, our brains filled with bookish knowledge and having mastered our knot tying, the time came for us to go out on the water and then pass our practical exams for certification.  The time was divided into two 8-hour sessions on consecutive Sundays.  The first was the first Sunday in June, which was on the cool side and gray.  The lake, the largest natural lake in the state measuring 376 acres (roughly 1 mile across), was maybe about 50 degrees that day.  It’s a glacial lake.  First we needed to rig the boats:  Sunfish and Aquafins, and have our rigging approved by the instructors.  Then we were ready for the first two tests of water proficiency:  the 5 minute swim test and the knockdown test – which includes not just capsizing the boat while in it, but then getting it upright again – both in water above our heads.

Not only because it was early June, but since we probably wouldn’t ever be sailing naked (at least not on a local lake surrounded by houses, besides there are laws regarding indecent exposure), we had to take the swim test fully clothed – including shoes.  About halfway through, they threw us our lifejackets which we had to put on while in the water.  It was comedic.  Lifejackets are infinitely more buoyant than people.  There we were splashing on our backs trying to zip and tie our jackets.  Meanwhile, hypothermia was setting in because that water was damn cold.  Lips were turning blue, one person was turning white and the instructor told us to just tread water so that we wouldn’t burn off all our body heat while he counted down the time.   Next was the knockdown test.  I quickly volunteered so that I could then change into warm dry clothes.  Then we called lunch so that we’d have time to warm ourselves.  There was a deli across from the lake and we all headed there.  Bless their hearts, they made soup and chili when they saw us at the lake – and then jump in.  After lunch, the weather had turned to misty rain.  We voted to continue on with the class.  After all, we’d already gotten cold and wet from being in the lake.  What was a little rain?

The following Sunday was sunny, light winds, temps in the low to mid 70s:  perfect weather for sailing and catching a few rays.  Now, the instructor had not let me have my own boat the week before since, being the smallest person in the class and weighing less than the boat fully rigged, he had his doubts that I would be able to successfully manage a boat on the water.  He underestimated my determination and capability even though I had passed the knockdown test.  I wanted to be the Captain of My Ship.  That’s why I took the class.  Besides, we had 2 more water proficiency tests to prove that we sailed our ships instead of the wind just blowing us around.  One test had us sail in a figure eight around two buoys to ascertain our skill at tacking and coming about.  The other was a triangular course in which we had to come to a full stop at each buoy, pick up a flag and put the flag back.  Got my own boat, passed my skills tests and then had the rest of the day to spend sailing.

There I was, trimming the sheets, moving the tiller, when the sail starting filling out with wind and  I took off across the lake, sailing, building speed as I found the optimum angle of the wind and passed by everyone else in the class heading to the other side of the lake.  I was halfway across the lake when I noticed the boat starting to tip and I was flying across the water and couldn’t think fast enough to get the boat back level on the water and oh nooooo…..wipeout.  No sooner than I wiped the water from my eyes, my instructor was beside me in his chase boat, all excited, smiling and shouting “That was great!”

“What great?  I went over.  The object is not to capsize.” I told him, one arm on the rudder while I treaded water.
“But you should have seen yourself before you went over!  You were actually sailing!  You’re the only person in the class who actually dared to sail!”  He was proud.

After confirming that I wasn’t tangled in the lines he said “You do know why you went over, don’t you?”  Yeah, I knew.  I just didn’t react fast enough I was so excited about riding that wind over the water, reveling in the feeling of being the Captain of My Ship.  And he had no doubt that I could get that boat back up in the water – on the first try.  Motorboats, rowboats, canoes, kayaks, paddleboats.  Done them all.  None compare to the sense of freedom, release, the soothing peace and joyful calm of skimming over the water, gauging the wind and riding it.  I smile whenever I see a sailboat on a river, lake or ocean, remembering the feeling, wishing I was on that boat.

The class:  cost a few bucks.  Lifejacket:  a few more bucks.  Being the Captain of My Ship:  exhilarating.  Drinks after certification:  those were on the instructor’s tab.  Oh ye of little faith.