Sunday, August 5, 2007

I Can Be Dangerous

Hello everyone. Stephen Macklin here. Most of the time I'm over here where the only real danger I pose is to the English language, and I occasionally pose a threat to rational thought.

When Ted invited me to do "some peices about sailing, as well as anything else that might catch your fancy" I gave it serious thought for 1.3 seconds before agreeing. Then I thought, "how do I teach someone how to sail without, you know, a boat?" Basic principles? I can do that. Basic racing tactics? I can do that. How a boat feels under sail? That is challenge.

The best way to learn to sail is on a boat. If you don't happen to have one, or have a friend with one, don't lose hope. If you want to sail you can. And in this post I'll tell you how you can learn to sail for free!

There's not really that much to the secret. All you have to do is ask.

If you live in an area where there are sailboats, there will more than likely be sail boat races. Now you might have had in mind something more genteel and relaxing than racing, but races are an easy way to get on a boat and learn how to sail. One common fact in local club racing is that there will almost always be at least one boat that needs an extra body, and an extra pair of hands. Races are probably held one or two evenings a week and at least one day of the weekend. Get yourself onto the dock and start asking if anyone needs crew.

Getting onto the dock shouldn't be too difficult. Even if the race is being run out of the snooty local yacht club that restricts access. Chances are you won't be able to park on site so find a place a park and walk in. If they stop you at the gate tell them you're there to crew on (insert the name of any boat you happen to know or make one up.) If you look like you're on a crew, chances are the kid at the gate isn't going to send you away.

A few things to keep in mind. Since you probably don't have a set of foul weather gear, don't go on a day when it might rain. They will still race, but you would be miserable. Sunglasses are key when you're on the water, spend a couple of bucks on a croakie. Murphy's first law of sailing is that the more expensive your sunglasses are the more likely they are to go overboard. A good cap is probably wise as well, but invest in a "lid latch." This is essentially a piece of string with a clip on either end. One end for the hat one end to your shirt. When you buy it, it will probably feel like it costs too much - but in the long run it's cheaper than replacing hats.

Shoes matter. You're going to want to want a decent pair of shoes with non-skid and non marking soles. When someone is nice enough to have you on board, you don't want to pay them back with scuff marks all over the deck. Wear something that will stay on, and never wear sandals. There are lots of thing to bang your toes on on a boat. Keep in mind also that there is a better than average chance that your feet and shoes will get wet. Wear shoes that are comfortable without socks. Wet shoes are tolerable. Wet socks are never good.

You should probably know some boat basics before you go. Little things like Port is left and Starboard is right. The sail at the front of the boat when you're sailing into the wind is called the Jib. The sail attached to the mast and the boom is called the Main. The unofficial reason the call the boom the boom, is because that's what you hear inside your head right after it hits you! When they are sailing downwind (with the wind behind the boat) they put up a big colorful sale called a Spinnaker. You may also hear it referred to as "the kite."

Be honest about how much experience you do or don't have on boats. Sailors generally are open to bringing someone on board with no experience because they like to have names to add to their crew lists. If you are a complete novice, chances are your role on the boat during a race will be as ballast. Or in sailing terminology, Rail Meat. Your job will be to sit on the high side of the boat with your legs hanging over the side. When the boat tacks you move to the other side. You might be asked to help with some tasks like stuffing the spinnaker below when they take it down but not much more.

This doesn't sound exciting, but it gives you the chance to observe and ask questions. There's a bit of etiquette to this mostly arising from common sense. Ask questions after things happen - and then settle down. After you've asked a few questions you will probably find that people will be explaining things to you before you ask.

Remember, the people around you have an interest in developing new crew. There are a lot of races in a season and lots of opportunities for schedule conflicts. Developing new sailors is good for the team, and good for the sport. Be eager to learn and to help and you will be invited back. After you've got a couple of races under your belt ask to take the helm sailing to or from the race. Don't worry they'll keep and eye out to make sure you don't do anything too far wrong.

Sailors will also help other sailors on the dock - if the boat you sailed with last week doesn't need help, they may know someone who does. Don't be afraid to freelance and sail with many different boats until you find a permanent spot. And if racing turns out not to be your thing, you still managed to learn how to sail without having to pay for lessons!

Most importantly, have fun.

Look for future posts on the basics of yacht racing - and other dangerous things.

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