Learning to Sail

Learning to Sail

We flew into California’s San Diego International Airport on April 6th rather early in the day, around 9:30 AM and contacted Nick via cell phone.  He picked us up quickly and efficiently and took us to Shelter Island, and the Kona Kai Marina where we were introduced to the Karina Del Mar, a thirty foot Catalina Sloop.  We were introduced to Mike as well a bit later, before he ran off to accomplish his chores for the Sunday. Shortly thereafter we were whisked away to the grocery store, dropped off for our provisioning.

Being new at provisioning a boat wasn’t as daunting as one might think. We’d raised five children over the years and had them move back in with us on and off, along with grand children.  Being a large family my wife is more than adept at meeting any sort of food challenge, and she proved herself to be both expert at provisioning a boat for a few days and feeding us both very well.  We bought a couple of bottles of wine and plenty of cheese, two things I like well enough.

Later that afternoon we reported back to the boat and settled in, were given our lessons for the next day and told to relax.  We read our books and relaxed.  The next morning Mike showed up precisely on time as he’d stated and went right into lessons.  The first thing he did was walk through the boat and look around.

Karina Del Mar as Mike found it – clean

“Where’s your stuff?” he queried.  We smiled and looked at each other.

“What stuff?” I asked.

“No bags? No clothing? No suitcase?” he looked confused.

“We are wearing everything we need,” JoAnne said playfully.


“Really!” I said confidently.  He wrinkled his nose.  I couldn’t keep a straight face.

“Ok, all of our things are stowed away already, and we’re pretty much ready for class,” I smiled.  He grinned.

“Show me….” he ordered.  So we showed him we’d put all our clothing away, stowed our tiny suitcase into a locker, put all our food away and he found that he didn’t like where we’d stored some sodas so we had to move them.  Otherwise, we were pretty squared away, according to him.  The first thing we did was go over deck hand stuff, removing lines, tying lines, getting to know where the through hulls were, and a few other things.  Basically he went over quickly what we already mostly knew.

“Well, JoAnne, take her out and we’ll go for a sail,” he smiled.

“Me?” she said, daunted by the size of the boat.  She had some experience driving boats before, power boats specifically as a child, but she admitted it was a long time ago.

Over the course of the day she learned to start the engine, drive the boat, take us out while Mike “showed me the ropes”.  All in all, we had a very interesting day, and even learned to heave-to later in the morning.  I was terrified of the huge ships at first and Mike could sense this.  I think he called me a Sissy more than once under his breath, but not really loudly enough for me to hear him.  Ok, he might have thought it.

At some point my wife and I both gave away our normal tactics – yelling instructions to one another.  Because, frankly, that’s what we do, how we do it, and how we’ve always done it.  Of course, we also don’t have to speak and have plenty of non-verbal communications for things like “You dumbass”, “You idiot” and “Why don’t you jump off the end of the pier?”

We don’t have to voice those of course, but Mike neither knew that, nor was he sure what we were doing when communicating frantically with frowns and grimaces at one another.

For the next few days we were learning “hands on”, something we’re both very, very good at, me having spent most of my adult life in the military and my wife, well, having raised all those kids without one diploma or college degree on “raising kids”.  Hands on, we’re good at.  Mike didn’t think so, at least so voiced that I was stupid more than once.  Ok, well, he didn’t USE the word stupid.  Ok, maybe once.

As we were leaving the dock, headed through the crowded marina, with JoAnne driving and me standing on the port side of the boat being Look Out, Mike reached down and killed the engine.  JoAnne’s eyes got rather large and he looked at me….

“Ok, we have an emergency. What would you do?”

I looked around quickly to make sure nothing was coming and having listened to his previous lessons about “being prepared” and “having the sails ready” I confidently stated, and quite clearly too, “I think I’d raise the sails!”

“And I think that is about as stupid a suggestion as I ever heard,” Mike let the wind out of sails quickly.


“I’d try to restart the engine,” she smiled.  I frowned.  I hadn’t thought of THAT.

“Very good!  But, unfortunately, it won’t start and you’re starting to slow down and loose steerage in here, it’s crowded and there are some big, expensive boats here…” he cautioned.

“I… I… would try to dock I guess,” she said, now not so confident.

“GOOD!” Mike said loudly.  I rolled my eyes.  Like I hadn’t already thought of THAT stupid idea.  There was no where to dock, and the Marina was full of expensive yachts, DUH!

“If it were me,” Mike said now taking the wheel, “I’d probably raft up to that ship right there temporarily since the fenders are over there, your look out is there and he should be able to tie off to the boat until we can figure out what to do!” and he directed the Karina Del Mar in the direction of the big boat.  Then he reached down and restarted the engine.

“Yep, that’s what I’d do,” he smiled giving the wheel back over to JoAnne and giving her directions to take us out to our staging area.  Boy, he showed me.  I was stupid as a rock.

But, he had taught me a lesson.  I already knew I didn’t KNOW it all, in fact, I didn’t know enough.  In fact, I wasn’t happy with not actually being able to run the ropes and get the hang of the boat.  So, we went out for a bit longer and I continued doing my deck hand stuff which, apparently I was getting rather good at.  He did complement me on getting the hang of that part quickly and doing it well.  He even, at one point suggested if I was interested there were jobs doing just that sort of thing that paid pretty well in the area.  I wasn’t moving to San Diego just yet though.  Houses like my little place were going for a quarter million dollars.  No thanks.

All in all we had done well.  Mike was going to turn the boat over to us a day early, after grading the rest of our tests.  He met with us that evening for a couple of minutes and JoAnne and I had conspired against him, little did he know.

“Mike, we need to talk,” I said.

“Sure, what’s up?”

“I am not happy.  I was a teacher for a long time myself and while I don’t have a problem with your instruction or style, I don’t think I got out of this what I came for.  The confidence to run the ropes for instance,” I said.  He nodded.

“Right,” JoAnne said, “We’d like for you to come back in the morning and just… basically go over a few things.  I’ll drive, Rick will run the lines and you kind of direct, but let us do everything.”

“I can do that. I’ll grade your paperwork in the morning and we’ll head out and do that,” he said.

Next morning, true to his word, we headed out, he graded our tests which we both did well on, and then we sailed around inside the protected harbor away from big ships and little kids for about an hour, tacking and doing at least one jibe, dropping anchor and recovering it.  Mike pronounced us “ready” for our bare boat “test”.

We were to go sailing in the harbor for a few hours and head back in, anchor out and spend a nice, quiet evening alone at the anchorage.  On Saturday we were to spend the day sailing and come back in if we were tired or anchor out again.  Sunday morning we were to come in with the holding tanks pumped, fill the water, clean the boat and prepare to turn it over.  The afternoon was supposed to be nice and light winds, but we reefed the sails anyway, just in case.  The boat was a tall rig.

We were ready to sail ‘solo’ – kinda….

Ship Shape – mostly. Not perfect, but for noobs good enough!

Sailing San Diego

Our Friday morning had started out well.  Light winds, passing grades, a pat on the back from Mike, our excellent instructor at the San Diego Sailing Academy.  We’d reefed the main and JoAnne left for a bit to do some quick grocery shopping to restock a couple of items.  In a short time we were easing out of the slip, and headed for our “staging point” outside of the Kona Kai marina.

JoAnne checking paperwork

The Staging point was simply a place where some mooring balls were located which the school tended to use to give the “Deckhand” (me) the opportunity to do my job, namely removing the ugly fenders, then the dock lines, preparing the sails and in general getting ready to go out of the marina.  Mike had said Goodbye for the day and was headed for a baseball game.  It was Good Friday and we didn’t expect to see him again until Sunday morning sometime to turn in the boat.

Everything went perfectly, and JoAnne headed the boat toward the channel while I hoisted the mainsail.  She confidently killed the engine long before we were out of the channel and headed past the first points of interest, a long dock, a giant rubber barrier with a submarine behind it, and the first daymarker.

We sailed well out of the area and into the large San Diego Bay, beyond Shelter Island.  No big deal.  Confidence was building and I was doing fine with trimming the sheets.  Our instructions were to head around the bend and back into the bay toward Downtown San Diego.  A lot of boats were out, and we were still a bit scared of the number of boats and never being able to figure out what each one was doing.

Mike had told us to ignore them.  Do what we were supposed to do, and we’d be fine.  We took care to make sure to observe the Rules of the Road and we moved back into the bay even further, but I noticed a change in the wind.  It was no longer coming from the expected direction and in fact was slowly sweeping back and forth, no longer as expected.  We ignored it for a time, and I was sure with reefed sails on the tall rig we’d be OK.

Finally, JoAnne pointed out that to get back we’d have to sail against the wind, something we both knew to be impossible and it was getting tiring quickly changing the trim to get the best from the wind, but we wound up sailing Wing-and-Wing for a bit anyway just to try it out.  It was fun.  We finally decided to head back out and were considering a run up the coast when the wind speed picked up considerably.


My Lady driving the ship

We began doing long tacks back and forth across the main channel, from one shore to the other in an attempt to get back in the direction of the wind.  We were still calm, and having fun.  At one point a huge sailboat, probably 50 or more feet in length zoomed past us, waved and continued on.  Then several miles out I noted a large cruise ship coming in.  The words “Constrained by Draft” kept whispering in the back of my mind.  I began timing our trips back and forth and realized we’d have perhaps three more before the ship was close enough to be a problem.

But the wind had, by now picked up to a much higher speed than we were used to dealing with up until this point.  Then JoAnne took a turn and didn’t bring us all the way through the wind.  We were lumbering along, then suddenly came to a complete stop with our nose in the wind, dead in the middle of the channel.  I told her to turn the boat, but of course, that was stupid because we were in Irons and not going anywhere.  She was getting tired and frustrated.  But, damn it we were sailors and not going to start the engine.  I released the mainsheet and pushed hard on the boom to back us to the wind.

No luck.  The breeze was fresh enough to prevent me from pushing enough.  The boat remained mostly stationary.  The cruise liner was getting closer.  So close I was able to see windows now, and we were dead in her path.  Finally I said, “Start the engine!”


A ways out… the wind was blowing harder

She tried and nothing happened.  It simply made a noise and didn’t catch.  At this point we both were seeing that big ship and us getting squashed like a bug on a windshield.  The ship was less than five miles out and hauling ass to get in.  The wind suddenly, unexpectedly changed directions from the bow of the boat to the port side.  We didn’t “gybe” but we might as well have.

The boom swung fast and hard off the starboard side of the boat and a small explosion of metal and parts flew into the air as the boom, the blocks and the mainsheet left my hand and went out over the starboard side of the board.  JoAnne yelped, and I am sure I did too.  Fortunately I had my gloves on and didn’t get rope burn.  The ship was now three miles out and other boats seemed to be having problems in the channel too.  Several were turning or reefing sails quickly.  The wind was whipping around crazily for a few moments.

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a huge dolphin leaped beside the boat and made a Flipper sound.  His smooth body was so close I could nearly reach out and touch him.

JoAnne gasped and then said, “Ohhhhhhhh!” and calmed down completely at that point.

“JoAnne, try to start the engine, quickly,” I said.  She reached down and pushed in the kill switch (oh, THAT was why it didn’t start before!) and held the glow plug button in for a count of fifteen, then she pressed the starter button and boat sprang to life.

“Now, turn us out of the channel and give it plenty of gas,” I said, hauling HARD on the mainsheet I’d now captured in my left hand.  I felt the boat turn and looked to see the great cruise liner bearing down on us.  JoAnne was moving us quickly from the middle of the channel, as the wind came round the bow, I hauled hard on the sheet, looped it under the piece of traveler that hadn’t left the boat, around a winch and grabbed a winch handle and literally cranked for my life.  The boom centered and she was nearly out of the channel.

Suddenly a loud horn sounded behind us.  A Navy ship I had not noticed was passing, as the cruise liner passed us.  We’d missed being squashed by a few moments by not one, but two large ships.  I quickly loosened the main halyard and dropped the main as fast as I could and looked back to see that we were not the only boat that day that had trouble.

Several other sailboats had not expected the gusts, or quickly changing winds.  We were novices and didn’t know what to expect.  Some of those people appeared to be decent sailors and found themselves in a bit of trouble as well.

JoAnne’s biggest problem was “We broke this boat, oh my God, we’ll have to pay for it!”

I smiled and said, “That’s what insurance is for honey.  Let’s go anchor out.”

“Anchor out? We have to tell someone, we have to get the boat fixed!  We can’t anchor out!” she protested.

“Yeah, we can. And we’re going to,” I told her, pointing to our anchorage in the distance.  We headed for it, and anchored out carefully as we’d practiced, careful not to drop near where the chart showed cables.  In about twenty minutes we were through.

“What about the boat?” she asked, sure that we’d damaged it beyond all repair.  It looked bad, mainsheet wrapped in blocks and the sail was only partially tied down because I’d been in a hurry to get the sail out of the wind.

“Go below and look for anything that looks like a parts box.  I bet you there are some shackles aboard and we can fix this ourselves,” I told her and began to untangle the mess of ropes and blocks.  In a few minutes I had it all straightened out, and found the broken part was indeed what I suspected, a shackle that had a shattered pin.  The threaded part was still inside but both parts were there on the deck. She came back just as I finished the disentanglement and handed me exactly what I needed.  An exact duplicate of the Harken shackle that had exploded.

Placing everything back together, properly aligning the whole system of blocks and then testing it, I pronounced it fixed.

In the mean time, JoAnne made us something to drink, and some snacks.  I plopped down into a seat behind the big wheel and went over everything carefully, from our couple of panicked moments to the cool-headedness we both displayed in getting our asses out of hot water. We did good.

After a snack, I suggested a glass of wine.  She suggested I call and turn myself in to the instructors for breaking the boat.  I took her advice and left a message on the office phone, since they were off doing Good Friday things, they didn’t expect to hear from us and honestly, I didn’t expect to hear back from them.

A short while later the cell phone rang. It was Nick.  Mike’s father and one of the owners of the school.

“Are you both alright? Did you call a Mayday? Was there a man-overboard?” he rapid fired questions.

“Yes, we’re fine, no mayday, no one fell over.  We didn’t call for help, and we are intact and I’ve repaired the boat,” I explained sipping my pinot noir.

“Really? You fixed it? We don’t need to come and get you guys?” he asked, surprised.

“No, really, we’re fine. I replaced the broken part, and the boat is in good, working order again.  No problems at all,” I said.

“Wow. You guys are awesome!” he said. I could tell he was grinning. “I’ll see you tomorrow then?”

“Sure, I think we’re going to come in in the morning and do some shopping or something.  We’re going to spend the night out tonight at the anchorage and relax,” I said to him.

“What are you guys doing now?”

“We’re anchored out and having a nice glass of wine,” I told him.

“Wow. You guys are AWESOME!” and we hung up.

The night was a bit rolly in the anchorage, as it rained and blew pretty good but the anchor held, we didn’t drag and I didn’t sleep that well because I wasn’t sure what to expect, but we did it.  Course completed.

The next morning we came in at low tide, JoAnne made the turn tightly around the other boats and I noticed all the instructors were out.  I was giving her hand directions and Mike started to take over.  I said, “I’ve got this” and he waited.  JoAnne made the turn into the slip like she’d been doing it forever, I tossed the springline to Mike and stepped out to grab the bow line and then the stern.  Applause broke out among the three instructors and Mike congratulated us on “being real sailors now”.

He explained that most people don’t have anything go wrong, and those that do, do everything wrong the first time.  We seemed to have done everything right, except we panicked a bit.  JoAnne at the thought of breaking the boat and me seeing our lives flash in front my eyes as a huge cruise ship was bearing down on us.  I’d been in much tighter spots than that, so it passed quickly.  It took JoAnne a little longer to get over the dollar signs floating away!

Nick explained they had had other problems where people had panicked and called maydays, or jumped overboard or dumb things like that, or at least it had happened in the area.  We didn’t and they were proud of us for that. We handled a real emergency correctly – even though it wasn’t really an emergency it could have quickly turned to disaster.  We averted it by quick thinking, and thanks to a dolphin we focused on what had to be done, then and there.

I don’t think we will require a dolphin to jump at every problem that arises in the future – but, it was a sign of good things to come.

We are both much more confident in handling boats now, many moons later, and while I still get frustrated with the power boaters who ignore the fact we’re moving toward the dock by cutting us off and making us stand off again, I know I can put the boat where I want it. I know JoAnne can put it where she wants to, and do so with a finesse that makes me look like a knuckle dragging neanderthal.  Either way, we have learned a lot, and are still learning.  We will continue, I am sure, to learn until we don’t have to any more.

Rick – A few minutes after repairs

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