The strength of the wind gust took me by surprise. It grabbed the mainsail and jib and shoved, pitching the boat 90 degrees on its side as if it were a toy, forcing me overboard into an unexpected swim in the cold waters of autumn. Hypothermia was a real threat, and there was no help in sight.
Back in the mid 90’s, when I thought a “bucket list” was where wistful old folks kept their fantasies, I had a “wouldn’t it be cool” list. I’d already checked off learning to scuba dive and learning to fly, but seeing small sailboats racing each other on the Willamette River as I crossed the bridge from work added another entry.
After doing a bit of research I discovered that all those sailboats were part of a private sailing club, and it had an associated sailing school. They had openings in a late summer class so I signed up.
Sailing is cool. There’s something being out on the water, especially on a nice day, and making way without the noise or smell of an engine. It’s almost magical; when the wind is just right and you’re plying along with a nice wake and the riverside scenery is showing its beauty; there’s a spiritual aspect to it that lifts the soul. But it’s not all just kicking back and enjoying the breeze, the water, and the sunshine.
You need to learn the terminology. What’s the difference between a jib and a jibe? Why a shroud doesn’t have a negative connotation? How is it possible to sail against the wind? Why does it matter where you sit on an upwind leg? What is the boom, and why do you need to watch out for it?
Although the boats I saw from the bridge were small, most of them were designed for two sailors; one to steer and fly the mainsail, and one to help balance the boat and fly the jib (the smaller sail in the front). In the sailing class we’d alternate positions, learning how to handle the boat on a figure eight course, adjusting for the wind and the other boats sharing the course. It was fun and good practice, but eventually the class ended – then what?
“Then what” means either find some boat owner who needs regular crew, or buy a boat for yourself. After limited success with the former I opted for the later, buying a 15 foot Coronado (C-15), pictured above. It’s also a two man boat; now I was the one looking for crew, and not always finding it.
And so one fateful fall day, eager to get some more time in with my new (to me) C-15, I opted to take the boat out on the river solo. It’s possible but a handful: you need to steer, control the main sail with the main sheet (a sheet is a rope that controls the tension on a sail), control the jib with a jib sheet (one for each side), and shift around to balance the boat. You can use cleats to hold the sheets in place, so you don’t have to hold all three and the tiller (the thing that moves the rudder to steer) at the same time.
The day was cool and overcast, dry but with the threat of a storm coming in. There was a moderate breeze when I rigged the boat and started my sail on a downwind leg – with the wind behind me.
The thing about sailing downwind is all you feel is the apparent wind. So, if the wind is blowing south at 10 knots, and you’re sailing south at 8 knots, all you feel is a mild two knot breeze – no big deal. I noticed as time went on I was making good speed, but was still too green to understand the implications.
Until I turned upwind.
Here, the opposite is true for the apparent wind: you feel the actual wind full in your face, plus additional speed for any headway you’re making. And that wind in my face was making me go “oh shit.” The wind had picked up. A lot.
Sailing downwind is easy. Just set the sails, kick back, and let the wind push. Sailing upwind is a different story – you can’t sail directly into the wind, you have to take it at an angle. To get somewhere, you sail a zig-zag course, with each turn called a “tack”. When you tack, there’s a point where the sails swing from one side of the boat to the other, and once they stop the wind starts pushing on them. When the wind is up this can be disconcerting, it may try to push you over. This can also happen when a big gust comes along.
Big sailboats have lead in their keels, they automatically counterbalance when the wind pushes them over. Small sailboats have wooden or fiberglass centerboards for a keel, you have to counterbalance by shifting your weight from one side of the boat to the other. Sometimes that’s not enough, especially if you don’t have crew to help. The escape is to let the sails go free; let go of the ropes and let the sails flap in the breeze. But when you’re cleated in and the wind is pushing you over there’s not always time or balance to grab the right rope. That’s what happened to me: a big gust came along, and while I freed the mainsail the jib sail was still cleated with no crew to help, and it blew me over. The boat didn’t just stop on its side, it turtled, completely upside down, and I had a cold swim.
There’s a technique for righting a capsized sailboat. I attempted it, and got the boat back on its side, but couldn’t pull it up the rest of the way by myself. After letting go it turtled again and all I could do is climb on top of the hull and hope someone came along before hypothermia set in.
After a period of shivering and contemplating my mortality a fishing boat did come along. With their help I was able to get the sailboat righted, and get a tow back to the sailing club. I was so cold that even though my taste buds and coffee are severely at odds, I gagged down an offered cup just to try and warm up. I had a dry change of clothes back at the club, and made it home safely.
It was a traumatic experience, and possibly the closest I’ve come to accidental death. For weeks afterward I had PTSD symptoms. But in time I got back in the boat and enjoyed sailing again, even joining the sailboat races and making others on the bridge envious.
Eventually, as with my flying hobby, sailing too fell victim to the problem of too much expense and not enough sailing. But on those few occasions since when I’ve gotten out in a sailboat, the joy of the wind in my face, of setting the sails just so to get the best push, the spray from the bow when we get up enough speed, the roiling wake without the noise of a motor; the sense of being one with nature comes back, and my spirit soars.