Becoming crew

I began my new goal today: to master my role as crew. I began it on land, with the mainsail. Every time I raise it, without fail, something goes wrong: I’ve forgotten to untie the downhaul, I’ve forgotten to feed the bolt rope into the mast, my husband has forgotten to uncleat the mainsheet, I’ve tangled lines. I’ll start hauling and then I shred my hands on the halyard, yanking and grunting despite the sail’s head being stuck halfway up the mast.

On land, with my husband and coffee and pen and paper, on the porch of our airbnb while the kids were still asleep, we thought through, talked through, and I wrote notes to help me understand every force acting on the mainsail and boom, and everything that needs to happen for me to raise and lower the sail. As Brian reminded me, conditions will be different every time we hoist the sails, so the routine can’t be a memorized set of steps, it must take into account the constant question of forces — if I uncleat this, what will fly loose? If pull this, what will happen? If I meet resistance, where are the places to look for the blockage?

notes about mainsail hoisting forces lines
Lines attached to the mainsail, and the directions they pull it

The ultimate goal is to get the sail raised and the luff taut: get the head to the top of the mast, then pull the luff taut by tightening the downhaul, then loosening the topping lift so the boom falls to its proper place.

The basic steps to raising the sail, one of which I almost always forget, are these:

  1. Wait for the okay from the skipper.
  2. Attach the halyard to the head of the sail. Make sure it’s not tangled in any other lines.
  3. Release the mainsheet and downhaul.
  4. Feed the bolt rope into the mast.
  5. Haul.
  6. Cleat the halyard.
  7. Coil and stow the remaining line.
  8. Sail.

For lowering, the steps are slightly different and are not necessarily the opposite of what to do when raising:

  1. Wait for okay from the skipper.
  2. Remove halyard end from stowage; uncoil it and make sure end is loose.
  3. Prepare passengers and ask them to keep the sail in the boat as it comes down.
  4. Uncleat the topping lift, find the end of the line, and cleat it at the end of the line.
  5. Release mainsheet.
  6. Find the end of halyard, uncleat halyard, hold it steady, and cleat it at it’s end to avoid losing the halyard in the mast.
  7. Notify everyone on board that boom will come down as you lower.
  8. Begin slowly so boom lowers gently into cockpit, making sure to pull bolt rope out of mast.
  9. Lower sail quickly by pulling on canvas and bolt rope; keep bolt rope in hand to avoid the sail getting loose when it’s free of the mast. Remind passengers to keep sail in boat.
  10. Detach halyard from head of sail.

After talking all that through, I was eager to begin, but the kids were still asleep. When they finally woke, they were gummy eyed and hungry and weren’t ready to sail. Brian and I had been up for hours and really wanted to get out on the water, though. So we went alone.

I was able to practice raising the main while thinking through all the components rather than just doing random things and hoping for the best. The sail still got stuck halfway up — on the topping lift, the lines were crossed — but I saw it, took care of it, and everything was fine. Then one of my knots slipped and the mainsail started sinking down the mast. Again I saw it, took care of it, and everything was fine. I raised the jib, successfully checking for crossed lines and twists in the sail, and tidied all the lines on deck before taking my place at the jibsheets in the cockpit.

Once we were underway, in perfect wind for our boat, cruising along at a fast clip, I was true crew, trimming the jib, adjusing lines on the mast, watching for crab pots and sea life. It’s a lot easier to focus and pay attention when the kids aren’t on board. When they’re aboard I default to Mom mode instead of crew mode. It’s also a lot more crowded when they join us, and Egretta more sluggish, and the freedom of an open cockpit and speeding along with wind and salt water exhilerated me.

We sailed about two hours and I didn’t want to come back in. The jib sheet kept getting caught on the pin at the base of the mast when we tacked, and before we turned to go home, Brian said, “Should we practice two more tacks and then head back?”

“Yes,” I said, and prepared to come around.

We repeated our “practice tacks” four more times before finally admitting we really did need to get back. We sailed in on a beam reach and got up onto a plane. We were surfing on our own wake. It was glorious, and I am in love.

I wrote about the story leading up to this post, about falling in love with sailing and Egretta on my main blog, Butterfly Mind.

First sail in Chesapeake waters

North River and Mobjack Bay
Boat: O’day Daysailer
Location: North River, Gloucester, VA
Time: ~2pm – 5pm
Conditions: ~82°F, light breeze

We took a couple of days off of work to get out of the mountains and east to the Chesapeake so we could sail in salt water and rename our boat. We launched from the ramp at Mobjack Bay Marina, then brought the boat across the North River to the dock at our Airbnb.

before the renaming_2802
Ready to go

It was a risk coming in October. We had no idea what the weather might bring. We lucked out with sunny skies, plenty of breezes, and warm weather. Continue reading “First sail in Chesapeake waters”

Evening sail, skippering fail

Boat: O’day Daysailer
Location: Claytor Lake, VA
Time: 4pm – 8:30pm
Conditions: ~77°F, light breeze turning gusty and swirly

After a cold front blew through Friday night, we opted to take a Saturday evening sail to let the wind die down during the early part of the day. We wanted to be able to spend as much time on the water as we wanted, so we stopped by the Kroger deli and bought picnic foods to take on the water with us: fried chicken nuggets for the kids, chicken salad for my husband and me, and fruit for all of us.

We stepped the mast and attached the mainsail in the boat launch parking lot, flaking the sail to avoid twisting when we hoisted it. We forgot the battens, which was annoying and meant the leech of the sail would flap instead of hold its shape. Aside from that, though, my husband has organized the gear for easier stowage in the cabin: a bucket with the fenders, dock lines, and hand pump; a bin with tools, first aid kit, flares, whistle, dry box, paper towels, and various supplies; a bin with the anchor, extra lines, and throw cushions; dry bags with towels, sweatshirts, and fleeces; and our L.L. Bean bag with snacks, goggles, water bottles, and glasses cases.

After launching, we motored out, and as it has on all of our previous sails in this boat, the centerboard wouldn’t drop down. Our daughter jumped in with goggles, swam under the boat, and pulled it down. Then our son decided he wanted to swim too, so he jumped in. And then I decided a swim sounded lovely, so I jumped in, too. It was strange for the water to not be salty.

Once we had all cooled off, we fumbled back in over the gunwale, dried off, and made ready to sail. My husband replaced all the crusty, dried, algae-coated lines with fresh soft ones, making it much more pleasant to handle the halyards, and hoisting the mainsail was much easier with the sail already on the boom and flaked so that all we had to do on the water was attach the halyard to the head of the sail, feed the luff into the mast, and haul. Our daughter and I hoisted the jib next, and we were sailing.

mainsail and shore
As crew, I felt the wind steady and easy. We didn’t need to maneuver a lot, the boat didn’t heel, lurch, or stall unexpectedly, and the kids lay on the foredeck when they weren’t in the cockpit crewing or eating popcorn chicken. I made myself a chicken salad sandwich and ate as the wind pushed us from behind down the lake.

When we ran out of lake, I was ready to take over as skipper so my husband could eat — my first time skippering our new boat — and as soon as we had turned into the wind to beat back up the lake, I took over the helm.

And everything fell apart.

When we turned, we had been sailing back up the lake into the wind. Now, somehow the wind was behind us and we were in danger of accidentally jibing. The wind had changed directions completely, and I was not prepared to make instant adjustments. It became clear to me quickly that I do not have an instinct for sailing. My mood darkened, and my feeling of self-worth plummeted. My husband tried to coach me through how to handle the boat in the shifting wind, but I kept steering it in the wrong direction, adjusting the sails wrong, and stalling the boat. My brain shut down, I couldn’t adapt, and I ended up giving the tiller back to my husband while I went to a corner and felt horrible about myself.

As quickly as I had stalled the boat, he got it going again. It was a fast, windy, and tippy ride back up the lake, with gusts that pushed us over quickly enough that the kids had to grab the edge of the bow to keep from sliding off. I made my husband a sandwich, and he navigated us through the swirls and blasts without capsizing or stalling us. We raced through the water, sometimes feeling like we might get tossed in the drink, until we once again ran out of lake.

sail and kids on deck
Kids on the foredeck
We turned again and started making our way on a broad reach back towards the boat ramp. The sun was low now, and the wind seemed settled and steady when it was at our back. I was nervous about trying again and failing, but I need to learn how to do this, and I need to practice so I can build instinct for when conditions shift.

Before I took the tiller, we talked through the current wind direction, what to do if the wind shifted in this direction or that direction, when to use the sail to react and when to use the tiller to react. I took the helm with confidence after that, and I sailed us back to the ramp, where I turned us to the wind so we could lower the sails.

I skippered maybe 20-30 minutes of our four and a half hour sail. My husband’s hands ache today from grasping the tiller and the mainsheet for so long. Next time I can help more. Little by little, I’ll get there.

cockpit and kids on deck

July 30: beautiful day to sail

It occurs to me that I should record weather conditions if this is to be a useful sailing log. My husband is keeping a log, too, and I’m sure his is much more practical while mine is a bunch of words and feelings.

It was a beautiful day to sail though. The sky was a crystalline blue, almost an autumn sky, with no clouds at all when we launched at about 2:00pm, and with just a couple of tiny puffs when we returned around 5pm.

This sail I made all sorts of blunders without even skippering the boat. I almost hoisted the mainsail without the battens, and after putting them in while the sail was attached to the boom, our daughter and I started to raise it and realized the sail was twisted, we lowered it, untwisted it, and raised it again.

I couldn’t remember what anything was called. My husband would tell me to pull the sail by the luff, and I wouldn’t remember which part of the sail the luff was. Or the foot, or the head.

When we hoisted the jib, once we got it all the way up, we saw the halyard was twisted at the top. We had to lower it again. And when we brought the jib down at the end of the sail, I was so proud of remembering how to do it, and then I realized I hadn’t secured the loose end of the halyard, so its bundle hung from the mast, swaying and making us look lubberly. (I am totally lubberly, though my husband is not).

I couldn’t remember how to bundle the lines neatly, either, and as my husband tried to tell me with words, I couldn’t remember any of the knot terminology Working end? Bitter end? What are those?

Aside from all the many gaffes that made me feel like an idiot, the voyage itself was glorious. We were fast, and at times sat ont he gunwale to balance the heeling of the boat. Our son didn’t join us — he had just returned from soccer camp and was tired — but our daughter and I tried our best to crew.

The yawl didn’t have the same rigging as this boat — there were no halyards, no big boom, the sails weren’t hoisted but were already attached to the masts. Lines didn’t need to be stowed since we were using them all. I’m glad we have a more common rig now so I can get used to all of this.

We got a(nother) sailboat

When I arrived home from Portland, Oregon, after a weekend away for work, I found a new sailboat in front of our house: a 17′ O’Day DaySailer. I knew it would be there — my husband had texted me pictures — and I was so happy to find it under the moonlight in the driveway when the taxi dropped me off after midnight.

Finally, we have a boat that our family of four can voyage in together.

Our previous setup consisted of a tiny wooden yawl that a maximum of 3 of us could sail in together, which means at least one person was always left behind, and usually two. We (meaning everyone in our household but me) then built a canoe for whoever wasn’t on the sailboat. The problem is that this meant we had to carry and launch two boats, and conditions that were good for the canoe were not good for the sailboat. We wound up never taking both boats out together, which means that as a family, we were not able to all four boat together.

This little sailboat has changed all of that.

We took her out last night on Claytor Lake, and she performed beautifully. Everything was easy compared to the yawl. We had room to spread out, we didn’t have to sit in water on the floor, we could stand in the cockpit, and moving our bodies didn’t make it feel like we were going to flip the boat.

We motored away from the launch ramp, giving us more control than rowing, and once we puttered out into the open lake, the kids jumped out and swam while my husband and I organized the sails and the rigging. They climbed in near the stern and jumped off the bow, splashing and swimming away from the crowds.

When we were ready to hoist the mainsail, we called the kids back into the boat, and as soon as the sail was up, we were sailing. It pretty much sailed itself.

daysailer mainsail yellow orange brown
The rigging is quite different from the yawl. We will need to practice a few times to get everything set up properly on our first try, making sure the centerboard is down, rigging the mainsheet and boom without injuries, and sorting the jib sheets so they don’t tangle.

When we had the mainsail under control and I raised the jib, the little boat zipped across the water. We were across the lake before we had even gotten comfortable — more quickly than we’d ever gotten halfway across the lake in the yawl. I’m glad we didn’t get anything bigger, as the lake might start to feel pretty small.

daysailer main and jib
The kids love this boat like they never loved the yawl. They love being able to help rather than just feeling like they were in the way. They got to crew when we tacked, releasing one jibsheet and pulling the other one in. And they (and I) appreciated the comfort of benches to sit on and the convenience of stowing food and towels in the small cabin.

daysailer daughter on deck
Daughter on the bow
This boat is going to be a source of great joy for our family. We only sailed for about an hour, but it was a great chance to start getting to know the boat. We pulled down the sails and motored in while the sun was setting, and I can’t wait for next time when we can spend more time and really sail.

daysailer sunset
Sunset sail

Docking the Boston Whaler

Boat: Boston Whaler Montauk 17, 1976 hull, 90 horsepower engine

Visiting my parents in Georgia, I’ve finally overcome my fears and have 1) maneuvered a boat in tight quarters, and 2) docked it. At 2pm, about 2 hours after low tide, on an incoming tide and with wind coming from offshore, I piloted the boat out of my parents’ small tidal creek and into the Back River and Lazaretto Creek before handing the helm over to our 11-year-old daughter.

My dad talked me through getting the boat ready at the beginning of a trip and about using the tachometer to guide the speeds at which to run the boat for docking, no wake zones, cruising, and crossing wakes. He talked our daughter through steering, taking the boat on a mid-speed figure eight so she could feel the different turns and the boat’s response to the steering wheel, navigating the rivers and heavy boat traffic on a busy Sunday afternoon, speeding up to get to a good cruising speed, and slowing down to cross wakes:

  • When the wake is coming from a boat going in the opposite direction, it will be rough and will pound the hull at speed. Slow down to navigate those wakes.
  • When crossing a wake going in the same direction as us, it will be smoother and will not always require slowing down.

Our daughter drove the boat for about an hour or more, taking us from Lazaretto Creek up the Bull River to the bridge where Williams Seafood used to be, and back again. She guided us through the no wake zone, took us under the bridge, and then turned us around and brought us back, in a fairly stiff wind.

When we slowed for the neighborhood docks in our home river, I took over. We puttered at about 1400 rpm mid river, and as I steered to toward the creek, I dropped it to about 700 as we approached the dock that marks the creek entrance. The wind was pushing the boat too much, so I throttled up to 900 rpm. I made the bend in the creek, and the wind was coming from the east (starboard), from the ocean, pushing us towards the docks on our port side.

On the other side of our dock, the creek was full of neighbor grandchildren (~10 kids from toddler to tween). Normally, Dad goes beyond our dock and turns the boat around so it’s oriented in the proper direction — pointing out of the creek — for the next trip. Because of the kids swimming in the creek, I pulled straight in instead of turning the boat around.

“You get to experience a skipper’s worst nightmare when docking,” my dad said.

“What, a million kids in front of you in the water?”

“An audience,” he said.

About 10-15 feet from my parent’s dock, I put the engine in neutral. At that time I would have had about 2 feet of clearance on the port side — the dock side — had we been next to the dock. I needed more than that. The wind pushed us over too far as I approached, so it was dicey for a couple of minutes. Mom and Dad were there to push the boat off and keep us from colliding with the dock. Mom pushed us off a bit, I gave it a little gas to straighten us out, and then pulled up alongside the wooden platform. Mom got the bow line and Dad got the stern, and once we were all tied up and had the fenders out, I cut the engine.

This morning, before the tide got too low, and when there was less wind, no kids in the creek, and no audience, I turned the boat around in the tight quarters of the creek with my dad’s guidance, and I docked it.


Notes for next time:

  1. Pump gas into engine using hand bulb until bulb is firm.
  2. Use the down button on the engine control lever to put the engine in the water.
  3. Put the key in the ignition to check the engine’s trim, and continue to adjust the engine height until the gauge indicates the halfway mark.
  4. Turn the key to turn th engine on.
  5. Push the big round pad at the base of the control lever to keep the engine in neutral, then push the lever forward to give it some gas and warm up the engine.
  6. When ready, cast off the bow first (or have first mate cast off).
  7. Cast off stern second since it is near the helm and easier to access as skipper.
  8. Put the boat in gear at about 700-900 rpm to steer out of the creek.
  9. At bend in creek, get around the curve before turning — don’t hug the inside of the turn to closely in low water, there are oysters.
  10. To avoid destructive wake to neighbor’s docks, either cross the river to come up to speed or keep the throttle at ~1000 rpm or less if staying close to the docks.
  11. A good cruising speed is ~3500 rpm for this boat.


I have a blogging problem

I’m going on vacation today, and one of the things I’m most excited about is that I’ll have free time over the next few days to write, and to play with my blog(s). Before heading out of town, I opened my laptop to add my other sites to the menu here on Butterfly Mind, and as I added them, I realized I have five blogs. Five.

If you’re interested in sailing, gardening, words, or American literature, I’ve got blogs for you! While Butterfly Mind is the place where I share whatever thoughts alight on my screen or notebook pages, these other blogs chronicle journeys on the water, on the land, and in books:

Andrea Sails: these are the logs of our adventures on the water. The entries help me keep track of what I’m learning as I venture into this new-to-me world of wind- and human-powered boating.

Andrea’s Gardening Blog: this site is often the result of me blogging with dirt on my hands, from my phone, in the garden, right after I’ve put plants in the ground. I love having a searchable record as each month comes around where I can take a look to see what the garden was doing this time last year: what was blooming? How has everything grown since then? When did I sow those seeds?

Andrea’s Lexicon: these are words I collect that I think are cool. Sometimes I hear them in conversation, sometimes I find them in books. Most of them appeal to me because they’re fun to say. Haberdasher! See what I mean?

Andrea Reads America: this is the chronicle of my journey through the US in literature in three books per state. The three books must be set in the state and be written by an author who is from the state or who has lived in the state. For each state I am reading men, women, and non-Caucasian authors. I’m going in alphabetical order. I’m reading Michigan now, though I still need to write up my Massachusetts reads.

Alright, time for me to hit the road. I’m going to have a hard time deciding which one(s) of these to write for while I’m gone.