Sailors always get it right because the alternatives are unthinkable.
Irving Berlin had it right when he wrote his Sailors’ Song in 1916, with the lyrics: “ While we go sailing, sailing over the ocean blue; We’re sailors thro’ and thro’; The best you ever knew.” Of course we are. And last week it came to me again as we graduated another couple of sailing classes from Harbourfront Centre Sailing. Of course, Lake Ontario isn’t exactly the ocean blue, but it’s a big enough body of water to demand respect. Our classes were made up of folks keen to learn, and though the week started out with pathetic winds they showed their mettle when the winds blew up on the final day and their new skills were tested to the limit. In the end sailors get it right, usually because there is no alternative.
I say this delicately, because some of my best friends and indeed relatives have power boats, but sailors have to know what they are doing all the time, because they can’t rely on their powerful great twin motors to get them out of trouble. At best they have enough power to get on and off the dock. That’s all they need, but never enough to drive out of trouble.
At the beginning of the week it was looking hopeless as our newbies tried to assimilate a whole new language: tack, gybe, cringle, clew, halyard, sheet, lee, windward, port, starbord and dozens more words that have no equivalent in everyday conversation. Trying to teach sailing without wind is hard enough without the barrier of deep misunderstandings of what is required by ‘hardening up that sheet.’
Eventually, persistence paid off and the class began to make progress ‘tacking’ up the harbour to ‘windward’ and then ‘gybing’ back ‘downwind.’ Once they had got the hang of dealing with turning the boat around, not as easy as just turning the steering wheel on a powerboat, when the position of the wind versus the sails is taken into consideration, plus remembering that the long stick, known as the ‘tiller’ goes the opposite way to common sense, the rest was just a question of practice and repetition. Once the wind comes up sailors learn why the ‘boom’ is so called. It can swing across the deck with great force if the wrong move is made at the helm. If you don’t duck, that’s one heck of a boom on the bonce.
Every morning starts with a knot review. We’d shown them six essential sailors’ knots, without which they could not rig the boat. Sensible powerboaters have the ‘chandlery’ put little clips on the end of their ropes; sailors insist on doing it the hard way, with a knot for every purpose. And by the way, as soon as those ropes walk out of the provisioning store, they are called ‘lines’ on a sailboat, and as soon as they are given a purpose they get a new name: halyard, cunningham, boom vang, sheet, rode and on and on.
On my own boat, Peccavi, I have bought ropes of many colours and had them custom fitted so that the line for each purpose is coded differently. That system went very well for a while (just ‘haul in on the blue line, please,’ instead of ‘secure the topping lift.’), but came undone when my colour blindness was revealed. ‘Let go that bloody orange line,’ I yelled at Amanda as an unexpected line squall hit us broadside, ‘or the main will rip.’ ‘There are no orange lines,’ said Captain Clive calmly unhitching the red main sheet, thus allowing the main sail to luff and avert disaster. If I forgot to apologize to my good friend Amanda, then I do so now. Of course, I knew there were no orange lines on the boat, but it sure looked orange to me at the time.
Anyway, mostly it works well with the starboard (or green) side of the boat worked with green coloured ‘jib sheets,’ and the port (or red) side of the boat worked with red coloured ones. Jib sheets are the lines that control the sail, or ‘jib,’ attached to the bow.
By Wednesday the winds had become much stronger and for a treat we took the whole class of eight out on one of Harbourfront’s larger boats, a CS 36. As you could well work out for yourself, this boat is 36 feet long and a challenge to handle on and off the dock, so we didn’t stress the students out by asking them to drive in and out of the narrow moorings we use just south of Toronto’s Queen’s Quay. I like driving this boat, which had the same Canadian manufacturer as my own CS 27, sadly long extinct. On our return, my fellow instructor lined volunteers up on one side of the boat with fenders to avoid a collision with the boat moored on the adjacent dock. I was quite offended, actually, and brought her in with a good four inches to spare.
Out on the lake, each member of the class had a chance at the helm, practicing tacking and gybing and manning the main and jib sheets for various manoeuvres, including ‘COB’ or crew-over-board, which we used to call man-over-board in less PC days.
Retrieving a fellow sailor who has had the misfortune to end up in the water is an essential skill and we practice that assiduously. We never use a real human in the water, so the class simulates the drill with a fender or special marker buoy. In all my years of sailing, I’ve never fallen in the water once, nor had anyone fallen off any boat I’m in charge of, I’m very happy to say. The cardinal rule is always: ‘one hand for the boat.’ The last day the winds were fierce enough for the most hardened sailor.
By the end of 28 hours instruction most of the class had got it and passed their on-the-water tests with flying colours. A couple of chaps need more practice and passed with a ‘crew only’ certificate. Although they were disappointed, safety is the main concern and I’m sure they understood that they just weren’t ready to take on the role of ‘skipper.’ All have one more step to take, and that is the written exam, where their understanding of all the theory and new language is tested. Then they’ll be free to go ‘sailing, sailing over the ocean blue.’
PS: I’m often asked about the name of my boat. ‘It’s Latin,’ I reply, ‘As in: Benedice me patri, quia peccavi — or Bless me Father, for I have sinned.’ Why I have given it such a name is a tale for another day.