We’re a mismatched pair of sailors. After all these years of sailing together, I know my jobs and how to do them. But I never quite manage to do them with the style and grace the skipper craves.
John likes the burgee to scoot up the mast as if spreaders had never been invented. He likes knots to be tied swiftly and surely. He likes the fenders to come in with the speed of slurped spaghetti. He prays for his crew to leap lightly from deck to dock with nary a stumble. I rarely achieve that standard. So I had a moment or two of severe apprehension when I learned we were going to charter a catamaran about the size of our townhouse. I was afraid I’d lose serious style points lurching around a deck the size of a dance floor and dealing with equipment we’d never used.
Apparently, you don’t sit sideways in the helmsman’s chair and hold your floppy hat on with both hands, even if you have the luxury of an autopilot. You don’t cast looks over your shoulder at overtaking boats, even if you feel sure there isn’t room in the sea for both them and your catamaran. And it would be much better if you could just levitate out of the surf and into the dinghy when launching off the beach instead of having to be dragged aboard by the scruff of your neck like a hooked tuna.
But these small daily lessons didn’t prepare me for the biggest challenge of the cruise. That came the morning in the Tobago Cays when we upped anchor ever so neatly in a rather stiff breeze and started out to thread our way through 50 or so closely anchored sailboats. We were watching each step with extra care because we’d been in that anchorage for three nights, long enough to know our neighbors. Long enough to want to look extra suave and debonair as we sailed away.
We both stepped neatly to the side deck to wave farewell to a mighty impressive French cruising couple. Very snappy. Very nautical. John stepped briskly back to the wheel as we slipped past. Sudden tension. A discreet hiss. “I can’t steer! Wheel’s locked!”
Omigawd. Boats to the right of us; boats to the left; boats behind us and ahead. Omigawd. Omigawd. Another muffled hiss between clenched teeth: “Maybe I can steer with the engines.” He threw the port engine into reverse, and we missed the boat ahead by a little. But there was another, and another. And¿was it my imagination?¿heads popped up everywhere, eyes got wide. My brain had stumbled as far as “Get the anchor ready!” when I heard a much quieter, rather sheepish, kind of hiss: “Oh, I forgot. I put her on autopilot.” He touched a button and could steer again.
We sailed neatly through the fleet with eyes fixed firmly ahead in the manner of Lord Nelson. Did we lose many style points? On the skipper’s part, only if the judges were close enough to see the whites of his eyes. But I probably lost a large number when I shrieked at the top of my lungs, “What do you mean you can’t steer!?”