February 23, 2012

The way the wind blows

I ONCE TOOK an advanced motoring course and failed.  Well, actually, at the end of a grueling two-hour drive through a busy city at rush hour, my examiner turned to me and said: "I honestly don't know whether to pass you or not."

It was a cruel blow because I rather fancied myself as a driver, and in a fit of pique I said: "Well, if you can't make up your mind it means I don't pass.  So fail me." Which he promptly did, the so-and-so.

Part of the problem was that I wasn't driving an advanced motoring sort of car.  I owned a little yellow Mazda with a wheezing engine and a juddering clutch. To change to a lower gear I had to double de-clutch. It was an infra dig, non-sporty car and obviously not one your normally advanced driver would touch with a barge pole. When I took the test again in a new VW Passat, with a different examiner, I passed with flying colors.

Anyway, what I wanted to say was that part of the test involved my giving the examiner a non-stop running commentary on road and traffic conditions. "Pedestrian ahead on the right might be wanting to cross the road.  Wet patch on road might be slippery.  I'm going to change down for this right-hand corner after signaling my turn. I'm going to overtake this bus because there's a hill ahead and he will slow down and hamper traffic." That sort of thing.

In later years, when I was teaching people to sail I applied the same principle of the running commentary, of thinking ahead. Besides proving that they were awake, it told me a lot about their powers of observation.  "Tall thundercloud in front of us, might need to reef.  No-wake zone coming up. That big powerboat is throwing up a huge wake, might need to turn to meet it.  Boat converging with us is on starboard tack and has right of way."  All that stuff.

But the one thing I emphasized over and over was wind direction.  Every few minutes I would turn to a learner sailor and say: "Wind direction!"  He or she would then have to point straight into the wind with an outstretched arm.

It's interesting how many landlubbers can't tell you where the wind is coming from, even though they can feel it on their face and hair, and see dust and leaves being pushed along. But it is, of course, an essential skill for the sailor, for it is the source of power for his boat and he must adjust the sails correctly according to the wind direction.

It becomes quite difficult in very light weather, but after a while (and many shouts of "Wind direction!") the neophyte sailors could supply a reasonably good direction most of the time, and they began to note it unconsciously and continually. In fact, it became second nature, as it should be for anyone who takes a small sailboat, or even a powerboat, on a body of water of any size. In due course, a good sailor will be able to tell the wind direction even while lying below in a bunk.  As I said, it's an important skill for any sailor, but almost essential, I'd say, for singlehanders.

Today's Thought
All things require skill but an appetite.
—George Herbert, Jacula Prudentum

"Did you manage to sell my book yet?"
"Well, I have to tell you that Random House absolutely ate it up. But there's bad news."
"What's that?"
"Random House is my poodle."

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

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