A Question of Balance

Seeking on-the-water parity with her sailorly husband, a novice submits to the surprising rigor of Offshore Sailing School's Fast Track to Cruising

June 29, 2004

Before we were married, The Skipper and I spent two unforgettable weeks cruising the inland waters of North Carolina. They were unforgettable for a variety of reasons–because we were together in a beautiful place, on a beautiful boat, awake to the significance of our surroundings, and also because I was finding myself, well, often at sea. There was so much I didn’t know about boats and sailing, so many reasons to feel inadequate in this new world. I was a willing crew, but my lack of sailing experience, and my consequent anxiety, could often get in the way of my–and, by extension, our–enjoyment.

As a student in Offshore Sailing School’s Fast Track to Cruising course–10 days of immersion learning in the British Virgin Islands–I hoped to gain a measure of comfort and competence on a sailboat. I wasn’t looking for an extreme makeover, even though the US Sailing certification program is rigorous and Offshore’s course materials hold out the promise of something just short of transformation.

Would I emerge from the course a Jill Sailor to my husband’s Jack Tar? Well, that would be OK, too, but that wasn’t the point. I simply wanted to transfer the dynamic of parity The Skipper and I had established on terra firma to our time on the ocean blue. For me, it was a question of balance.


Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands, didn’t at first seem like a place conducive to learning, unless your intended course of study is staying tanned and drinking a lot of rum. I felt, coming here from a place like New England in late winter, as if it weren’t quite real, as if it were a virtual reality.

I felt this way because of the light and the colors, the mystical, sculptured landforms of the archipelago, and the relentless intrusion of waters of a seemingly impossible shade. Crayola would call it cyan, but a crayon could never do justice to the luminous Caribbean.

Competent Old Salt
Offshore Sailing School’s onshore base was situated down the frangipani-lined pathway from our hotel room at Prospect Reef Resort. You walk through a color palette of lavenders, lemon yellows, and lime greens only to find yourself in a conventional classroom. There were desks, a whiteboard, and a projector and screen. The only thing out of the ordinary–although not unexpected, this being sailing school–sat in the corner of the room, on a moving pedestal. It was a model of the Colgate 26, the sailboat on which we’d be learning. Our teacher, David Gayton, had a British accent and the same facial-hair configuration as The Skipper, marking him as a Competent Old Salt.


I was one of six students of various levels of experience. In our initial introductions, discussing our sailing background, if any, and what we hoped to accomplish, I spoke of balance, but this time not in terms of my onboard relationship with my husband. The little sailboat in the corner had brought it all back–I was out there again on Pamlico Sound. “Ah, I see,” said David understandingly. “A little bit nervous on the water are we, Melissa? Don’t like it when a boat heels?” He extended his hand, his fingers straight and palm horizontal, then maneuvered it sideways so that it was almost vertical. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Right; we’ll take care of that,” he continued. “Lesson Number One: It’s physics, good guys. A keelboat cannot be knocked over by the wind. It will heel–dramatically at times–but it will not be knocked over. We don’t need to worry about the sharks unless we go snorkeling. Let me demonstrate with our model here, and then we’ll see this in action when we sail this afternoon. OK? First, let’s talk about the parts of the boat. Then we’ll discuss what makes it sail. Then we’ll put it all together. Two points for you to keep in mind, both in this classroom and out on the water: First, there is no such thing as a dumb question. Second: There are no mistakes, only learning opportunities.


“We’re going to be learning a lot of new vocabulary over the next few days: points of sail, rules of the road, sail theory. It may seem confusing at times, it may seem scary, but we’re going to have a lot of fun out there, and it will come together in the end.”

Fight-or-Flight Time
For the on-the-water instructional sessions, David divided us into two groups of three students. That first afternoon, I met fellow B Group sailors Sal and Janetta at Prospect Reef’s marina, where the Colgate 26 was docked. The Colgate, which had seemed so friendly and manageable in its classroom dimensions as David spun it this way and that, was daunting as we stood on the dock next to it. The wind was up (or freshening, as The Skipper would say), and there were whitecaps out on the Sir Francis Drake Channel. The halyard was pinging relentlessly against the mast. It was a fight-or-flight moment, and the latter seemed to be gaining ground.

“OK, good guys, are we ready to go sailing?” said David, just in time to intercept me in my sprint back to the hotel room. There wasn’t a resounding “Yes,” but we all got on the boat. As we got her ready to sail, I encountered what would be the first of many obstacles, both emotional and physical, over the coming days. I couldn’t open the . . . what do you call it? . . . the shackle that needed to be secured to the . . . what is that thing called again? . . . the headboard . . . so that . . . what is that line called? . . . oh, yeah, the halyard . . . could hoist the main. As is my practice in such situations, I turned and looked for help. “Hey, Sal, could you–?”


David intervened.

“You’re going to have to do it yourself, Melissa,” he said. “You can’t rely on someone else. What if you were alone?”

“But I have weak hands,” I countered.

“On a boat, you have to be resourceful,” he said. “Now, if you had a rigging tool–.” Before the words were out of his mouth, I was searching my pockets. The Skipper had given me such an implement before we’d left for Tortola, but I’d never believed it would have a practical application unless I found myself dangling from the mast, my ankle ensnared in a line. David was impressed. “I’ve never seen a pink one before, and I’ve been in this business a long time.” He showed me the proper implement to use, and it worked on the very first try.

“Cunning little device, isn’t it?” he remarked. “Some poor sod somewhere along the line had weak hands, too, and no brawny Sal to help him. Thus the shackle tool was invented. So there you are, Melissa; you’ve now connected with a long line of sailors throughout history. Great stuff, isn’t it?”

It certainly was. I’d rigged my very first mainsail halyard.

That first afternoon, David took the helm to demonstrate the assertion he’d made in class about keelboat stability. When he’s not sailing, David is an aerobatic pilot, and for the agitated state his extreme maneuvers produced in us, we could as well have been spiraling through the clouds in a biplane. The three of us clung for dear life to the railings behind us, our legs braced against the leeward cockpit seat. We were up, and then down, our bodies scrambling to get back to the windward side, trying to compensate with our weight for the boat’s excessive heeling.

“I . . . really . . . don’t . . . like . . . this,” I said, as David explained to us exactly what was happening and why, in a loud but completely nonchalant tone. “Whoa!” the three of us sang out in unison as we found ourselves looking down into the churning sea from what felt like an almost vertical position. Water was streaming over the leeward side.

“OK, now, we wouldn’t want to be doing this on an ordinary sail across the channel because it’s uncomfortable, right?” David asked. We gave him a vigorous, white-knuckled, knees-buckling nod. “The boat is heeling excessively, we’ve lost speed, and it’s become very hard to steer–not much fun, unless you’re into that sort of thing.”

“We’re not!” yelled Sal.

“So, we ease out the mainsail, and–.” The boat righted itself instantly, but not before a huge wave broke over the bow. B Group, its members previously only wet behind the ears, were now completely drenched.

“Neptune pays a visit!” said David. “Wasn’t that fun, good guys?” And indeed, as David got the boat sailing on a smooth beam reach, then passed the helm to us, we did feel somewhat giddy. Survivor’s elation, I guess. But in the wake of our instructor’s exercise in radical steering, an interesting sense of calm came over us. His “wheelies” had shaken the willies out of us. There was method in his madness; he’d disabused us of our misapprehensions. He’d pushed the boat to its limits, and it had survived.

So had we.

We changed places frequently during our afternoon sailing sessions, rotating from helm to mainsail to jib. We practiced starting and stopping, tacking and jibing, depowering and powering up the sails, and then moved into drills like picking up a mooring ball and crew overboard. David addressed us using “sir” or “ma’am, ” respectively, when we needed correction (often), and our first names, followed by an emphatic “Yes! ” when we made our own corrections or followed our instincts with positive results.

We all had our moments of triumph and defeat during those four days on the water. Janetta soon earned her moniker as Jib Queen, I as Winch Wench (“Keep going, ma’am, you’re not there yet”), and Sal as, well, Just About the Nicest Guy You’d Ever Want to Go Sailing With. Period.

And good old Bob. Such a sweet, open face. Such a jovial, buoyant nature. So willing to be hurled over the side in the interest of sail training. Our hearts went out to Bob (a pair of plastic springwater bottles tied together), especially when we ran him over during Quick-Stop Recovery drills.

“If you are behind the helm during a crew-overboard drill,” said David, “the most important thing to do is steer. The second most important thing to do is steer. And the third most important thing to do is . . . that’s right, good guys . . . steer. When you aren’t steering, you keep your eyes on Bob. You point to Bob. You throw flotation devices at Bob. You say a little prayer for Bob. Hang in there, Bob! You try like heck to get Bob back in the boat.”

B Team did not have a flawless lifesaving record. We think we projected more fear on Bob when we tacked and made our way back to him than after he’d been flung overboard, where he bobbed quite happily in the inviting waters, enjoying his growing distance between himself and the well-meaning crew of the Colgate. But we’d bonded with Bob, he was part of our crew, and it felt really good to haul him out of the water when we were successful. By the afternoon of Day Four, I’d passed my on-water assessments (saved Bob two out of three times), and I scored a–to me, remarkable–97 on the written test. I’d acquired my Basic Keelboat certification.

All School, All Day
The next day, David, Janetta the Jib Queen, my husband, and I (and good old Bob, who was game for some more crew-overboard drills) boarded a 47-foot Moorings Beneteau, Inn Harmony, for five days of cruising that would take us to anchorages at Cooper Island, Virgin Gorda, Anegada, and Norman Island, among others. For Janetta and me, this would be Phase Two of the Fast Track program. We’d already come so far–we had an enormous sense of accomplishment after completing Learn to Sail, and the state of our bodies was evidence of the lengths to which we’d gone to prove ourselves on the water. We’d jokingly redubbed the program Fast Track to Bruising, for all the purple patches we now wore, with pride, on our limbs. We were looking forward to some downtime–and some island-expedition time–as we cruised around on the big boat.

It soon became clear that there would be little time for either. This was the Liveaboard Cruising course, and there was no place to hide from the instructor: It was All School, All the Time. Not that David wasn’t really great company; it’s just that he was also a fantastic teacher and very conscientious about preparing us for our Basic Cruising and Bareboat Cruising certification assessments.

After getting oriented to the bigger boat, going from a tiller to a wheel (the Beneteau gave you a choice of two wheels), and finding out how she handled under power (after my first back-and-fill exercise, I was nostalgic for the Colgate, not least of all because it wasn’t subject to prop wash), we set about learning (gulp) the engine systems, the electrical system, the water system, the head system, and the bilge system. Now, I must confess, I hadn’t fully read the two advanced textbooks that accompany this part of the course (they weren’t really expecting us to know the parts of a diesel engine, were they?), and failure to do so was starting to affect my performance and my mood.

By the time we’d turned to navigation, I’d completely lost my bearings. I was on overload. When the watch list designated me as navigator, I looked at our position on the chart and couldn’t help but laugh. “Where’re we headed?” The Skipper asked.

“Appropriately enough, to the Dogs,” said I, referring to the Dog Islands materializing in the distance.

The information was pouring in over the sides, fast and furious. Passage planning. Tides and currents. Getting a fix. If this was immersion learning, the good ship Lollipop that was my brain was swamped. I really wanted to drop the anchor and absorb it all for a while, without having to mess with the damn snub line. Or just get in that fun little dinghy and go look for turtles. “The more you bring to this program,” David had said, “the more you take away.”

Honestly, I could have brought a lot more. I’d had those textbooks in my possession for weeks. But diesel engines? Of course, the sailing was always exhilarating–here we were, engaging the elements, engaging something elemental in ourselves. I was having some trouble ingesting it all, but that’s not to say I wasn’t having the time of my life. I passed the last two tests by the skin of my teeth.

On our practice sail–24 hours of cruising without the instructor on board–The Skipper, relegated to the background, watched Janetta and me with a certain guarded respect. He’d intervened at times to yell things like “No, head up–to starboard–turn right!” But I could tell he was impressed.

I hadn’t attained proficiency–far from it. David had said at the beginning, “Nobody can teach proficiency. You have to find that, through experience, for yourselves. I will give you concepts, teach you the fundamentals in a safe environment, invite you to connect–kinesthetically, on the water–with these concepts. Proficiency comes with practice. Forty-two years later, I’m still working at it.”

In the Instructor’s Comments section of my US Sailing log book, he’d graciously written: “Brilliant sailing skills; lots of time to work on systems and theory.” Yes, lots of time, plenty of time. I wasn’t a master, but I’d been given the gift of apprenticeship. The Skipper and I would be partners out there. It was the balance I had sought.


Freelance editor/writer Melissa Dobson lives in Bristol, Rhode Island, with her husband, CW editor Jeremy McGeary.


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