Learning to sail – the baptism-by-fire way

I can count on one hand the number of times I have been on a sailboat – and that’s with chopping two of my fingers off.

I know nothing about boats. I can’t remember port from starboard, stern from bow, gybe from tact (opps I mean tack).

I have no idea if I get seasick.

The toilet is a bucket with a toilet seat, the contents of which I have to chuck over the side of the boat.

There is currently nowhere to decently wash my hands and I don’t do dirty hands.

And dirty hands are part and parcel of sailing – disgusting, wet, dirty, muddy, mouldy ropes wherever you look. As well as large, copious amounts of gluggy bird poo. Yuck!

So, when my partner Mark, who has been sailing for 20 years, bought a new boat recently, I was suddenly introduced to a whole new and scary world.

This was a world where he was teaching me to sail, forcing me to learn lingo that made no sense, and stripping me of running water and toilet-flushing luxuries.

Doable on a day sail.

But this wasn’t an introduction-to-sailing day sail.

This was four days sailing the boat from where it was bought in Felixstowe, UK, south to the Medway River off The River Thames.

Past the Port of Felixstowe – the 8th busiest container port in Europe – and across the Thames Estuary, a major shipping route that is strongly tidal and littered with sand banks and shallow channels ready to ground any wayward boat.

We would anchor each night, sleeping on board, with no means to get onto dry land.

Four day trips, four days in a row, as Mark put it.

Four days on rolling waves, in a confined space barely larger than a family-sized tent, and the only glamping luxuries being a decent mattress, a gas cooker, and a bucket with a toilet seat.  

For someone who could count on one hand the number of times they had been on a sailboat, this was, excuse the pun, deep water.

Basically, I was freaking out – I was way outside my comfort zone and my self-doubt-ometer was through the roof.     

Would I like sailing? What if I don’t like it? What if I got seasick? What if the toilet bucket got lost overboard? What if I was really useless at steering and crashed the boat? What if I’m not good enough to be a sailor? What if Mark & I weren’t talking after four days?

From walking the Te Araroa trail down the length of New Zealand, I knew starting was always the hardest part – that is the time when you have the most active overthinking of imagined worst-case scenarios.

But from walking the trail, I also knew that once I started my focus would be consumed by the moment and I would no longer be worrying about what if.

And more importantly, I knew the vast majority of the doubts and worries stay imagined and don’t eventuate.

And so, after four days…

I realised I really quite liked sailing: the sun on my face, the wind in my hair, the sound of the waves, the taste of salt on my lips, the dramatic and exciting tipping of the boat as a gust of wind blasts through. And I didn’t get seasick.

There were miles and miles of sea around us, the coastline just a thick slash with miniature dots for houses and the toy-sized pier, Ferris wheel and helter skelter at Clacton-on-Sea. There were giant offshore windfarms and rusty world war forts and two seals with long eyelashes popped up like water-logged meerkats to say hello. There was an almost collision with a bigger sailing ship as we played chicken as to who would turn (tack) first. Thankfully they took the initiative.

There were idyllic anchorages where we stayed the night in calm waters with cute chirping seabirds and orange sunsets and where millions of diamonds shone in the night sky.

The number of bruises I received from bumping around the boat is about five times more than the number of times I’ve been sailing.     

Chucking the toilet contents overboard is no fun but it’s 30 seconds of bearable discomfort and a teeny bit of joy and pride at accomplishing something that’s a bit of a challenge and not losing the bucket overboard.   

Meanwhile, steering is a different kettle of fish.

Steering a boat is not like steering a car. I struggle to tell my left from my right at the best of times and this is not helped that the boat-steering doodacky (aka the tiller) goes in the opposite direction to where you want to head.

Mark, helpfully, wrote ‘LEFT’ and ‘RIGHT’ on the boat and slowly with a bit of practice (because practice makes progress) my steering improved… sort of. (Well as much as is possible before Mark was forced to take over steering so that the large ship that came out of nowhere could actually tell which direction we were heading in).

There were a couple of times when Mark and I raised our voices at each other – generally when he told me to steer left so I pushed the tiller to the left and the boat moved to the right, and vice versa.

On more than one occasion.

Or when I couldn’t keep on a compass bearing. Or when I lost control of the boat. Or when I didn’t tack properly.

Things happen quickly on a boat, Mark said. There’s not a lot of time to explain, he said. It’s tense, urgent – you can’t just stop moving like when you’re on a walk, he said. Don’t take it personally, he said.

We stayed friends.

I couldn’t have foreseen or predicted what those four days would have been like or how much I might enjoy sailing.

And during those four days, none of my imagined worries came true.

That’s not to say those worries have disappeared. They will be there every time I step on the boat, every time we’re about to set sail.

The important thing is, they don’t have to stop me or hold me back.

They don’t have that power.     

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