Hello, sailor!

Back in the days of Jack Aubrey’s Navy, officers didn’t go to a traditional school. They learned aboard a ship, starting as midshipmen. Before they’d ever shaved, these children in uniform had to master celestial navigation, as well as how to manage a bunch of smelly men sailing a ship with dozens of sails and no engine.

As a matter of fact, nobody in those days paid for sailing lessons. You signed on, if you were desperate, or you were pressed aboard, and then the experienced sailors helped you “learn the ropes.”

It was an effective means of passing along the information. Today, even if you don’t know how to sail a boat, you probably know colorful phrases like “three sheets to the wind” or “let the cat out of the bag.” Even “passing with flying colors” is an idiom that comes from sailing.

Ten years ago, I wanted to learn to sail. I knew sailing was a tradition, something passed from one person to another. That led to a vague fear that you had to be born into it. If you were supposed to learn it from your parents, then Barry and I were never going to be sailors.

It never crossed my mind to pay for sailing lessons. Instead, I discovered local sailing clubs and the generous boat-owners who were willing to teach me to sail in exchange for a home-cooked meal. Many of them were bachelors who would otherwise be reduced to a steady diet of Dinty Moore and Top Ramen. Along the way, I learned to be a pretty good propane chef and make do with whatever facilities were available.

I was incredibly grateful to them, guys like Bill on Freebooter, Randy on Determination Too, and Brian on Nereid and Cayenne. “One day,” said Brian, “it will be your job to help other people get out on the water.”

When our first chance came to share our knowledge, we didn’t even recognize it. In 1998 a good friend, Michelle, bought a Santana 30/30 that she couldn’t sail herself. We sailed her boat to Blake Island, Port Madison, and Port Ludlow, learning and teaching at the same time.

Then we got our own boat, the Northern Crow. At 25 feet, it was small and funky, but we took people out on the Sound and Lake Union. My favorite trips were the long ones up to Port Townsend in the middle of summer under blue skies. One woman we took along was deaf, but communication was no problem. The joy of sailing is that it’s easy to show someone how to do it without a lot of words.

It does help to read up on the vocabulary, to be prepared for that moment when the boat is heeled way over with the rail buried and the skipper asks, “How’s the weather helm?” I’d read all the books, and when that moment came, on a Swan 44, I was ready. Another woman aboard, though, was not familiar with the concept, so Jay explained it to her, passing the information along in the time-honored fashion, verbally.

I was surfing the Internet late last night, when I came across a Craigslist posting that struck a chord. ” I’m just a guy/student who knows very little about sailing, but is very interested in learning … (I can) trade LABOR FOR BOATING KNOWLDEGE. I just want to learn, and I don’t necessarily have the money right now to pay for sailing lessons.” The posting took me right back to 1995, when I would do anything to get onto a sailboat, and I realized what a wonderful position I am in now.

I e-mailed the writer of that post, a guy named Nick. I gave him a whole list of Seattle-area resources for learning to sail without paying for lessons and wrote e-mails about him to a couple of friends with boats. It took me a while to generate all the information and links and craft the messages, but it was worthwhile.

Because now, it’s my turn to help other people get out on the water. To all new sailors: Welcome to the world of boating! Drop me a line, and I’ll do anything I can to help you learn to sail, the time-honored, traditional way. It’s the least I can do.
Do you want to learn to sail in Seattle? Some of these resources can get you out on the water!

  • Seattle Singles Yacht Club offers free lessons.
  • Puget Sound Cruising Club has great presentations on sailing to exotic destinations. (I’m jaded, since I was once one of the speakers)
  • Seattle Women’s Sailing Association used to welcome guys, but I’ve heard they’re not so friendly any more. Still, you might check out one of their meetings, just to see what you can learn and who you can meet with a boat. Look in 48 North for their meeting announcement.
  • If you’re not a reader of 48 North, pick up a free copy at any boating store and check out the Crew Wanted listings in the back.
  • Cascadia is a virtual e-mail club, but if you join, you’ll probably find some friendly folks who need crew.