Women on Boats, or Don’t be a Dick

Before a race at Hamilton Island, 2012.
Waiting for the start of a race at Hamilton Island, 2012.

I am not big on feminist manifestos. I have worked in IT, a male dominated industry, for a while now, and my career so far has been virtually unaffected by my gender. My boyfriends were mostly supportive of my endeavours. I don’t remember my political rights ever being questioned because I am a woman. So I am all for equal opportunities but I also never felt the need to remind the public of my stance on feminism by exposing social injustice towards women. Yet today I am writing about gender issues here, in my sailing blog. There is a reason for that: it is something that I see again and again on boats, especially new boats I get on. It’s also something I discussed with more than one friend so I know I am not just imagining things.

It’s about how women get treated on some boats and in sailing in general.

I sail on different boats – mostly smaller yachts (30 to 40 foot), and these days mostly with people I like and respect. They never treat me as if I can’t do something just because I am a girl. They teach me when I ask for advice and they trust me to do stuff that I know how to do. In fact, I have been lucky enough to sail with great sailors from the very start of my sailing career who treated me as an equal regardless of my experience. And as I got better at what I do, I started enjoying sailing with this kind of people even more, and the banter and jokes make it better still. And we win races. Repeatedly.

And yet, sometimes I am reminded of the flip side of the coin. We get on a new boat, a 60 footer, and at some point the tactician starts talking about roles during the race. There is a main trimmer, two headsail/spinnaker trimmers, foredeck – all male, all mentioned by name. Three girls are just told, “The rest of you, well, there’s running backstays, buttons and general tidying up.” It’s fine, it’s a first race, you have to prove yourself, and there’s also a lot of ways to be useful on a boat even if you don’t have a glamorous job.

But be prepared. On some boats you can do these kind of jobs race after race and you are always going to be that girl who tidies up. You will never get a chance to show that you can trim, let alone learn something new about trim, and if you grind for a guy he might give you a few condescending remarks afterwards, even when you notice the kite collapsing before he does. Not because you are inexperienced – in fact, they might not even ask you about your experience at all – but because you just happen to be female. Hell, the other day I even heard someone say that Jessica Watson was invited on a boat for publicity only, as if she doesn’t have any experience on boats!

Sailing is a male-dominated world, and there are a few legitimate reasons for that. For starters, it can be physically demanding. It requires physical strength and stamina. It can be rather scary, too, and at times unpleasant. People race boats in all kinds of conditions and unless you want to be a champagne sailor – an insult for any dedicated racer – you will be there regardless of wind, rain, snow, swell, waves. On smaller boats people in the cockpit get thrown around. Sometimes you have to climb masts. Other times those mast can break – in fact, anything on a boat can break, and even if it doesn’t, it’s not that hard to injure yourself. Boats get out of control, run aground and in rare cases even sink. And don’t get me started on toilets, especially toilets on racing boats. In other words, it’s not a nice, comfortable world a lot of people prefer to live in. And it’s definitely not something that is normally associated with the female world.

Some women are not intimidated by any of that. They enjoy the adventure and competitiveness and the mastery as much as the next man, they joke and learn and sweat and never ask to be treated differently from the rest of the crew. Yet they will always be treated in a slightly different way. If they get on a new great boat, someone will probably nudge a friend and say that they must be sleeping with the skipper. I don’t know of a single girl who would sleep with a skipper specifically to get on a boat but I’ve heard of women who flirt with crew to get on a better boat. No matter what you do though, once you are sailing, it is profoundly clear what you can and cannot do. Unless you are never given a chance to demonstrate it – because you are a woman.

Look, I get it. Women are not as strong as men (on average). And there are not as many experienced women as men in sailing. Still. I can complain sometimes that I don’t get to do something because I don’t have as much experience as another person but at the same time I know it’s fair enough. I do everything I can to get better at what I do but you can’t jump over your head all the time – mastery takes time. I am happy to learn more and I will listen to advice and I will step down if it’s better for everyone.

But if you are condescending towards someone just because of their gender, you are a dick, and there is no way around it. Mind you, it’s not just men who do that. Women can be even bigger dicks towards other women, tactless, distrustful snobs. But it’s also men. Men who tell my wonderful friend who sailed all her life and worked as a sailing instructor, “But you are not a real sailor! You are a girl!” Men calling another insanely talented girl bossy because she’s a skipper who tells them what to do. Men yelling out, “Get me a real trimmer!” even though they wouldn’t even notice the same mistake if it was made by a man. Men who yell out to female skippers that a woman can’t steer a boat. Men who just assume that you will never be good at something just because you are a woman.

I don’t want reverse discrimination. I don’t think we need campaigns to attract more female sailors, there are enough Ladies’ days as it is. I don’t think we need marketing and PR and all that; and I know there are wonderful experienced men in sailing who don’t feel the need to constantly prop up their own egos by belittling women.

The only thing I ask you is this: don’t be a dick towards female sailors. Just be honest with yourself. Have you dismissed a sailor and never gave her a chance because she’s a woman? Do you think that girls are only good enough to be rail meat? Would it bother you if a woman turned out to be a better sailor than you? Do you feel the need to be an arrogant prick while sailing?

You don’t have to tell me. Just think about it next time you go sailing. Give us a chance to show what we can do. Give yourself a chance to be a better human being.

The one about My First Season. And Superman

A weather front coming in. Photo by me
A weather front coming in. Photo by me

The season of twilights has just finished. It was my first season of skippering a boat. The very first post-Christmas twilight was regular enough, although not without its own dramas: I was crewing on my regular boat while the owners were away.

After the race we got to drinking red wine at the club, discussing Sydney to Hobart and a boat that one of the crew just bought for a ridiculously low amount of money. That night there was much more red wine than usual; the more we drank, the louder we laughed at Kiwi accent jokes. Late into the night Dave said, well, since you didn’t buy a boat, why don’t you enter Troy’s boat into the series and skipper it?

“Oh Troy would love it, I’m sure” – I said and looked at Troy. And Troy said, “I would let you do it.”

I am sure Troy had his doubts and regrets the next day. Dave made me promise I would do it – so I entered the boat into the series the moment I opened my laptop the next morning, my head still throbbing from the red wine. “I did it, it’s happening!” – I texted both of them. I didn’t get a reply for a very long time and all that time I was thinking, “No backsies now…”

My first race as a skipper, the second race in the series, happened to be on a very windy day. It was gusting over 20 knots. To me it felt like 50. The boat, a Sonata 8, doesn’t have lifelines – and it has a tiller, not a wheel. The night before the race I had troubles sleeping and practiced turning the boat and tacking in my head. I imagined sitting on the port side and turning the tiller away from me to turn into the wind. I was checking the forecast obsessively for five days before the race. I also organised the crew – Troy (the owner of the boat), Jo the French guy and a very nice, polite girl Nelly (not the real name).

That race was pretty exciting. We didn’t reef and started the race with number 1 headsail. The boat began to round up straight away while Troy tried to give me instructions and ease the sail at the same time. I didn’t yell – Troy was yelling for both of us. I also wasn’t scared – I suspect because Nelly was scared for both of us. A 26 foot boat with no lifelines that keeps rounding up can be a frightening place, especially when you know that the person on the helm has never skippered in a race before. We ended up reefing the main and changing the headsail after the first leg and we came last, far behind everyone else; but we didn’t kill anyone and there was no damage to our or any other boat.

I was proud of myself and said, “Sorry that it was a bit scary” to Nelly.

“No no no”, she said. “I think you were very brave and did very well in this weather.”

I beamed. How nice was this girl!

“By the way, did I mention that I have to babysit in March?” – she said.

She never sailed with me again.

That was okay; a friend of mine volunteered to trim the headsail for the entire series. It was a bit more complicated with the main. I needed someone who would be really good and could help me with the tactics; someone who could teach me to get better. Troy couldn’t make it to most of the races, and I was struggling to find someone who could help me out. That was the time for me to really appreciate reliable crew. One time after feverishly trying to find someone I got so discouraged that I was ready to give up. I sulked and even cried a little (my tough Siberian nature doesn’t always help me in the soft Sydney climate). That day I ended up sailing with John, one of the ex-commodores of the club. We came third and there was hardly anyone happier than me at the club that night.

Very gradually, I started getting the hang of it. I wasn’t stopping mid-tack anymore and most of the time I pointed as high as I could but no higher; sometimes I even remembered to bear away in gusts while going downwind. I found out how annoying it can be when the main trimmer wouldn’t do what you ask him to do (and complained to way too many people about that after the race). Another time I didn’t expect a huge knock, lost control for a second and the main trimmer got submerged in the water. Sadly, that was not the same trimmer who wouldn’t listen to me, so I had to apologise again and again.

There were a lot of windy races and a few with not much wind at all. We weren’t last anymore but I couldn’t get anywhere near that third place again. At some point the crew from my regular boat became available and sailed with me. I was still extremely tense near the start line and they made fun of my heavy breathing, asking me whether I was scared or excited. If you are interested, it was both. On the other hand, they didn’t have to point out nearly as many boats or give me nearly as much advice anymore as I was starting to evade boats before the start more or less on my own. I was also mildly annoyed when they didn’t listen to my instructions and in my turn ignored some of their – potentially useful – remarks.

Finally, a day has come when I only had one trimmer available and it didn’t look like there would be anyone else sailing with us. I cursed at the charity regatta that took away the rest of my crew. “We’ll be right,” – Tony said as we got on the boat. I wasn’t nearly as optimistic. It was 10 to 15 but gusting; I had serious doubts about the whole enterprise. The start line is fairly short and there are a lot of boats around. And Tony would have to trim both sails. We cruised like that before in 20 knots – but cruising is very different from racing; there’s normally no other boats yelling “Starboard” at you…

As I was thinking that this was a very bad idea, a rubber ducky appeared out of nowhere, and Dave told me to luff up. I would have been equally surprised and relieved if it had been Superman. I wasn’t tense and scared anymore; and I had the most amazing race in my life. A couple of years prior to that Dave had invited me to his boat and taught me stuff; that’s when I started learning sailing in honest. Somehow he managed not to be even a little bit patronising. I was very unsure of my value on a boat back then; I knew little and I was slow on the winch; not being yelled at felt like a great deal already. Someone who actually taught me seemed to be a semi-god. A pretty humble semi-god at that. Now my teacher was finally back; and I wasn’t afraid of anything anymore. We had a few closer tacks than usual that day – and we also sailed much better than usual.

We came first and I was jumping around all over the club, hugging people and telling them what a wonderful world we live in. People laughed and I laughed too, and the world WAS wonderful that night.

Now the series are over. I didn’t get a result for the last race – there was not enough wind and we finished a couple of minutes after the cut-off time. I didn’t mind that much. It was my first season as a skipper and I will always remember it. Thanks Troy and Dave and my entire crew, that was unforgettable.

Pulling and Grinding

Cruising after the Sydney Harbour Regatta, March 2014
Cruising after the Sydney Harbour Regatta, March 2014

When I first started sailing on yachts, my main goal was to be part of a real crew – that meant doing something rather than just sitting on a rail. It is still important to me and I don’t think I will ever prefer doing nothing on a boat rather than doing something (unless while being in a state of a total physical exhaustion), even if the definition of “something” changes over time. Sailing requires strength and some purely physical skills; and it took me a while to get fairly efficient in bringing in the headsail after a tack. I am still not as strong as some men (and probably never will be) but I am definitely much faster and stronger than I used to be. Two years ago, grinding after a tack took so much energy out of me that I hardly noticed anything else. I was very keen to get faster and stronger and be more useful, and any critical remark about my ability to bring in the jib in time was devastating; so I was concentrating on the physical aspect of sailing while also trying to understand a bit more about sailing.

Back then no matter how many times I read a book about trimming the headsail, a lot of information just didn’t stick. I drew sail shapes and wrote instructions about optimal trim in different weather conditions but the moment I got on a boat, I concentrated on pulling and grinding. I was so pre-occupied that I hardly even noticed where the wind was going to be once we were at the top or bottom mark; I looked at the course before a race but didn’t stop to think which leg was the windward one. I had a one-track mind and I had clear goals: tack faster. And after that: keep telltales flying while on a reach.

It took me a while to get to the stage when pulling and grinding became automatic (and there’s still room for improvement; it’s not just strength, there is definitely a skill to it as well as team work and it makes a huge difference) and I started paying attention to the rest of what was happening around me. I was lucky enough to have people beside me who were happy to teach me some of the stuff about sail trim and sailing in general; and I started adjusting cars and seeing parallels in controlling the main and the headsail. Suddenly there was more time for me to think about the strings and finer details, the compromise between the power and the pointing ability, between making all telltales fly and closing the slot too much. I also knew when we were going to bear away and when we were going to get the spinnaker up; and controlling the brace while looking at the wind indicator started to feel natural after a season and a half. It was like a whole new world again – I could almost do several jobs at once (not that it’s the most efficient way to race).

That was an evolution – from working very hard to do one job without understanding the wider context at all to looking at the boat as a whole and keeping track of several things at once. It feels like enormous change, something to be proud of. Yet it’s also the very start of real sailing.

Dinghy sailors usually have a vastly different progression if they start sailing on yachts; by then they are already very much aware of the wind direction and used to looking for gusts; they notice how high other boats point and think of starting strategies and tactical manoeuvres while rounding marks. Sail trim can be slightly different but the principles are the same. So a dinghy sailor starting sailing on a yacht has an enormous advantage over a total rookie like me who came straight to yachts. Sailing courses help somewhat; but they will never be a substitute for experience. Skills cannot be taught in a course unless the course in question lasts a year or two; usually students get some pointers and theory and then practice independently. I certainly didn’t know enough when I started sailing, and a lot of the theory flew right out of my head the moment I took the winch handle (and not because I was trying to hit someone with it).

This season I started steering a boat. Not my own boat but a mate’s boat which means that I am even more conservative than I would be otherwise. I had read a lot of books before my first race but then I suddenly realised that the theory wouldn’t help me for a while. It’s a similar story again – I am learning a skill that is physical and almost mystical at the same time; controlling the boat. Feeling the boat. I was very nervous before my first race, and I am still very tense around the start line. I am tacking better now without losing too much speed, not stopping half-way through the tack and not bearing away too much and I am getting better at judging distances. Holding the tiller doesn’t feel awkward anymore and sometimes I don’t even think about the tiller as much as about where I want to go. Yet, the effort of controlling the boat, avoiding immediate collisions , taking lifts and bearing away in knocks takes it all out of me. I can manage to squeeze a random thought about weight distribution and sail trim every now and again; but my focus is on steering the boat, doing the course and not killing anyone in the process. No time to think about tactics too much while being a rookie skipper. At the same time, I started seeing so much more while crewing on other boats; and now I realise how useful a crew member can be even when they don’t actually grind or pull on any ropes – but can call gusts and navigate around the course.

This time I am more patient. I know that progressing to the next level takes time. And I have faith that a moment will come when the physical process of steering will be so natural that I will be thinking of strategies and tactics and ways to make the boat go faster, not just avoiding collisions at the start line and beyond. Then I will be thinking more of which side of the line is more advantageous and of sailing the longer tack first and not hugging the corners; I will pay more attention to particular shifts in the area where I race; and I will be ready to learn so much more from people who have something to teach me.

Patience, grasshopper. Practice and patience.

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.

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.