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.