First published 1989 in Chesapeake Bay Magazine
New sailors’ questions
by Tom Dove
You are interested in sailing because it is a new experience with new sights, sounds and sensations. Here are answers to some of the questions you may have before you embark on that first sail:
*** WHAT IS IT LIKE?
On a moderate day, it is smooth motion without effort. On a breezy day, it is controlling an almost-living thing that leaps across the water. On a calm day, it is the harnessing the elusive air to get a slight movement of your vessel. Sailing is different each time you go out and you will learn something new every day, even after sailing for thirty years or more.
*** WHO SAILS?
Business executives and professionals sail to release the tensions of work, nature lovers sail to enjoy the outdoors, athletes sail as a competitive sport, cruisers sail to see the world one harbor at a time, lovers sail as an escape and kids sail because it’s lots of fun. Look through the exterior of any sailor and you will find the soul of a romantic.
*** WHAT SHOULD I WEAR?
You need boat shoes with soft, nonskid soles for a good grip on the deck; don’t sail barefoot. You need a hat or cap with a wide brim or long bill to keep the sun off your face and neck. Wear loose, comfortable cotton clothes that will be cool and protect you from the summer sun but avoid dangling sleeves or jewelry that could get caught in winches or lines.
If there is a chance of strong wind, carry an inexpensive hooded foul-weather jacket. In spring or fall, a sweater under a nylon shell is a good combination, and the popular pile-lined jackets are excellent for evenings and cool days at the ends of the summer season.
*** WILL I GET WET?
Probably not. A boat over about 18 feet with a keel is large enough to be dry unless the day is quite windy. If you are going out on a smaller centerboard boat on a breezy day, expect some spray to come over the bow as the boat goes through the waves. If it is actually raining, stay ashore and be comfortable.
*** I’M NOT VERY AGILE. CAN I LEARN TO SAIL?
Yes, indeed. While Olympic-class racing is very demanding, ordinary sailing is only as strenuous as you wish to make it. Paraplegics and blind sailors have crossed oceans.
*** IS SAILING GOOD EXERCISE?
The best. It appears that you are just sitting most of the time, but your body is actually making continuous adjustments to the constant motion of the boat so you exercise all your muscles in a gentle, isometric fashion. At the end of a day of sailing you will be pleasantly tired and at the end of the season you will probably have trimmed and firmed up your entire body. Best of all, this takes place in clean, open air. You won’t see many flabby sailors.
*** WHAT IS THE BEST BOAT TO LEARN TO SAIL?
Adults will be most comfortable on a keel boat about 18-26 feet long while children prefer little centerboard boats in the 8- to 16- foot range. You will learn more and faster on a small boat than on a large one, but it will be less comfortable and require faster reflexes. Everything you learn on a small boat will transfer to the cruising vessel you may buy or charter later, but a big yacht takes much longer to respond, so it is harder to see the effects of your actions.
*** WHAT IS AN IDEAL SAILING DAY?
If you have a choice, pick a clear day with 8-12 knot winds and moderate (75-85 degree) temperatures. Spring, early summer and fall are ideal in the middle latitudes while midsummer heat may bring calm air or thunderstorms.
*** HOW MUCH WIND IS TOO MUCH? TOO LITTLE?
For your first few sailing sessions, try to avoid days with less than 5 knots or more than about 15 knots of wind. With experience you will find light air an interesting challenge, but it can be frustrating to a new sailor. If the wind is strong enough to make whitecaps on the water, things happen too fast for a beginner to absorb and the excitement may overpower the learning.
*** WHAT ARE THE DANGERS: STORMS? WAVES? SEA MONSTERS?
Sunburn. Use a good sunblocking lotion, especially on your nose and ears. If you wear shorts, put lotion on your knees and the tops of your legs. Wear effective sunglasses (Polaroid ones are .best for cutting glare) and remember your hat.
*** SHOULD MY SPOUSE AND I LEARN TO SAIL AT THE SAME TIME?
Yes, but not in the same boat. Most sailing schools separate husbands and wives so there will be only one captain per vessel – the instructor.
*** WHAT BOOKS CAN I READ TO BE PREPARED FOR THE FIRST SAIL?
If the sailing school doesn’t recommend a specific one, get a Gsmall paperback with lots of illustrations and clear language. I like ”Invitation to Sailing” by Alan Brown, and “Let’s Go Sailing” by Peter Isler.
*** WHY DO SAILORS TALK SO FUNNY?
Nautical terminology is not only historic, it is practical. It is faster to say, “Trim the jibsheet” than to say, “Wrap the big white string connected to the front sail around that round metal thing ;and pull on it.” Also, when you know the language you are accepted into a fascinating new group and can converse with any other English-speaking sailor.
*** SHOULD I BRING MY DOG, CAT AND SMALL CHILD ALONG FOR MY FIRST SAIL?
— The End —
Heeling looks precarious to a non-sailor, but a heavy keel keeps this performance boat stable and safe — and exciting.