So Many Stories

Sunset at Balmain after a twilight race, March 2014
Sunset at Balmain after a twilight race, March 2014

I am a sucker for a good story. That is one of the main reasons why I love reading; but listening to other people’s stories in real life is a special treat. A story that is told personally feels like it’s been born in front of your eyes, no matter how many times it’s been told before. I still stare in a wide-eyed wonder at a person who can tell a good story and I listen in fascination, like a kid who forgot about going to sleep, too engrossed in a good-night tale. I like writing; but I still enjoy listening to other people’s stories more than telling my own.

When I was growing up, my favourite nights were when the electricity went out. It didn’t happen that often but when it did, the entire family would gather in the kitchen. There would be candles, my sister and I would make a half-hearted attempt at doing our homework and then at some point Dad would start telling stories about his childhood in the countryside. He grew up in a place right next to the Mongolian border and spent a lot of time riding horses and looking after his father’s bees. One of my favourite stories was about his collection of old coins half of which he lost while riding a motorbike, coins slipping out of the bag in his pocket one by one. I tried writing some of those memories down once but I couldn’t quite catch the magic, so I gave up, frustrated.

One of my best friends in university was a master story-teller; something would happen to her or both of us and she would find a way to turn a fairly minor event into a polished anecdote, most often with a sarcastic twist. Then I met a man whose stories from his own life were so various and at times outrageous, they made me want to live a bigger, more interesting life. Since then I moved to another city then to another continent, changed careers and started sailing; I’d like to believe that enough interesting stuff happened to me. Yet it still fascinates me to listen to others.

When you sail on different boats, you meet lots of people – and they all have stories to tell. Sometimes the stories are pretty personal. I’ve heard of two different divorces, painful memories retold in a matter-of-fact way to a stranger who just happened to sit on the rail next to them. That is not a regular occurrence though; most of the stories I heard on boats are about sailboats and sailing and people who sail. They can be funny or tragic, and some of them are as polished by being retold many times as my uni friend’s anecdotes; and I can never get enough of them.

There were a few about naming boats; a boat called “BOOTS” because the letter refusing the registration of a boat with the original (fairly offensive) name started with the words “By order of the secretary…” and a boat called “Gomez” because someone yelled out “Go, Mez!” when the owner took the boat out for the first time. There’s other stories that turned into jokes (like the exchange between a port on a starboard tack and a boat with a steel hull; the triumph of a boat that is hard to damage over the boat that has more rights during a race) and there are personal accounts of impersonating a kangaroo or racing in pyjamas in a regatta, both after quite a few drinks.

And wherever you go, there will always be stories about sailing mishaps. Sailing can be easy; and it can be incredibly complex. It’s easy to get into trouble when you depend on the elements so much, and there are many things that can go wrong. I’ve heard of a mast touching the water because someone put a knot on a spinnaker sheet; a mast collapsing completely because the skipper of a small catamaran doing over 20 knots got distracted for 30 seconds and ran smack into a wave (the skipper ended up with a broken arm, lucky to be alive); boats running into reefs rendering people unconscious; boats sinking… These are things that happened to people I know, and my own somewhat embarrassing memory of ending up on the rocks in front of an entire fleet because a running backstay was put on too early, pales in comparison.

Stories are fun and there is no doubt some educational value to some of them. I will never put a knots on a spinnaker sheet after hearing the story from the Whitsundays so many times – just like I will always check for lines in the water before putting the motor on after something that happened while I was on the same boat in Sydney. Yet, the most compelling stories are not just cautionary, they make you look at things in a different way. I might forget about a funny name of a boat but I will never forget a story about a power boat capsizing, not just because it was dramatic, but because the girl who told it also said that you never know how you will react in a situation like that. She told us about a boy who stumbled in a pool, hit his head and floated face down, unconscious – and her first instinctive reaction was to run away, despite her first aid training. That initial reaction stayed with her long after she helped the boy, it made her wonder and reflect; and when the power boat capsized, she knew to look out for the first inkling of panic in herself and stifle it successfully.

I’ve had time to think why stories like that are so compelling, the self-awareness of the story-teller probably as important as the event itself. And that’s the way I want the story of my life to be, not full of drowning boys but not just a sequence of amusing anecdotes either; a story reflected on and lived fully, even thoroughly, a story that will stay with you for a very long time.

Blueberry Bagel

Clouds before the start
Clouds before the start. Photo by me

One of my non-sailing friends once told me that the only item on his bucket list that has anything to do with sailing is going out on a boat far enough offshore to be completely surrounded by water, no land in sight. Last Sunday I was sitting on a rail during an offshore race and suddenly became aware that I couldn’t see land anywhere, it was all just water. I realised then that I was waiting for that moment for a while, albeit perhaps not fully conscious of it, and took stock of the thoughts going through my head. It didn’t take long: my thoughts were entirely dominated by a blueberry bagel.

It was a miserable day. It was drizzling before the start of the race but the dark clouds on the horizon promised much, much more and they didn’t disappoint; by the time we got out of the heads after a short spinnaker run, it was pouring down. We were all wearing specialised sailing wet weather gear, the kind that never seems overpriced when you wear it during a heavy rain. I did regret leaving my sea boots at home. Then the wind died leaving the boat bobbing around a couple of miles away from the shore. The rain subsided a little and we had to do a couple of excruciatingly slow tacks to make sure that at least we were pointing in the right direction (south). The breeze picked up a bit and the rain intensified again. Water was pooling in the creases of my jacket and running down my sailing gloves. I tried not to move my feet so I couldn’t feel my wet socks. Yes, it was a miserable day. Yet none of us was miserable.

When I get up too late to have breakfast at home, I sometimes get a blueberry bagel on the way to work. I have it toasted, with butter or creme cheese. When I was sitting on the rail that day, a hot delicious bagel was everything I could dream of; yet that dream was devoid of bitterness and disappointment about my present situation. Craig, our bowman, said, “I am definitely having a hot bath tonight.” Alex said something about coffee and I mentioned hot chocolate. JD said he would add some alcohol to both (although not the bath). Our skipper was concentrating on steering. We couldn’t see land anywhere, it was bucketing down with not much wind but none of us was wishing we were somewhere else.

It’s hard to explain to non-sailors what is so addictive about sailing. I could mention beautiful sunsets during twilight races and the perfect blue and green of the clear water on a sunny day in the harbour. Or the excitement of a race, the company of like-minded people, the gradual mastery of technical skills, a combination of tactical decisions, knowledge and physical coordination. Yet that’s not all. It’s not about harnessing the power of nature or overcoming obstacles for me either. It’s more about the feeling of being where you are supposed to be, no matter what the conditions are. Even on days like Sunday when you are getting increasingly cold, the water is dripping off your hat and lands on your face and you are still totally accepting of that. At some point you might bear away and trim a very shy spinnaker in an exciting dash into the harbour – but last Sunday it took us about 6 hours to get to that stage. It’s a bonus – but not the purpose of it all.

We all had days when we felt miserable while perfectly comfortable. You might be sitting on a couch under a comfy blanket and sipping your favourite beverage – and still feel like your life is lacking something substantial. That feeling of unease when it feels like there’s more to life than even the best TV show and that you are missing it? You don’t get that while sailing. It can be frustrating at times as any human activity involving more than one person – yet you will feel truly alive, connected to other people and facing your own true self at the same time. You can reduce travelling, the universally accepted way of broadening your horizons, to a search for better food and more entertainment; but the very nature of sailing forces you to look both outside and inside – for the traces of a lift in the water and for a plan for the future in your head. Its immediate reality gives you focus, teaches you to use the forces outside of your control instead of resenting them and really be where you are instead of trying to flee from it. That’s what is bigger than any of the politics surrounding bigger boats or any troubles with unreliable crew; it is ultimately more important than winning a race.

And the moment when you realise that you are doing something from your friend’s bucket list is by no means less significant because of your thoughts of a blueberry bagel; if anything, it’s much more beautiful in its reality than any dream of a paradise place that is so appealing just because it’s so far away from your actual life.

What’s In a Name?..

I have a weird first name.

Actually, it’s not at all weird in Russia where I grew up. In fact, it’s a traditional name from a well-known folktale. The plot of the folktale might sound a bit odd when translated into English for someone who didn’t grow up with the story; essentially, it’s about a girl who was babysitting her little brother but left him alone for a while so she could play with her friends. While unsupervised, he drank from a puddle and turned into a baby goat. It only gets more depressing after that. There is a famous painting displaying my namesake sitting by the side of a pond mourning her brother and regretting her unfortunate decisions. Back in Russia the occasional smart arse would ask me where my little brother was after hearing my name. At least I don’t have that problem anymore.

My namesake from the Russian folkstale
My namesake from the Russian folktale

In Australia I have completely different problems related to my name. For starters, it is spelled “Alena” so people who see it in writing pronounce it the way it is spelled. The first two years in Australia I didn’t fight it very hard. A lot of Asian people just take a new, westernised name to make it easy for everyone and I can understand why. The perpetual struggle to make people pronounce your name correctly, let alone remember it, can be as tiring as answering the question about where you came from. Eventually, I decided that my name is part of my identity that I didn’t want to let go of. If I intended to talk to a person again I introduced myself using the real pronunciation of my name. By the way, my ex-boyfriend avoided the problem altogether by always calling me “babe”.

I meet a lot of new people through sailing and I have to introduce myself ALL. THE. TIME.

“Well, I am not going to remember THAT!” – that was probably the least impressive reaction I’ve heard to date but definitely the most honest one. I used a few conversational gambits to make it easier: “It’s like a loner but I am not actually a loner hehe. Well, actually it sounds more like a learner. Yes, it’s spelled with an e because there is a letter exactly like that but with two dots above it in the Russian language and it sounds more like o”. Some people tried hard to remember all that but I came to expect them to revert to “Alana” after a while. I once corrected my manager during an interstate team meeting when he called me “Alana” and there was much less confusion about my name in the company after that. I have recently changed jobs and it’s an uphill battle to teach all these new people again.

When you are sailing, it’s pretty important sometimes to be able to address someone quickly and “hey you” is fairly ambiguous. I’ve sailed with some very nice people who tried to use my proper name again and again and eventually got it right – and I’m grateful.

And then I started sailing on “Orbit”.

I was trimming the jib one day and the rest of the crew were hanging out at the front of the boat (light conditions make the weight distribution on the boat very important).

“It’s not easy to remember her name, is it,” – one of them remarked, sipping his beer. The others agreed. I glared. “We should give her an easier name. Let’s call her Dave”.

“No, not Dave!” – I said. OK, maybe I yelled. I didn’t take the suggestion very seriously then but I still didn’t like it. They asked me whether I would prefer Lenin or Trotsky instead and I said that I didn’t mind either as long as it wasn’t Dave. That was probably the dumbest thing I have ever said because ever since they’ve been calling me Dave. Half the time they are dead serious about it, too. “Dave, ease me!” – yells Matt (the skipper) as we get close to the start line. “Dave, can you get the outhaul?” – says the main trimmer.

They all have nicknames, too, but they almost never use them during a race. They do use mine. It confuses new people on the boat and I never fail to roll my eyes. After sailing, they sometimes introduce me to new people as Dave and then I start my dance about my real name so people get even more puzzled because my name sounds too much like “a loner”.

“So are you?” – they say.

“Am I what?”

“A loner?”

And I sigh and I think that maybe I should just introduce myself as Dave to everyone. It has already started sipping through to other boats. I am learning to skipper a boat while racing so a couple of my sailing friends call me “Captain Dave” now. And I am secretly pleased when I hear it, even if I frown and even shake my fist at them (which of course makes everyone laugh even harder).

Because ultimately, my weird Russian name will always be part of my identity. At the same time, my sailing nickname from “Orbit” is not entirely alien to me anymore either. I’ve been one of the boys on a few boats now and it feels good to be an essential part of the crew, not some girl who’s invited to sit on a rail and look pretty. A silly nickname can make you feel accepted and at home as much as kind words – and sometimes more. It’s a grand Australian tradition to make fun of your mates. Also, “Dave” IS much easier to pronounce during a race than my real name. So I am happy to roll with it.

Although I still wish it was anything else but Dave sometimes.

A Breakup with a Boat

Sydney Harbour covered with smoke from bush fires, Nov 2, 2013.
Low visibility in the Sydney Harbour caused by smoke from bushfires, Nov 2, 2013

I haven’t been writing in my blog for a while as I have had a few things happening in my life. One is totally unrelated to sailing and another one is an impending breakup with a boat.

You may laugh at this point. If you have never been in love with a boat, not because she is the best boat in the world but because you get to know her every peculiarity – her slipping halyards, the way the starboard spinnaker sheet has to be rigged differently from the port one, her preference for one tack and even her temperamental radio – and because her crew feels like a family to you, laugh all you want.

Cruisers who cross oceans in boats are allowed to feel attached to boats. It’s their shelter, their only protection from the elements, their home. Racing crew don’t usually own the boat, so a lot of amateur racers don’t get attached. Some sailors switch boats so much, they call themselves boat sluts (and believe it or not, it can be said with a touch of pride). Once you have enough skills to be useful, it’s not that hard to find another boat to race on – boats always need crew. A lot of them will ask for a commitment but some are perfectly happy with a one-race stand. Some highly competitive boats have mile-long crew lists, other boats will offer a spot to an experienced sailor or a friend whenever they are available. Some boat owners make their crew show their loyalty and work their way up from skirting the jib to actually trimming the sail.

And sometimes you find a special boat and everything just clicks. You spend so much time on it, you get attached despite yourself. You show up for every single race and start scheduling the rest of your life around the racing calendar. Whether it’s bucketing down, or the harbour is covered with smoke from bush fires, whether it’s blowing 40 knots or there is not enough wind for the boat to move at all, you are still there, never giving up on a race and not even considering not showing up. You debrief and laugh over a drink at the club after the race is over, and at that moment there are no people in the world who feel closer to you than your fellow crew members. And when you get invited to another boat, no matter how fast and sexy she is, you turn her down because you have already committed to another boat.

And then it all comes crushing down. At times boats get sold. Owners can mourn for their boats when they sell them. There are a lot of jokes based on the fact that buying a boat is usually a very bad investment but despite all the jokes, real sailors – not the people who just buy a yacht as they have some extra cash and then leave her sitting on her mooring for months and months – are not happy when they have to sell, and not just because they don’t get the same amount of money that they bought the boat for. They just love their boats. Good skippers make boats go faster, and boats respond to their every touch. The crew of a sold boat usually have a more subdued reaction since missing a boat might seem weird, and sailors in general are not known for their gentle souls and being in touch with their feelings so they hop onto another boat – a rebound boat, if you will – and sometimes that turns into a long-term relationship.

It’s worse when the boat is still with her owners but a crew member has to leave for some reason. If you are loyal to a boat, you expect the same in return, and a lot of the time it’s not the case. You get taken off a job on a boat seemingly for no reason; or the boat cancels on you at the last moment because they have too many people on board for the conditions. Every now and again it’s not a big deal. And sometimes it is.

If you buy a plane ticket to do a delivery and then the boat cancels on you with no word of apology, it’s just rude. Most of the crew are not paid to do a delivery and they spend their own money to buy the tickets; getting them off the boat warrants at least a brief “sorry”.

Still, losing money over a cancelled delivery might look minor in comparison to the broken trust. If you are committed to a boat and are fiercely loyal to her through all weather conditions and other circumstances in your life, lack of loyalty from the boat – or rather the boat owners – feels personal. And sure it might seem funny to compare leaving a boat to a breakup with a special someone (and it also might have something to do with the fact that my comfort TV show at the moment is “How I Met Your Mother”) but such breakup might be as necessary and as upsetting as a breakup in a relationship where only one partner is fully committed.

I’m sorry, A., but I have to start seeing other boats.

How Sailing Changes Us

Alpha Carinae
Alpha Carinae, CYCA Winter Series 2013. Photo from the CYCA’s website

Learning a new skill often changes our perspective on things around us. A boxer once told me that when he was younger he would look at people while walking down the street and think of a strategy and a combination of punches to win a fight with the passers by who looked bigger and stronger than him.

A slightly less disturbing example is driving. A person who doesn’t know how to drive tends to trust the driver to get them from point A to B, at most giving directions if the driver is not familiar with the surroundings. There are people who can be perfect passengers even after they learn to drive. They are in the minority though. Most drivers, even while they are in the passenger seat, automatically notice cars around them going too slowly or braking too hard and some of them also can’t help thinking of real or perceived opportunities to go faster and overtake a few cars that the current driver might have missed. Sometimes passengers unconsciously push the floor in a futile attempt to slow down or give helpful advice to the driver about changing lanes. I usually tell taxi drivers which lane to be in. Surprisingly, I have never been punched by a cabbie – none of them has even given me a dirty look – but that’s probably because cabs in Australia are so expensive that customers are allowed to choose which lane to be in.

Sailing – and especially racing – also changes the way we look at things and the way we act. Here are the main changes that I have noticed and feel free to contribute if you think of more things:

1. Wind and weather in general

My non-sailing colleagues who go to lunch with me rarely check the weather forecast anymore, they just ask me about it. I usually look at the weather forecast for at least a few days in advance and I can tell them that the southerly is supposed to come at 6 pm tomorrow after which the weather is going to completely change. They stare blankly at me when I tell them that the wind is going to be over 20 knots so I convert it to kilometres per hour. After more blank stares I just say that it is going to be pretty windy and they tell me that I should have said so to begin with.

Sometimes I try to explain rain, fog and changes in temperature by looking at weather maps but I usually double check my predictions by looking at the forecast for the next few days. Once I am sure that my explanation of the weather maps is in full accordance with the official BOM predictions, I impress my coworkers with my spiel about areas of high and low pressure. OK, I don’t do it that much, I just felt like I had to do it a couple of times after my Day Skipper theory course.

I usually start checking wind for the weekend in the middle of the week in preparation for the upcoming races. This winter a few races were cancelled because of too much wind so I anxiously checked for official warnings before every Sunday. Unfortunately, sometimes clubs don’t tell you that the race is abandoned until you are half way there, driving through a thick rain that is almost horizontal. Still, knowing that it’s going to be pissing down all weekend can be useful.

And of course every time I walk around the Sydney Harbour Bridge I look up at the flags on top of it and check out the wind direction. Then I look at the boats moored around and check that they are all aligned according to the wind direction. Then I start looking at the water for gusts. Walking around the Sydney Harbour is great, it’s never boring!

2. Crossing paths

Sailors have to judge distances all the time to make sure their boat doesn’t collide with other boats. That is why when they are not sailing they still sometimes try to tell other people that they are on a collision course and that they need to tack. Or they might not say it but just think about it. Probably out loud. You are lucky if they don’t yell “Starboard!” to claim right of way.

3. Sailing gear

Let’s face it: wet weather gear for sailing is awesome. When it’s raining really hard and it’s windy and uncomfortable (even in the Sydney Harbour that is generally not a very cold place), foul weather gear is the best thing to keep you (mostly) sane. That is why it’s so tempting to wear it to events unrelated to sailing when it is raining. I entertained the thought of wearing my foulies to the office many a time. I have to walk for about 20 minutes to get to work and when it is both windy and raining, umbrellas don’t help much. Putting my red sailing pants over my business pants/skirt with my offshore jacket on top and my sailing boots on my feet seems like a brilliant idea, and I giggle every time I imagine the faces of all the office workers in the area staring at my outfit. Sadly, I have never had enough courage to do that so far. One day.

Sailors less conscious of other people’s opinions wear wet weather gear to sporting events of various kinds and they are often the most comfortable people in the audience.

Some crew shirts and jackets also make sailors stand out in a crowd. I used to sail on a boat called “Jessica Rabbit”. The crew jackets had the picture of the cartoon character on the back – and the crew members got whistled at when wearing the jacket outside the sailing club.

4. Knots

Sailors can get obsessed with knots. Some of them will practice tying a bowline with one hand or with their eyes closed and lots of them will give you advice on how to tie a parcel together.

5. Beer

Strictly speaking, this is not a skill directly related to sailing… but then it is. Sailors drink a lot of beer. And rum. But mostly beer – before, after or even during a race when it’s relatively calm (especially on a downwind leg). As a result, a lot of sailors can open a beer bottle with a winch handle or a lighter and they can also finish a bottle of beer really, really fast when required.

Can you think of anything else? Feel free to leave a comment.

P.S. Thanks to /u/GritsConQueso from /r/sailing who came up with the idea for this blog entry.

Becoming a Racing Sailor: Part 3

Boats at CYCA
Boats at CYCA, Rushcutters Bay, Sydney.

Consistency Is Key

In Part 2, we had a look at the main roles on a sailing boat. Some of my non-sailing friends who are trying to read this blog reported complete confusion and a strong desire to lie down while reading that part of the blog entry. And that was me trying to explain everything as clearly as possible with a bare minimum of sailing terms. Imagine how confusing it can be for fairly new sailors when all those terms are thrown at them throughout the race. Granted, sometimes those terms are repeated in a very loud voice which makes remembering them easier (“Kicker! Get the kicker! I said the downhaul!”) but doesn’t help with stress that much.

Sailing is a sport that requires a lot of learning. You can sail for twenty years and still learn new stuff next time you are on the water. It can also be physically demanding, even though in photos it might look like sailors don’t do much apart from sitting on the rail. On relatively small yachts (around 30-40 foot) racing sailors do a lot of grinding and they get bumped around quite a bit. That’s why women, with their thinner skin, who sail on boats that size are often covered in bruises, sometimes in weird places. It’s not that rare to get a rope burn either. A few girls told me that when someone saw their legs they were asked whether their husbands were beating them. I have to say, I had a few concerns earlier this year about going on a trip where I was supposed to see my parents for the first time in a couple of years (they live far away). It was after a big regatta where we were short-handed, and my legs were covered in bruises. “Just tell them that Australia is great – but Aussie men – well, not so much,” – the skipper told me in his usual tongue-in-cheek manner.

On bigger boats you don’t get that many bruises. On the other hand, if something goes wrong on a bigger boat, you are more likely than on a smaller boat to, say, lose a finger.

Getting better at sailing requires patience, willingness to learn and – most importantly – time. Every position on a boat has its own challenges. At some point ever new sailor starts to specialise and chooses a favourite role on the boat: light people are often sent to the foredeck, strong people stay in the pit. The longer you stay on the same boat, the more you know about her quirks and peculiarities. A permanent spot on a boat might not be that easy to get though, so beginners often have to move around and talk to a few people to get a ride until they find a boat that is happy to have them on for an entire season. That helps with learning your new role and If you are lucky, you can even get a crew shirt.

Boat owners/skippers have their own problems. They need a group of people who know what they are doing and will turn up for every race. In reality, it is almost impossible to ensure that every single person is available every time – people tend to have lives and responsibilities outside sailing. That’s why some boats have long lists of backup crew which are called if someone can’t turn up this time. As long as everyone is aware of that arrangement, there are usually no hard feelings. It gets trickier if there are slightly more people in the permanent crew than required with no “reserve list” and no apparent priorities. Sometimes there are not enough people and the boat is short-handed and other times everyone might want to sail so someone has to sit it out or just do nothing after getting on the boat. It’s hard to keep everyone happy, and a happy team on a boat is essential, not only because it makes winning a race more likely but also because if you are not happy while doing something you love, what’s the point of doing it and do you really love it?

The ideal person for a boat owner is the one who sails well, who’s reliable and – probably – is fun to spend a lot of time with on the boat. That is why – and I know I said it before – being reliable is absolutely vital when you start sailing, especially if you don’t know that much. If you are not an experienced sailor, you have to make up for it somehow – and being consistent (and nice!) is the best way to go about it. And once you prove to people that you can be relied upon and meet more people who know you from the club, you will have more choices who to sail with and might even have to turn down a few offers of sailing just because you can’t sail on every single boat you are invited to.

It’s that easy – race consistently, go to the club regularly and talk to people. Chances are, you will find out that sailing doesn’t have to be an elite sport that requires a lot of money, it can also be a fun way to master new skills and hang out with people from very different backgrounds. And you will eventually get better at it.

Becoming a Racing Sailor: Part 2

Image
Western Channel Pile Light, also known as the “Wedding Cake”, an active pile lighthouse in the Sydney Harbour. Photo by Alena Abrosimova

Part 1 is here.

A Little Knowledge

At some point absolute beginners get enough experience to feel more confident around the boat, and unless they know how to be content with little things and just enjoy the ride, they start looking around for ways to get better, learn from experienced sailors and move on to more competitive boats. That’s the time when a lot of illusions die as our new sailors slowly start to realise that there is much more to sailing than they initially thought, and the original euphoria of being part of the action is replaced by constant questions: Where should I sail next? Will I ever be as good as that guy who’s been sailing for 20 years? Will it really take me 20 years to be as good as him? Will the skipper let me trim today? Why are all my muscles sore?

Disclaimer: I generalise quite a bit in the previous paragraph. In some ways, I am a typical example of someone who started to race by coming to a sailing club one day and getting on a boat. On the other hand, I believe that I am slightly more prone to retrospection, self-doubts and obsession with the things I like than an average person. So it is totally possible that a lot people don’t question everything quite to the same extent as me. Then again, almost everyone has to figure out which boat they are going to sail on and what exactly they are going to do.

A lot of competitive boats, especially big ones, don’t mind inviting new people – but if you don’t know anyone there, chances are, you will be invited as “rail meat”. That means sitting on the rail and moving around as per the tactician’s orders to keep the boat balanced. Some of my non-sailing friends sometimes wonder why sailors spend so much time hanging out on the side of the boat like a pack of birds, seemingly doing nothing, so I explain to them that sitting on a rail is an important part of being a sailor, albeit hardly the most exciting one (well, doing anything in over 30 knots of wind is fun, including sitting on the rail but those are fairly extreme conditions). If the only thing you are allowed to do is to move from one side of the boat to the other through each tack, it can be relaxing – but might get frustrating if you want to get better at say, trimming sails.

Each boat has several distinct crew positions. They can vary depending on the size of the boat: a bigger boat might require a couple of management roles to coordinate the crew and relay the messages from the back of the boat to the front (always a challenge) while on a 26 foot boat a couple of people can multitask. Still, the basic positions are still essentially the same.

If you are a relative beginner and you don’t sail on your own boat or a boat of a friend who trusts you way too much, chances are, you are not going to be a skipper/tactician (in club races it’s usually the same person – the person who owns the boat). You might get involved in navigation looking for buoys and laid marks so not being short-sighted comes in handy.

The next position is a mainsail trimmer. That role generally requires physical strength as well as extensive knowledge about adjusting the mainsail. If you are a small(ish) girl like me who doesn’t look like Hulk and you are not sailing on a boat with electric winches, you are probably not going to be asked to fill in that position. The stronger the wind is, the more strength you are going to need to bring the sail on. That’s why strong looking men, even when they don’t know that much about sailing, have a much better chance of being asked to be on the mainsail. Not being able to sufficiently ease the mainsail in time can get a boat into a lot of trouble.

Headsail/jib trimmers are in charge of the sail in front of the boat. That is my usual role. A lot of people start with this position as it looks deceptively simple at first – let the sail off on one side and pull it on the other side through tacks, adjust the sail on the reach and downwind. In reality, this role also requires physical strength on boats with big overlapping headsails (unless you are sailing on a bigger boat with so called coffee grinders and someone else does all the grinding for you) and, more importantly, a lot of skill. Generally speaking, the headsail has a lot of influence on the speed of the boat.

Comment: if you are confused by the term “coffee grinder”, don’t be. If you are really interested, read more about different types of winches here. Otherwise, here is the nitty-gritty: on most boats I sail on (roughly up to 40 foot) winches look like this. Generally the same person who adjusts (trims) the sail have to grind (turn the handle that is inserted into the top of the winch as fast as possible). On bigger boats the winches look different – there are two handles, and a dedicated person (usually a big strong man) keeps grinding according to the trimmer’s orders. This kind of winches are called “coffee grinders”.

The same people are usually controlling the sheet and brace for a spinnaker if that sail is used in the race, and that is the next stage in every beginner’s education. Using a spinnaker requires smooth cooperation between several positions on the boat and can get very messy unless everyone knows exactly what they are doing. That’s why beginners are often excluded from the entire process apart from grinding and helping with getting the spinnaker down on the deck (or down the hatch).

Another important position is strings (also called pit). The person on strings is placed in the middle of the boat near the mast and pulls on more ropes than anyone else on the boat  so it’s usually someone who knows the boat fairly well.

And last but not least, there’s a foredecker, a person on the bow. That is usually the lightest person on the boat. Becoming a foredecker can be a steep learning curve. You have to do a lot of things fast – get sails up and down, change them if required, jibe the spinnaker pole and – everyone’s favourite – skirt the big genoa (make sure that the sail is not stuck on the rail while being pulled on). That’s a lot of stress for a beginner.

Some people stick to one position on the boat at all times but trying everything on the boat makes you a better sailor. On the other hand, racing is by definition competitive. Experienced sailors usually love winning (who doesn’t?) so they prefer other experienced people in all positions. There is a Catch-22 kind of situation right there: to get better you need experience and to get more experience you need to be good. Gaining trust of the boat’s tactician and the rest of the crew can be a long process. And a lot of the time it requires a very thick skin.

I remember being upset for days when someone on a boat implied that I wasn’t experienced enough to trim the jib in one of the final races of the series. Another time, I got on a boat where one of the owners didn’t trust me at all. On one of the tacks I couldn’t get the winch handle out in time and the sheet wasn’t let off fast enough – so he took me off the job and put me on the rail where I sat in a deep sulk, stewing in my own disappointment. Later during the same race I was helping the same owner to get the spinnaker down and in the process his elbow connected with my eye, adding an injury to an already received insult. I vouched not to sail on that boat again and I kept my word for about a year.
It does get better though.

Part 3

Becoming a Racing Sailor: Part 1

Boat at Balmain
A boat finishing a club race at the Balmain Sailing Club, Sydney. Photo by Alena Abrosimova

I used to know nothing about cars until I met a guy who seemingly knew everything about them. He introduced me to a reality show about building custom cars called “American Hot Rod”. Initially I only agreed to watch an episode at a time with him as a way to bond and learn a little about his passion; however, not long after, I found myself hooked on the show despite my initial lack of interest. The reason was simple enough and long familiar to producers of popular TV: the show wasn’t so much about cars as it was about people, their relationships and tensions between them. And there were plenty of dramas in that shop.

It’s hard to talk about sailing in some ways; you either fall in love with being on the water and making the boat go faster, or don’t. If you don’t, I can talk all day about the primeval awe I experience when the boat slides from one wave to another in an offshore race, and it won’t move you much. The almost meditative feeling of presence, of being completely in the moment I experience while sailing can be described but not totally shared with someone who is not familiar with it. However, sailing and amateur racing is exactly the same as a TV show about building custom cars in one regard: it’s about people more than it is about the boat and the wind, and it’s as much about how people interact with each other and react to circumstances as it is about their objective sailing skills.

I won’t talk too much about points of sail here; for now I’ll concentrate on dramas of becoming an amateur racing sailor.

Humble Beginnings

Sailing is very popular in Australia. The easiest way to get on a boat for a grownup who was not initiated into sailing in a very young age by their parents is to show up in a sailing club before a race and put your name on a board or ask around whether anyone needs crew. Bringing some alcohol and/or snacks helps, too. I did that after taking a short sailing course for total beginners teaching the basics of sailing a dinghy.

The first few club races after getting on a yacht for the first time were overwhelming. I didn’t understand half of what was being said, no matter how hard I tried and how loud the skipper was. Mind you, the skipper, an old cranky man with a heart of gold who always welcomed newcomers and muppets on his boat but still cared quite a lot about winning, didn’t help much. “Pull on that blue rope! No, not that one, the other one!” – “Tommy, that’s not blue,” – someone less flustered than me would pipe in. “Well, the other blue then!”

From time to time (so rarely that I usually deny having ever done it) I would put the headsail sheet on the winch counter-clockwise instead of clockwise which made it impossible to pull it in. I also once wondered out loud about the dying wind on a downwind leg after going around the mark (you don’t feel the wind as much when the wind is behind you so this question really betrays you as a complete beginner). In other words, I made typical beginner’s mistakes.

On the other hand, I worked hard on the winch handle, grinding with all my might, and I was very grateful for a chance to crew on a boat. I was learning the timing of letting the lazy sheet go and pulling it in on the other side through every single tack and I was getting used to ignoring Tommy’s yelling. I felt invincible and very proud of myself (that didn’t last), especially once I knew that I would get a ride on the same boat for every race and wouldn’t have to compete for a spot with other absolute beginners.

There are other ways for people to get into racing; some are invited by a friend or an acquaintance, others start with a Competent Crew course. No matter what your beginnings are, however, for quite a while you are protected by low expectations of other people. If you are lucky enough to get on a boat with people who are happy to teach you, they will nurture your natural talents and show you what you don’t know; on most boats you are expected to pick a lot of the stuff yourself. Still, nobody in their right mind will expect you to know much in the beginning. And if they let you do any actual work and the boat happens to get a prize in that race (a hat or a bottle of beer), chances are, the race organiser will hand the prize to you as a way to encourage your further pursuits. Such are the perks of a total beginner in a friendly sailing club, and if you are a girl, all the better for you at that stage.

The most important thing you can do at that stage is to be reliable and always show up when you promise to. No, wait – that’s the most important thing you can do at any stage, and probably not just in sailing.

I started with Twilight races, just like hundreds of other people who come to a sailing club after a work day for a relaxed social race, with dinner and drinks after. How relaxed a race is depends on a few things. Each boat has a style, and it depends a lot on the skipper (who is generally also the owner of the boat) – how competitive and how patient he or she is.

Sometimes in the summer I go for a walk to a big nature reserve next to my place and watch a twilight race on Wednesday night from a huge rock overlooking the harbour. When you look at the fleet from that high up, it looks beautiful and very peaceful. The boats are moving smoothly, tacking near the shore, their sail trimmed perfectly (or so it looks from afar). Yet I know that on quite a few of them the skipper is yelling, “Bring it on, come on, faster!” and a poor person on the winch is sweating and trying his best to pull the huge genoa on as fast as possible. Remember me putting the sheet on the winch the wrong way a couple of times? Well, I’ve heard stories about a frustrated skipper who kept telling a beginner off for doing exactly that in the course of an entire race. At the end of the race, fuming, the skipper hit the unfortunate sailor on the head with the winch handle. They never sailed on the same boat again.

That was an exception rather than the rule, though. Skippers don’t usually go completely ballistic and get physical with their crew. If there is too much yelling on a boat, that’s not a good sign in general – and can be very demotivating, especially when you have just started doing something. Maybe there are some people who learn better when they are yelled at but I am not definitely not one of them. So the best sailing I’ve ever done has been with people who almost never yell.

Part 2