By Heather Killen
It seems the art of sailing lies in knowing when and how to do certain things exactly, and exactly when and how to do nothing.
About a half-dozen sailors turned out for the Royal Western Nova Scotia Yacht Club’s Marina Cup July 28. I had the chance to go out on the Chinook Wind, a boat owned by Digby Mayor Ben Cleveland.
This boat was designed more for open sea than racing, but Cleveland seems to be more interested in the quality of his trip, rather than hitting a precise destination in record time.
And while spirits were high and all hands were willing, rain and poor wind conditions put a damper on the event.
Before the race even began, Cleveland helped a competitor who was beached in low tide. After a slow start, the Chinook Wind started to catch the fleet but pockets of calm continued to be problematic, until finally, Cleveland opted to start the engine, drop out of the race and just enjoy the trip back.
Growing up, I watched the sailboats gliding through Halifax harbour, but it wasn’t a sport I tried until this year. I wanted something new during my vacation and noticed the Armdale Yacht Club was offering a learn to sail program.
We used a soling, a 22-foot open keel racing boat rigged with a jib and a mainsail. Mostly we sailed around the arm, a slivery inlet running along the edge of the south end off the harbour.
As it was still early in the season, we drifted a lot with sails flapping just enough to raise hopes, but not much speed. There was plenty of time to listen to the waves lap against the side of the boat and think about that Seneca quote about luck happening when preparation meets opportunity.
No matter what the course, the boat design, or even how well the sails are trimmed, it seems that everything really depends on the changing whims of the wind and water.
The arm is a sheltered home for three yacht clubs, various motorboats and paddling groups. Due to the topography of the land and the shape of the inlet, finding the wind can really be tricky in spots, especially if it’s running light.
On those evenings, it seemed just when the wind caught the sails and the boat finally picked up speed, we had to veer to avoid another boat and then search out our momentum again.
Sailing a boat with a tiller is counter-intuitive. When you want to head left, you push it right and when you want to bear right, you pull it left. And sometimes, depending on the wind and your desired course, the fastest way to get where you are going is to zigzag, rather than take a direct path.
A skilled sailor can read the wind and the waves and then angle the boat accordingly, trimming the sails to their fullest advantage. We were just learning, so we spent much of our time sailing either close hauled towards the wind, or downwind on a run.
At first, nothing seems easier than sailing with the wind at your back. When the boat is on a steady run, it’s tempting not to pay attention to the tiller and just fall into a dreamy place that goes and rolls with the flow.
This breezy ride is actually one of the more dangerous points for beginners. It’s easy to miss the whispers of change before a sudden gust of wind picks up the boom and slams it across the deck in a hard lesson upside the head.
We didn’t have enough wind or rough sea for this to present a problem, but the trip up the arm into the closest point of the wind always needed constant attention.
It’s been said that sailing on a close-hauled course is twice the work, at half the speed and three times the discomfort.
Depending on the land it passes over, the weather systems and other factors, the wind is constantly changing in both strength and direction and so it’s a challenge to sail in this direction.
The idea is to sail as close to the edge of the wind as possible without directly facing it. Heading directly into the wind will put the boat in irons, a place where it becomes stuck. It’s important to watch the sails and the direction of the ticklers, little indicators that point in the direction of the wind.
The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails. - William A. Ward
If the ticklers start to lag, the sails luff and the boat loses speed. Depending on the wind shift, you can use the tiller to bear off or head into the wind. We were forced to tack often, change direction and zigzag across the arm.
On the last night, just as I was starting to catch on to the tiller, the wind picked up and the boat suddenly heaved to its side in what is called a heel. It leaned so far into the water I wished I’d paid more attention in the past when people discussed the harbour clean-up.
It’s one thing to see a boat in the distance tip gracefully on its side and skim across the water, it’s another kind of feeling when it heaves sideways while you are sitting at the tiller.
“What do I do?” I asked the instructor.
He grinned and hooked his feet under a strap that ran along the center of the boat. Then he leaned back over the side as if he was tanning and says, “Nothing. It’s cool. Just chill.”
It took me a few seconds before I realized this boat was engineered to balance itself, and while it may feel like I ought to be doing something, this is the time to relax a little and enjoy the ride as the boat picks up speed.
Sailing proves to me that whenever weather and trial and error are involved, it’s smart to bring a change of clothes and a life jacket. When the boat you’re on starts to heel and you worry you won’t make it, if you can—brace your feet and lean into it-- if you must, let out the sails.
Watch your ticklers and remember what my instructor said. “It’s cool. Just chill.”
Most of all take a page from Ben Cleveland’s log, if you’re focused on how fast you can get to where you are going you may miss the richest part of the trip.
Maybe nice guys finish last for good reason.