Taking The Tiller: The Pressure’s On

This sailor learns that experience becomes the best learning tool of all. From Kitty Martin's "Taking the Tiller" for October 2, 2007

November 11, 2008

Recently, Charlie and I took our friend Sally for a belated-birthday sail. As we headed toward the bridge, Charlie handed me the tiller and said, “You’re taking us through the bridge. Actually, you’re going to do everything today.” Ever since we bought this boat, it’s been Charlie’s modus operandi to give me about three-second’s notice when he wants me to do something. I find this annoying but–to his credit–effective, because it allows me no time to panic, which I rarely do, nor any time to over-analyze, which I do too often. However, some tasks require more advanced warning and extra tutoring, as the rest of the day would reveal.

If you’re unfamiliar with it, the Padanaram bridge is a swing bridge, which when opened, is simply not that roomy. I started to hem and haw and go down my list of “yeah, buts,” except Charlie was having none of that. He told me to line up the bow with the entrance and just do it. It’s not that the task was difficult; it’s just that I let my nerves get the best of me and let my mind think about what would happen if I messed up: Our boat would smash up against granite.

For only the second time since we’ve had the boat, I uttered the words “I’m nervous.” And judging from Bligh’s reaction to that wimpy phrase, it’ll be the last time I ever use it. “Stop saying you’re nervous!” he snapped. “You can do this. Just do what I tell you.”


I put my defensiveness aside and accepted his words as some semblance of confidence in me.

I took us through the bridge, which wasn’t bad at all. Though taking charge turned out to be more difficult, given Charlie’s crash-course coaching. My next instruction was “just follow that boat.” That seemed straightforward, until that boat headed in to the mooring field of the harbor, so then Charlie told me to follow the channel. I thought I was doing exactly what I was supposed to be doing, but he kept pointing to port and yelling, “no.”

I found his terse direction very confusing. Did he mean head to port or head to starboard? I took a chance and figured since he was pointing to port that was where he wanted me to steer. Well, fifty-fifty and I blew it. After more raised voices on both our parts, I finally figured out what he was trying to say, which was basically that a channel is a two-way street, and if I hug the nuns on the way out, then no one else has room to pass. Afterward, I told Charlie that if he wanted me to do something with which I was unfamiliar, complete and detailed sentences would be helpful.


When that round of tension had subsided, Charlie began to exhibit more patience and started prompting me much more nicely with questions such as “Should we raise the main?” And, “Is this a good time to let out the genoa?” It was actually a good exercise, because there were no split-second decisions or potential danger involved. I had time to think things through and put some skills I’ve learned thus far in to action.

Sally’s a pretty good sailor, and she gave me a few tips here and there, too, mostly about falling off or heading back into the wind when I’d get off course. This is a bad habit of mine. Trouble is, I like to sightsee, and looking out for other boats and any obstacles I might want to avoid interferes with such activity. I need to figure out how to coordinate picking a point on land, watching the telltales, keeping an eye on traffic, socializing, and sightseeing, all without losing my course. And, perhaps no surprise, Charlie wastes no time in pointing out my nebulous path whenever I fall off track.

When detention–I mean, class–was over, it was such a beautiful day that we decided to drop the hook off Nonquitt and go for a swim. Anchoring is another one of those things that I over-analyze before I do it. It’s also one of those tasks where a little pre-activity instruction would have really helped. I had trouble because I couldn’t get the cap off of the oval deck pipe, so I held the anchor in one hand while I tried to get the cap off with the other. This balancing act led to an instant and sizeable blood blister on my right forearm because I was squeezing the anchor close to me so as not to drop it.


Sally came to my aid and she was able to get the cap off, so I could then use both hands to drop the anchor. It’s more fun and often useful, as in this case, to have people on board with experience who know when to jump in and help. Sally also gladly took the tiller for a while, which gave both Charlie and me a chance to relax and enjoy the aforementioned sightseeing.

As we returned to our mooring, I took my position at the bow as usual. But this time, I was the one giving directions, telling Charlie to reverse at one point, which was a good call and made the whole job easier. And, I admit, I took some pleasure in having my directions followed for a change.

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