December 29, 2016: Day Two of Sailing 101

Boat: Chomsky, Catalina 22
Location: Sarasota Bay, Sarasota, FL
Sailing Course: ASA 101, Basic Keelboat Sailing
Wind: light in AM; 5-7 knots in afternoon.

sailing-101-day-2-florida-keelboatWe expected wind this morning, and for it to strengthen throughout the day as a front moved through. When we arrived at the dock, the wind was flat. We spent some time in the office with Captain Sara going over points of sail and rules of the road, then motored out again like we did yesterday. We visited another boat at anchor, this time friends of Captain Sara, then motored through a mangrove-lined canal to get to a marina to fill the gas tank.

By 11am, there still was no wind, so we Continue reading “December 29, 2016: Day Two of Sailing 101”

December 28, 2016: Day One of Sailing 101

Boat: Chomsky, Catalina 22
Location: Sarasota Bay, Sarasota, FL
Sailing Course: ASA 101, Basic Keelboat Sailing
Wind: light in AM; 7-10 knots in afternoon.

view-from-sara-bay-sailingFirst day of sailing 101, with Captain Bill of Sara-Bay Sailing. We arrived to the dock at 9:30 am, and went up to the office to work on land instruction for an hour or so. There was no wind in the morning, and after tying knots in the office, we departed under power in a Catalina 22. In the channel we saw a manatee Continue reading “December 28, 2016: Day One of Sailing 101”

Studying to sail

Originally published on Butterfly Mind.

The week after Christmas, the four of us are traveling south to visit grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins down in Florida. While we are there, my husband and I are taking a two-day sailing course.

To use my favorite new word from my friend Krista Stevens, I’m terricited about the course. Our packets of books arrived yesterday, and by great good luck, I happen to be taking a flex day today. Time to dig in and nerd out, learning how to sail from books until we can get back out on the water.

Because one boat wasn't enough

Originally published on Butterfly Mind.

In the beginning of the summer, we bought a little wooden yawl. We knew when we bought it that it wouldn’t hold our family of four. So the most practical thing to do, since we can’t all fit in the first boat, is to build a second boat, right? So that the two people who aren’t in the sailboat have their own little boat to play in?

Yep, that’s what we thought, too. The kids love canoeing, my husband loves wooden boats, and with wooden boat kits from Chesapeake Light Craft, we thought it would be fun for the kids to help build our second boat.

They are having the time of their lives. Every weekend, our daughter asks, “Dad, are you working on the canoe?” She pouts when he works on it without her.

The kids have stitched wood, glued, clamped, sanded, applied fiberglass, and epoxied. I’ve even received text messages with videos of our daughter using power tools.

I’m not sure when the boat will be ready for launch, but it’s sure going to be a pretty canoe. I can’t wait for the kids to take me out in it.


Swirly sail

Originally published on Butterfly Mind.

Our daughter gave up her seat in the sailboat this past weekend, and I took it. It was likely to be our last chance to sail before it gets too cold. Already it was chilly for a small, wet boat: sweatshirt and long pants weather rather than sweatshirts and swimsuits.

“I don’t know,” my husband said. “There’s a wind advisory. Gusts to 20 knots.” He looked out the window at the brilliant autumn sky. I sipped coffee and was happy for my slippers.

He looked down at his phone, at the forecast again. “It ends at 6pm though, I think we’ll be okay to go out this afternoon.”

When we arrived at the lake, the sun glittered on its surface, which was free of boats.

Beautiful day for a sail. Or so we thought.


After rowing a short distance from the dock, the wind blew us steadily into the middle of the lake while we hoisted the sails, and then zipped us fast across the dimpled surface.

“It’s not so bad!” I said.

“Yeah, I’m glad we came out,” said my husband.

“The wind is perfect, look how fast we’re going.” It blew splashes of water over the bow, into my face, and down the neck of my sweatshirt.

“The mountains are protecting us from the gusts.” The puddle from the bow splashes grew deeper.

“We’re probably going to regret saying these things.”

Then the sail whipped and snapped and we lost our momentum. We were pointed towards a bend in the lake where we don’t normally go, because there’s not usually wind enough for it. The boat tugged, tipped, took off for a second, and then stalled again.

“The wind is swirly,” said Brian as he pulled the mizzen sheet to fill the main sail to point us where he wanted to go. “Unpredictable.”

I shielded my eyes to look out over the water in the direction we were headed, toward the bend off to the right. The water was getting pretty choppy. “Wow, the wind is tunneling down that part of the lake up there, between the mountains. I see white caps.” Which we were headed towards in our tiny little boat.

My husband looked up at the mountain behind us, where tall trees not blocked by the mountain to our right were twisting and bowing in the wind.

“Coming about,” he said.

The water was not calm any more. The direction of the chop did not match the direction of the wind. My back was soaked. My bare feet were wet and numb in the puddle I sat in. And the boat continued to jerk and snap in gusty air that kept changing direction.

I’ll be honest, I was scared.

We made our way back up the lake in squirrely wind that was growing stronger and more erratic by the minute. We watched the sailing team who had come out onto the water to practice also struggle. They seemed to be having as much trouble as we were. They had jammed rudders and flapping sails, or they’d fly along with their mast at 45° and their rails almost in the water and then suddenly the mast would be straight up and down.

The further we got toward the far side of the lake, the gustier the wind — and it didn’t seem to want to let us turn back. I wanted to turn back. I thought about a crazy thunderstorm I was caught out in a boat with my dad when I was a kid, and how now that it’s over, it seems like a grand adventure.

I hoped this sail would seem like an adventure once it was over, too. At least the sky was blue and there was no risk of getting struck by lightning. Capsizing in the cold doesn’t seem quite as bad as getting struck by lightning. Maybe.

We finally cruised in close enough to roll up the sails and row to the dock.

“Well,” my husband said, “now we know. If there’s a wind advisory we should listen. That was too much for this boat.”

We’ve got soccer games and swim meets until the weather will be too cold for wet sailing, and now I’m sad we might not be able to sail our little boat until spring. Last weekend was an adventure on a glittering mountain lake under a brilliant October sky. It was gorgeous. I was glad when it was over. Now that it’s over, and we’re safe on land, I want to go out again.


Sweatshirts and swimsuits

Originally posted on Butterfly Mind.

This summer has been brutally hot. The past few times we’ve gone to Claytor Lake to sail, there has been a burning sun and no wind.

This morning, though, it was different. At 7:00 AM, my husband and I swung out of the driveway, pulling our little wooden yawl behind the car. Our coffee swirled in ceramic mugs in the cup holders. We had the windows down and the air conditioning off.

We arrived at the lake so early, there was nobody at the ranger station to collect our launch fee. In the vast parking lot that usually swarms with jet-skis, motor boats, pick-up trucks, glittery trailers to match glittery speedboats, and boaters toting towels and coolers, there was grey mist and stillness. We had the boat ramp to ourselves. In the normally buzzing lot were two empty trailers, zero people, and acres of deserted asphalt.

When we stepped out of the car, we both shivered in the morning air, then grabbed our sweatshirts and pulled them over our heads.


Sweatshirt and bare feet


I’m a sucker for autumn. It might be my favorite season. To combine autumn (the best season) with morning (the best time of day) and water (the best place to be) is pretty much heaven to me. It’s cool, it’s quiet, the sounds are gentle, the scents are fresh.

Without boats zipping back and forth, without the buzz of engines and radios, without wakes to tumble our little boat, without the summer activity that usually accompanies a trip to the lake, we were able to glide silently through the water with a light wind in our sail. We made no wake.

Claytor Lake, view off stern of sailboat
Invisible path off the stern

We sailed towards a flock of small birds — maybe swallows? — that swooped and swirled within feet of the water’s surface, ignoring us in our quiet approach. We heard the sploosh of fish jumping. We skimmed along, listening to the splish of fresh water against our wooden hull.

I’m not sure I could have asked for a better beginning to autumn, kicking it off with an early morning sail, where not only did we have a gentle breeze and comfortable, overcast skies, but we wore swimsuits, flip flops, and sweatshirts.

Swimsuits. Flip flops. Sweatshirts. 

This may be my new favorite combination of clothing.


Sailing (and life) lesson: know where you want to go.

Originally published on Butterfly Mind.

My first attempt at skippering our 13 foot wooden yawl was a disaster. The wind on Pamlico Sound in the Outer Banks of North Carolina was stiff when I took the tiller and the main sheet (the line that trims the mainsail).

When the wind is blowing and the boat is tipping, things happen fast. As a skipper, all you have is a sail, your body, and a tiller, and you need to be able to react quickly.

You need instinct. And I didn’t have it.

Every time the boat heeled, I steered into the wind to keep from capsizing, then lost momentum. I put us “in irons.” Despite steady, moving air, my sail flapped, and the boat stalled. We’d get going again, the boat would tip, and each time, I reacted out of fear instead of confidence. I was at the mercy of the wind and the chop, knowing nothing about how to use my body, how to work the sail, which way to move the tiller. I ended the day totally defeated, in tears, wondering how I could have lived my entire childhood on the water and have no instinct.

On my second attempt, I took only the tiller. My husband took the sheet. Controlling everything at once was too much on my first skippering effort.

“I won’t let us capsize,” he told me. “Just get a feel for the tiller. I’ll take care of the sail. If you feel us heel, it’s okay, let it tip — I’ll spill some wind if we’re in danger.”

Brian had gotten us into open water on the sound before handing the boat over to me. As I took the tiller and nestled into the stern, my back against the gunwale, Brian said, “Where do you want to go?”

“That green house,” I said, and pointed at the one landmark that stood out and that I recognized.

“Ok, I’ll control the sail. Point toward the house and hold the course with the tiller.”

And I did. It was terribly difficult to hold a steady course. Wind, chop, and the force of water against the tiller required constant adjustment to stay on course. If I didn’t have a mark to watch, who knows where we would have ended up. With all the forces on the boat, it wanted to steer itself, and it was up to me to keep us on course. There was no such thing as set it and forget it.

As we approaced the house, and therefore land, I told Brian, “We need to think about turning.”

“Ok, where do you want to go?”

Uhh, I dunno. “Away from land?” I had already started turning the tiller.

He felt the boat turn. “Wait!” he said. “Don’t do anything until you know where you want to go. Where do you want to go?”

“Away from land! I don’t want to hit land.”

“But where do you want to go? That’s always the first step.”

I know it is absolutely cliche to use sailing metaphors, and I apologize for it. But this was a pivotal moment for me. For sailing, for my career, for life. The first step isn’t to dodge obstacles or let outside circumstances steer you.

The first step is to figure out where you want to go.

“Point us into the wind and set the mizzen to hold us steady so we can talk,” Brian said. I set the mizzen and we rocked gently on the water.

“Before you steer the boat,” he said, “you need to know where you want to go. Then you need to think it through.”

I had been sailing to avoid interference, going wherever the wind took me. I didn’t know where I wanted to go. I was just reacting to the land that was coming up fast, reacting to gusts that made me fear capsize.

“Don’t let the wind determine where you go,” Brian said. “You determine where you’re going, then use the wind to get you there.”

I pointed to a mark on the horizon, out in the sound. “There, that structure.” We turned, and sailed toward the mark I’d chosen. The tiller became more natural. I didn’t react as badly to the boat tipping. I held a steady course.

“I’m ready to try the sail, too,” I said, and Brian handed me the sheet. Within minutes I realized I need quite a bit more upper body strength. Sailing a small boat is an athletic endeavor.

We sailed about a mile offshore, and I was feeling comfortable that I was getting the hang of it. I no longer felt defeated.

“We should probably get back to the kids,” I said. “Let’s turn around and head back in.”

“Ok,” my husband said. “Where do you want to go?”

Ummm. Home? But when I looked back to shore, I pointed at the only thing I knew: the green house.

“Why the green house?” he asked.

“Because it’s what I know.”

“But is that where you want to go?”


“Set the mizzen,” he said. “Let’s think this through.”

By now I knew how to set the mizzen, but I still didn’t know how to think fast enough to know where I wanted to go and do all the things I needed to do to get us there. I fell back on a mark that was safe and comfortable, even though it wasn’t the place we needed to be.

“Where do you want to go?” he said again. I pointed this time to the small channel he navigated us through each time we left our rental house and headed out on the sound.

“Where is the wind?” he asked. I pointed straight ahead, to the north.

“Where do you need to point the boat?”

I pointed to the right of the bow, to what would be 2 o’clock on a clock face. “About 60 degrees off the wind.”

“How do you use the equipment you have — our bodies, the tiller, and the sail — to get you there?”

“We need to lean to starboard to let the sail fill a little, then I’ll pull the tiller towards me to steer the boat towards our mark. I’ll pull the sheet to trim the sail tight, and hold the course with the tiller.”

And then we did it. I sailed us to the channel, where Brian took over and then brought us in. As water slapped the hull, wind filled the sail, and Brian steered us through the channel, I was in awe of the simple, fundamental life lessons I learned on my second attempt at skippering:

  1. Know where you want to go.
  2. Give yourself a safe space to think.
  3. Plan your course, keeping in mind conditions and resources.
  4. Make constant adjustments to keep on course.
  5. Arrive.
  6. Drink, and enjoy the place you’ve gotten to.

These are lessons I carry with me back to work, and through the rest of life.

The kids were waiting their turn when we tacked up to the house. I jumped out and they jumped in. I was giddy with finding comfort on the boat, and though it was only 11am, I poured myself a glass of wine. I don’t have instinct yet, but with practice I will.