How I Got Punched in the Face

Photo by me
Photo by me

One of the strangest days on my life happened about two and a half years ago.

It was a weekend, and a mate of mine invited me to crew on a boat he was sailing on. I didn’t know much about the boat except that it was quite competitive and fast. To be honest, I was somewhat intimidated. I didn’t have much experience back then and I didn’t know the people I was supposed to sail with. In my nervousness I got to the club an hour early and sat on a chair listening to the sailing school’s instructor explaining points of sail to a bunch of students wearing life vests. Listening to him was quite relaxing as I already knew everything he was saying. I felt a little smug. I had real sailing gloves as opposed to those rookies and I also had a ride on a fast boat.

Finally, the boat and my mate got to the club, too, and we took off to the start line of the race on the other side of the bridge. I didn’t know which race we were doing or what the course was. I did know that I was given an actual job though – I was allowed to let off the lazy sheet through a tack. The rest of the time I was sitting on the rail and listening to the bowman who was explaining gusts and different shapes of waves to me. The boat owner shouted once, telling us to shut up, and there was silence for a minute or two; then the bowman started teaching me again, his monotone voice taking the edge off the owner’s yelling. It was a warm day, the sun bright in the sky, and it was good to be on the water.

Then a disaster came – the handle got stuck in the winch and I couldn’t let the lazy sheet off fast enough. “That’s it, you’re off the job!” – the owner yelled and took the handle from my hands. I didn’t argue. I got on the rail, bitter and miserable.

I couldn’t tell if we were winning; I didn’t really care. The rest of the crew was sailing the boat, a spinnaker went up and then it was time to drop it. “Help me to get the sail in!” – I heard and I got in the pit next to the owner, directing the spinnaker down the hatch. We were both trying to get the sail down as fast as possible without pulling on the gentle fabric too much, and then the next thing I knew, the owner’s elbow connected with my eye.

“O-ouch”, – I said. “My eye!”

We finished the race soon after that, all shouting stopped. Beer was out of the esky. “Sorry, did I get you in the eye?” – asked the owner, visibly concerned. I nodded. “You should put ice on it.. Or at least a cold beer,” – someone said. The bottle was cold against my skin and I thought that nobody would probably believe me if I told them that I got punched in the eye. I also thought that I didn’t want a black eye. There would be too much explaining to do.

That night I met up with friends to go to a free opera. Australians love the outdoors, they are so down to earth (quite literally) that a picnic blanket is much more comfortable to them than a chair in the famous Sydney Opera house – which doesn’t mean that they do not enjoy an opera every now and again. There were hundreds of people on the grass, eating cheese with crackers, drinking wine and listening to the opera. My friends were reading the subtitles on the huge screens next to the stage and giggling; I just lay down on the blanket and looked up in the sky.

It was getting darker and the sky was dark blue. Groups of bats were flying overhead every now and again. The voices were majestic. I remembered my seven years of music school: my choir practice and piano lessons, hours of listening to classics and the metronome ticking as I was trying to get another piece right. I hated opera back in music school but that night I could finally feel the magic. I filled my lungs with air as if I was singing together with the opera singers, and my head was spinning a bit as their voices flew higher, full and powerful, the air trembling with music.

It was beautiful. It touched strings inside me I wasn’t sure I even had. And the absurdity of being elbowed in the eye and then being transported into this higher state of mind, appreciating fine art, was not lost on me. I didn’t get a black eye, after all, but I vouched to never sail on that boat again – it was more about the shouting and taking me off the job than about damage to my face.

Two years later I was back on the same boat with different people, and one of them complained about a handle getting stuck. I remembered the day when I was taken off a job for the same thing, then the elbow and the opera, and I thought that I wasn’t that dead set against getting punched in the eye as long as there was something beautiful to make up for it. Like music. And a story I could get out of it.

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.

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