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.

Here we go, yawl

Originally published on Butterfly Mind.

My sailing education began Saturday night, on the boat, on the lake, as I asked my husband, “What’s that called? Why are you doing that? Where does this go? How do you know to do that?” And endless other questions.

As a word lover, I am giddy about the new terminology I get to learn in sailing. The language is colorful — and totally foreign to me. “If you can’t run the sheet off the clew, you probably need a boom.” (Ref.)


For my sailing education, since most of my learning time right now has to be on land, I’ll begin with the words I learned on my first sail.

Our boat is a two-masted small sailboat with a mainsail forward and a smaller mizzenmast aft of the rudder post. This makes our boat a yawl. The presence of two masts distinguishes a yawl from a single-masted dinghy, and the position of the mizzenmast (smaller mast, behind the main mast) distinguishes the yawl from a two-masted ketch, where the mizzenmast is forward of the rudder post.

Yawl: a two-masted fore-and-aft-rigged sailboat with the mizzenmast stepped (mounted) far aft, behind the rudder post. The mizzen boom overhangs the stern.

Ketch: a two-masted sailboat with a mizzenmast stepped forward of the rudder; mizzenmast is smaller than the foremast.

Step (v. as in step the mast): mount in the boat

Mainmast: in a two-masted boat, the larger, forward mast.

Mainsail: the larger foresail rigged on the mainmast.

Mizzenmast: in a two-masted boat, the aft mast; smaller than the mainmast.

Mizzensail: the aft sail, smaller than the mainsail; rigged on the mizzenmast.

Boom: a pole along the bottom edge of a fore and aft rigged sail that improves the control of the angle and shape of the sail.

I also learned that the the hardware that holds the oars in position is called an oar lock, and I learned from a question from someone in the boat ramp parking lot that our boat has a sprit boom. I am unclear what this means.

Sprit boom (aka leg-o-mutton) — meaning still unknown  to me. When I looked it up, I read sentences like this in sailing forums:

The sprit-boom is self-vanging, meaning that the geometry between the boom and the sail’s foot (which should generally be cut dead straight to prevent flapping) will keep the aft end of the boom from lifting. The result of aft boom lift is upper sail twist to leeward, spilling wind up there. The sprit-boom’s self-vanging nature will prevent this, keeping the entire sail working at all times all the way up and down it’s height.

Self-vanging? Sail’s foot? Cut dead strait? It wasn’t until the fourth reading of the paragraph above that I kind of, sort of understood what it was saying (something about the sprit-boom keeps the free end of the boom from lifting, resulting in spilled wind and loss of power, I think).

I have a whole new language to learn, and I am eager to learn it.

My first sail

We had a steady breeze last night and took our new-to-us sailboat to nearby Claytor Lake so my husband could take me for a sail. He and the kids took the boat for our family’s maiden voyage while I was in Vienna, and I’ve been eagerly waiting for my chance to go since I returned 2 weeks ago.

At 4:30 pm at home, we ate an early dinner of salmon salad (for my husband and me) and hot dogs (for the kids), then hooked up the trailer to our car and drove the 30 minutes to Claytor Lake.

Launching at Claytor Lake

The boat’s not large enough for all four of us — it’s a small wooden yawl, abut 13 feet — so Brian took me out for a quick jaunt before coming back to take the kids on their turn.

It was everything I’d hoped it would be. 

The evening was comfortable for July: a stiff breeze moved over the cool lake, blowing the heat of the day away. The sky and lake shone blue, and summer hills, green like brocolli forests, rose from the edges of the water.

Under sail on a summer evening
I mostly got in Brian’s way. I grew up on motor boats and know nothing about sailing. We’ve sailed a couple times together before, but never in a boat this small, never so close to the water, never so close to the rigging, the tiller, the hull, the boom, the sails. Never bumping into each other as we swap places, as we rock the boat.

It is intimate, and I love it. 

I can feel the water through the thin wooden hull, and our slightest movements steer (or stall) the boat. I duck my head when the main sail passes over, I move lines so they don’t tangle.

I can’t wait to do more. I want to know everything. I want to know the names of things, the knots to use, how the tackle works. I want to know how to read the wind, how to feel the water, how to move with each other and with the boat. 

I want to learn how to sail.

I’m still on my mobile blogging kick. I wrote this on the shore, listening to rigging clang against masts in the marina while Brian took the kids out for their turn. Testing the scheduling feature this time to see if it posts Sunday morning.