“Pole up!” our skipper shouted from the foredeck as the helmsman eased off the main. We had just rounded the windward mark, and another crewmember and I scrambled for our positions at the spinnaker sheets and launched the chute from the bag. What a beautiful sight.
It was a brisk and sunny Saturday afternoon with 10-knot winds gusting to 18, and this was the last of our three races for the day. As we flew down the lake, I could hardly believe how far I’d come. If this had been two short years ago, panic would have overwhelmed me when we heeled at 25 degrees in the gusts. A knockdown years ago had ruined my enthusiasm for sailing.
I grew up in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. Summers meant water sports, including gliding around on a friend’s little Sunfish. The prevailing winds were reliable, and I loved watching the bigger boats with full sails heel and right as they made their way through the waves. I dreamed of one day owning one.
That didn’t happen until I met my husband, Tom, and we moved to Colorado of all places. After one sailing class we were hooked. We bought a brand new Catalina 22 and promptly joined the sailing club on Carter Lake, a lovely alpine lake just one by three miles long. One would think that even a novice sailor could negotiate the perils of a body of water with these humble dimensions. We had a lot to learn in the coming years.
On our second time out, we experienced the unthinkable. “Don’t worry!” my husband shouted. “She won’t tip over!” This was meant to reassure me as the boom shot from port to starboard and the mainsail snapped like a whip. There was no time to climb to the high side, no time to ease the sheets or fall off the wind. The rails were in the water, and suddenly we were holding on to the port gunwale as if it was a handrail on an escalator.
And then, she did tip over. Water rushed into the cockpit. The mast slammed parallel to the water submerging the jib and the main. I was terrified. Our beloved, brand-new, dreamed-about sailboat lay gasping for air in the middle of the lake.
As we were contemplating our options, a seasoned sailing couple came to our rescue and towed us back. We were perhaps a mile down the lake. As we slowly plowed sideways through the water, we could see people gathering on the dock. This was to be our “walk (tow) of shame.” How could we have let this happen? Would we be labeled maladroit wannabes?
As we approached the dock, people scrambled to grab lines and sheets. I was still badly shaken, and someone shoved a gin and tonic in my hand saying, “Here, you’re going to need this.” They were right. As we bailed, we heard stories of other knockdowns. We learned that we had just experienced one of the lake’s rare but powerful microbursts.
The boat dried out, we made repairs, and soon we were back in business. But something had shifted in me, much like the mercurial winds on the lake. I was now a nervous sailor. My internal heel-o-meter, as Tom called it, set off alarms at 15 degrees. I would panic, climb to the high side, and beg him to fall off the wind.
The only time I took the boat out alone was when there was almost no chance of a breeze—content only to float. This, however, was not sailing, and I knew it. This went on for a few seasons, and then our children were born. Wrestling small, uncooperative bodies into life jackets and sailing a small boat on a lake with squirrely winds is no parent’s idea of fun, so we took a break from sailing for several years. When the kids were a little older, we became casual cruisers on an even smaller body of water closer to home. Our boat became a fun, floating raft for friends and family.
Fast forward 35 years. As is often the case, we have a larger boat now. We are back at the sailing club, and until recently, we motored more than we sailed. She’s a lovely Catalina 270 named Kairos, and if boats have souls, I’m sure hers was aching to sail—really sail. But I couldn’t get past that knockdown.
Then one Saturday morning I made a decision. Racing. Maybe this could be my rehabilitation. I laid my novel aside and watched from my cushioned cockpit as the racing boats headed toward the start mark. Their skippers and crew looked so happy and confident. Could I possibly do that? Perhaps a ridealong would be better. But would I just be in the way?
It was shameful to me to have owned a sailboat for so many years and still be freaked out by a knockdown that should have had the opposite effect. I should have used that experience to better my skills and be mentally prepared for the next one. I mentioned my racing idea to Tom, but by this time I had managed to squelch his enthusiasm for real sailing as well, and he looked at me as if I were crazy.
Later that week an email went out from a racer looking for crew. I took a chance and answered, casting no illusions about my skills and confessing that I had never raced. I didn’t mention my heeling phobia.
The very next week I found myself on a Merritt 25 called LoveApple with three experienced crew members, trying desperately to remember which was the clew and which was the tack as I helped rig the boat.
Our first race was terrifyingly fun. The rails were in the water as we flew along. The crew was gracious and tolerant as I swallowed my fear and secretly dealt with my anxiety behind my Ray-Bans. Every other weekend all that summer I faced my phobia as if I were in a desensitization therapy session, and eventually my nerves calmed down and I was able to enjoy the high side of the boat.
This is my second season crewing with the same people. Our captain, John, is a patient teacher. He’s quick to explain what’s going on and seems to know how to build my confidence when I’m running low, even while he’s swearing, well, like a sailor. Victor and Pam, the other two crew members, have literally shown me the ropes. And while I’m clearly still the weakest link in the chain, I’m improving. We are a team, and I’m motivated to keep learning.
I no longer fear heeling the way I used to. I relish the days when the breeze blows constant from one direction, but I’m happy to take Kairos out in a brisker wind. I know how to sail through the gusts rather than immediately furl the jib. Racing has taught me that.
So, here is my suggestion. Don’t let this happen to you. If a knockdown has knocked down your confidence or turned you sour to sailing, yet you still have that yen to get past it, find a way to get past it. I lost decades of pleasure, decades of skill building, and decades of adventure. I can’t get those back. The best I can do now is keep learning, and I intend to make the most of the opportunity.
As we head back to the slip after lowering the jib and sharing some friendly trash talk with our competition, I’m looking forward to another gin and tonic—this time celebratory rather than medicinal.