March 19, 2022

Windblown

How I scratched the surface of sailing.

Many folks I met in Brittany are at home at the sea. Every other conversation I had ended revolving about navigating the waters, sailmaking, different boat designs, living on a boat, and other related stories, all enthusiastically narrated. On the one hand, it sounded exotic to me, as I had never sailed before. But on the other, I could relate to the sensation of freedom while being off the grid that they avidly described, as I linked it to my journeys to the mountains and the times I slept in my car.

So, when an opportunity to go sailing there arose, I went aboard without thinking twice. It was in Concarneau, the weather was beautiful, and the excitement levels ran high.

As we took off, I was like a kid in a toy store: everything I saw was exhilarating. Previously, I was either on heavy, engine-powered vessels or something personal-sized, like a kayak or canoe. The yacht we sailed on bridged the gap and introduced me to harvesting wind for getting forward. "So cool!" I thought, and others shared the euphoria.

Once we left the safety of the port, the breeze strengthened, causing the boat to heel more than I expected. The more the boat swung out of its upright position, the more I was outside my comfort zone.

Leaning into the wind is desired, but it feels mad at first.

Shortly, the boat was tilting close to a 45-degree angle, and I could hear a rumble of many kitchen appliances that weren't secured flying down in the cabin. "Ooooh, fudge!" I vented off as we were just about to capsize in my eyes. However, my friends laughed, explained that this is normal, and continued having a blast on the boat at this weird angle. They danced around and sang sailors' songs, and I thought that we were bending the laws of physic. Then I realized how little I know about sailing and accepted that it is more bending my perception of what sailing is.

One of happiness' definitions.

Once I found a new position on a bench, compensating for the boat's movement, I figured that I was in a company that knows what are they doing well, and therefore all is OK. I made a connection in my head that I feel something similar as when some people who never cycled on anything but flat pavement are told to ride down, or up, some steep, rocky field.

Sailing is like cycling: what's normal, or even easy and joyful for some, can be seen as impossible to others.

I settled in my place, both physically and mentally, and it was fantastic. I observed what each rope does, the impact of the sails' angle on our direction and speed, and other stuff that went on. It is very much a hands-on, tangible activity, something I appreciate a lot.

Suddenly, I felt like a door to a new world opened, and I had a glimpse into these vivid landscapes of fascinating knowledge and experiences. This furthered when folks let me steer the boat. It felt great, but it also allowed me to see how complex the activity is. Besides for other ships and obstacles, one must watch for the constantly changing wind and currents. A lot's going on! I felt that I am just barely touching the surface of this new world. It was as if sailing was a scratch card, only large as a football pitch, and I made one mark with a penny.

So, once back home, I opened the internet and read about vocabulary and some of the forces I experienced. It turned out that the yacht we were on was a Bermuda-rigged sloop, that the lateral resistance of a sailing keel helped us not to topple, and so on. Perhaps the most exciting for me was understanding bits and pieces of nautical charts. I love maps, and these tell so many new, compelling data. The more I read, the wider that scratch card surface felt. "At least five football pitches big," I was amazed.

As I enjoyed my first sailing and felt that it'd be nice to deepen my understanding of the matter, I was even keener than the first time when another opportunity to sail emerged. Little did I know what kind of a lesson I would get that day...

The first sailing was at the best possible weather and was for an afternoon only; this time, we were under thick clouds and sharp winds, out for an entire day. It started fine, though. When departing at dawn, we sipped coffee, and everyone was cheerful. However, the further we went, the less comfortable I was. So when others continued eating breakfast, I passed. I tried to be helpful and assist where I could, but a few miles in, I had to lower my ambitions, and I just tried to stay out of others' way. Later, I couldn't even think about how cold or wet I was anymore; all I did was focus on the horizon, trying to outlast the conditions in one piece.

When we sailed close to the Cap de la Chèvre, folks had noticed that I was whiter than usual and allowed me to steer the ship again. At first, I thought it might not be the best idea in these circumstances, but apparently, steering a boat provides a similar easement of motion sickness as when driving a car. That argument was solid, so I went by the helm. Yet, the waves and the wind continued to increase. Rough sea rocked the boat like a powerful rollercoaster. At one point, we had to take our headsail down and replace it with a smaller one to accommodate for the fierce winds. Trying to do the multitasking of navigation through such waterscape was a bit too much for me, and I couldn't hold the line as desired. Since we agreed that these conditions aren't something we'd want to stay in any longer than necessary, I left the steering to the experienced. Soon after that, we turned into the wind, adding yet another motion to the mix. That was the last drop I did not need. At least, when the boat is heeling so much, it requires no effort to lean over to throw up. One just has to hold firmly so that the body isn't following the stomach's content down into the ocean. Oh, dear me.

The Cap de la Chèvre. There were better angles to capture it, but this was the only photo I took between holding for life.

I recalled the stormy sea near Orkney and how I wondered about how can smaller boats manage. Well, my curiosity was answered. It wasn't just the physicality that felt out of this world; seeing my boatmates in their element was spectacular. Not only they stayed focused on navigating, but they also looked like they were at their happiest. The difference in our attitudes crystallized at a point when we hit a particularly humongous wave. Once again, the boat deck got washed by cold seawater, and when we reached the top of the wave, suddenly, a huge gap opened below us. It caused an outburst of emotions in each of us, which went like this:

Person 1: "Yee-haw!"
Person 2: "Looks like a homerun!"
Person 3: "Ale alee!"
Me: Oh s#it!!

Folks stabilized the course, and we started charging full speed towards the port. The captain said, "It's all good; we should be there in around three hours." ~ "Is that a joke?" I thought, and I looked at the map. Nope! "Poseidon, help me," I continued my quest for survival. "Smooth seas do not make skilful sailors; live and learn," I sighed.

Thankfully, the rodeo of riding these waves eventually faded, and each nautical mile later meant better conditions. There was even a glimpse of sunshine.

I could also take pictures again, signifying that I was getting better. Indeed, others' good mood found its way to me again. While they rejoiced while fixing sails, utilizing the wind, and swinging on the ripples, I was thrilled to see the shore again.

All's well that ends well, 100%.

I felt back in my skin before we docked in, and when I jumped off the boat, there was no doubt that I would remember the second journey as a positive experience too. Sealing the day in a sailors' pub in the harbour, we recounted what happened, what we took out of it, and how that follows our previous adventures. So good!

Besides the factors of the activity itself, I liked how it shapes the people who sail. Next to the character that comes with committing to face the exposed nature, sailing can build a strong sense of belonging. Many other sports I tried are more individual, and the community sticks mostly only for the social factor. However, socializing isn't a secondary effect but almost a necessity when sailing, as additional helping hands make a significant difference. Moreover, going through a day like I just had, well, chances are you'll never forget those who shared it with you. So yes, while I might not be a natural-born mariner, I see sailing as pretty grand. But if you made it this far, there's no need to highlight that, is it?


If you enjoyed this article, you might also like my previous tasters of outdoorsy activities:

Slackline

Highlining

XC skiing

XC Skiing

Alternatively, visit my Blog Archives for more categories and topics. Thanks for reading!

Published by: Jakub Stepanovic in Stories

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