On sail

There are two kinds of sailboats I know a small something about. The first is the Sunfish, boat of my youth. I sort of learned to sail it, by trial and (mostly) error, as a kid, when my family vacationed lakeside, here on Cape Cod. The second is a frigate, circa 1800, which I learned about from reading Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series about the Napoleonic Wars.

I picked up lots of sailing tips from those books. I know that, when the wind picks up, you call for a reef in the topsails. To change course, it’s often easier to wear ship (turn away from the wind) than to tack (turn into it). And, of course, when an enemy ship appears on the horizon, you make sure the men are fed before you clear for action.

More than sailing tips, though, I picked up expressions. You can’t read these books without finding reasons to wish people joy of things, or tell them that never in life would you do otherwise. You start damning people’s eyes, and warning them against lee shores. And you can spot another O’Brian fan at three cable lengths because she knows why a dogwatch is so called, and that, in the Navy, one must always choose the lesser of two weevils.

Given my vast experience, you can imagine that it was with perfect confidence that I first set foot on an ocean-going sailing vessel.

The vessel in question is a 37-foot Tartan, a boat owned and captained by our friend Maura. Kevin and I were sailing to Nantucket with her and her prom date, Don. (OK, he’s not really her prom date. Maura and I share both the conviction that ‘boyfriend’ isn’t a word people over 40 ought to be using and the frustration that there isn’t a better word for the partner you happen not to be married to. ‘Prom date’ is our protest.) Also on board was Gunner, Don’s golden retriever.

Going in, Maura understood that neither Kevin nor I knew much about sailing. We were both ready and willing to do whatever she asked of us, but neither of us would have been rated ‘able seaman.’ Maura was fine with that. It was clear that she is perfectly comfortable handling her boat, and our job was to show up and, every now and then, do some uncomplicated job. She had Don, a very experienced sailor, to help with anything that required actual skill. Maybe we could bring snacks.

It is a wonderful thing, to be on other people’s boats. Because we have our own boat, and frequently have other people on it, we know what that entails. We have to be sure the boat is running well, that the instruments all function, that the emergency equipment is up to date. We are responsible for our passengers. For their safety, but also for their entertainment (which, in our case, usually translates to fish). It is such a pleasure when someone else is in charge, and we just do what we’re told.

Maura is very good at being in charge. She has been sailing this particular boat for over a decade, and sailed several other boats before this one. From May to October, she spends as much time as she possibly can on the water. “What’s the point of having a boat,” she asks, “if you just leave it on the mooring?”

We loaded the boat Monday morning, due to meet friends on Nantucket for dinner, overnight on the boat, and sail back the next day.

There is an unfortunate conundrum in sailing: the best trips make the worst stories. And I am sorry to report that this was an excellent trip. We were sailing into light winds on the way there, and I discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that what I learned from the Sunfish and the Patrick O’Brian novels actually did have some bearing on sailing a real, live boat in the real, live ocean.

Maura offered me the helm about halfway across, and I was pretty determined not to take it. I don’t steer other people’s boats for the same reason I don’t hold other people’s babies: fear of catastrophe. But the winds were so benign, and it really didn’t look that hard, so I eventually took a shift at the wheel.

Within five minutes I was channeling my inner Aubrey. “If we tighten the main sheet, maybe we can get her a point or two closer to the wind,” I say. Yeah, as if.

But, holding the wheel, you can’t but start thinking about it. You make the connection between how the sails look and how the rudder feels, and improving that connection is an irresistible impulse. Can we get her a little closer to the wind? How much speed does she lose if we do? Should we let the jib out just a little? While sailing equipment has certainly changed since 1800 – Captain Aubrey didn’t have two-speed winches or Vektron sailcloth, let alone radar and GPS – the mechanics are the same. The sunfish, the frigate, and the 37-foot Tartan had much more in common that I would have thought.

The ride was smooth and trouble-free from beginning to end. There was no lee shore, there was no damning of eyes. There was no need to clear for action.

The wind died altogether when we were about a mile out, and we motored in to Nantucket Harbor in the late afternoon. Our friends – my Washington Post editor Bonnie Benwick and her friend Patty – came down to the harbor, and Don and Kevin ferried them out to the boat in the dingy. We opened the wine, and couldn’t quite get over how lucky we were to be having drinks on a boat on a beautiful evening in Nantucket Harbor. Then we piled six adults and a golden retriever into a very small car and went to Bonnie’s house.

One of the many advantages of writing for the Washington Post is becoming friends with the food staff. Bonnie is not only an excellent writer and editor, she’s a damn fine cook. I’ve been lucky enough to be on the receiving end of that skill more than once. For this meal, Kevin and I had made tuna burgers out of the some of the last of the fish he and Don caught last fall, and Bonnie made the rest. There was grilled corn, marinated in coconut milk and brown sugar (from the WaPo recipe database). There was a salad with peach, tomato, mozzarella, and herbs. There were two desserts, one involving chocolate and one involving blueberries. There were cocktails.

The next morning, we got underway early, as the weather was expected to turn bad, with high winds and thunderstorms. The trip that took six hours one way took three and a half the other. We had a tailwind that took us straight from Nantucket to Maura’s mooring in Hyannisport, with no tacking, no wearing, and, more importantly, no sense that the four-foot waves and the twenty-knot winds were more than the boat could handle.

I’ve known committed sailors before Maura, but I’ve never really understood the commitment. Our boat, a power boat, gets us exactly where we want to go, quickly, and allows us to do the thing we most want to do on a boat – fish. But being under sail is a remarkable feeling. Getting from point A to point B with elegance and without fossil fuels is a compelling experience. I now understand why Maura loves her boat, and I wish her joy of it.

11 people are having a conversation about “On sail

  1. Larry Egan says:

    Great article! Power boats have always been about the destination (or activity) and sailing is about the journey. Since there was no clearing of the decks, guess there was no fetching of the brown pants on this voyage either.

  2. This one just goes to show how skilled you are as a writer. You took a great day sailing that would otherwise not make a good story and turned it into a very readable post. It doesn’t make me want to get on a sail boat (nothing can), but I can enjoy your joy of it nonetheless.

  3. Susan Bruce says:

    Tamar, yes, sailing is wonderful. (I’ve never known much about power boats, though I do love following your fishing, figs, and pigs.) But the best aspect of your post is the reminder of Patrick O’Brian’s books. I once listened to all as audiobooks and see that CLAMS, our terrific library network on the Cape, has every one. I might just start again at the beginning, and would recommend them to you for any long drives to DC or NYC or Maine.

    Also appreciated is Maura’s comment about not leaving a boat on the mooring. Here in Wellfleet we seem to have many that never leave the marina in a season—but, of course, also many people who do enjoy their boats half the year.

  4. Thanks for the kind words from those of you who liked the post. I always feel like a post where nothing bad happens is pretty lackluster, and I’ve very glad to see that this one has its fans.

    And, Susan, I’ve listened to the entire O’Brian catalogue more than once. The guy who reads them, Simon Vance, is the best audiobook reader I know. I second your recommendation!

  5. Brooke Snow says:

    Beautiful post, Tamar! I snorted a little when I remember the “lesser of two weevils” line. Every single time it gets me.

  6. Accidental Mick says:

    Thank you for a lovely post Tamar. However, be careful and be aware that sailing gets into your blood 🙂

  7. Ah, I’m so glad you were able to avoid the dirty weather and got to feel the shiver of the sails responding to your touch. My husband and I bonded over Jack and Stephen when we first met, and still speak O’Brian to each other. Now we’ve just moved to Peabody MA, which I find to be amazingly nautical. Come on over and we’ll toast some cheese. I believe that is the Port at your elbow!

  8. Stephen Andrew says:

    Tamar! This was a pleasant surprise, even if I am over a month late. I don’t often accept invitations aboard sailboats for fear that it means having to help with the mechanics of sailing. My grandpa and his prom date have been together since the mid 1980s and remain quite unmarried. He says he likes “partner” because it makes him sound “like a cool gay dude”. Lin, his prom date, calls herself “the slut” because her hyper-Catholic upbringing taught her that she lives in sin. She gets a sick pleasure from introducing herself to grandchildren’s nervous boyfriends/girlfriends at Christmas “Hi! I’m Bill’s slut”. You’d like her.

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