IF YOU OWN A SAILBOAT, sooner or later one of your guests is going to ask you how to sail. Perhaps this has happened to you already. Perhaps you have racked your brains to think of a quick and easy way to describe it. And perhaps, as you started to explain, you realized what a vast subject this is, and how impossible it is to condense it to a few sentences. Perhaps you end up as most boat owners do by simply showing your lubberly guests how to steer, and giving them a point on the horizon to aim for while you attend to the sheets and everything else. That seems to satisfy most of them. They think then that they can sail.
But now and then you come across someone who is a bit more persistent, someone who rightly suspects there is more to sailing than steering, and who really wants to learn how to sail.
Well, there are a couple of tips that will keep such a person out of your hair and well occupied and, with any luck, foster in him or her a desire to sign on with a decent sailing school and learn properly.
Those two tips are questions:
Ø Where is the wind coming from?
Ø Which of the two kinds of sailing are we doing? — 1. Beating, or 2. Everything else.
Most experienced sailors know instinctively at all times which direction the wind is coming from, and most of us presume that landlubbers know this, too. But they don’t. Landlubbers hardly ever give a thought to where the wind’s coming from. It makes no difference to them.
So when your would-be sailor demands to be shown how to sail, ask him or her to point into the eye of the wind with an outstretched arm. If your pupil seems puzzled, point to a flag, a plume of smoke on the horizon, a cloud moving overhead, or the direction of the wavelets. Tell your pupil to feel the wind on the face, or the back of the neck, and don’t be satisfied until the response to your often repeated query: “Where is the wind?” is automatic and correct.
Then explain that it’s of paramount importance to know where the wind is coming from because no sailboat can sail directly into the wind. Demonstrate the 90-degree “no-go” zone to windward, 45 degrees either side of the direction in which the wind is coming from, and explain that by zig-zagging to and fro across this no-go zone, you can actually fetch up at a destination that lies directly into the eye of the wind. That should keep them occupied for some time as they digest all the implications.
The second tip is an explanation that even some experienced sailors have never thought of. It’s the simple fact that you can divide sailing into two kinds, beating and everything else.
When you’re beating, or trying to sail as close to an opposing wind as you possibly can, you keep the sails firmly sheeted and you trim the boat to the wind. In other words, you use the rudder to keep the sails correctly trimmed. As the wind changes slightly in direction, you change the direction of the boat to ensure that air is flowing freely and correctly over the sails.
On the other hand, for every other course, from a close fetch to a dead run, you aim the boat on a straight course toward your destination, either heading for a point on the horizon or steering by compass. And, as the wind switches, you use the sheets to trim the sails to the wind.
Beginners are often puzzled about when to pull on the sheets or ease them, or when to use the rudder to luff or pay off. Now you can explain it in a couple of sentences. Use the rudder when you’re beating. Play with the sheets on every other course. That’s not all there is to sailing, but it’s enough to keep a beginner quiet until you’re at anchor and sundowners are being served.
Swallow all your learning in the morning, but digest it in company in the evenings.
— Lord Chesterfield, Letters, 10 May 1751
“What happened to Gloria?”
“She swallowed some coins and had to go to the hospital.”
“Wow. How’s she doing?”
“They’re keeping an eye on her but the doctor says there’s no change yet.”
(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)