Standing barefoot on the bow Saturday, with my arm wrapped around the forestay and feeling the liquid world move under my feet, I fell in love. I fell in love with sailing, I fell in love with the Chesapeake (again), and I fell in love with our little boat, Egretta.
That morning, after being discontent with my performance hoisting and lowering the sails on the previous day’s trip, I sat on the airbnb porch with my notebook. Steam drifted from my coffee cup, and I declared to my husband that I was setting a goal: by the end of next summer, I wanted to be able to do everything on a daysail, end to end, from motoring away from the boat ramp, to skippering the journey, to docking at the end of a sail. I was tired of feeling incompetent on the boat.
As I talked it through with him, though, I began to realize that’s an ambitious goal for someone who doesn’t even know how to do their current job on the boat: crewing. Aiming for complete mastery of sailing within 12 months is like wanting to be executive chef in a year without knowing how to use a knife right now. Becoming a chef or a sailor takes years, and the paths to both begin with the basics.
For months now I’ve felt intimidated. There’s so much to learn: hauling sails, lowering sails, tying knots, skippering, trailering; how to use the forces of wind and water to move the boat forward using canvas, keel, and rudder; knowing when to do anything and knowing what needs to be done; boating rules, regulations, etiquette; outboard usage and maintenance; keeping the boat from capsizing and knowing what to do if it does roll; safety; vocabulary. His hand on the tiller, Brian will tell me something like “Don’t forget the topping lift,” and I won’t even know what he’s talking about. How can I expect to be in command and tell everyone what needs to be done when I don’t even know the parts of the boat and the language of sailing, much less why the topping lift would need to be remembered?
I sipped coffee on the porch, the rising sun glistening on spiderwebs as my folly dawned on me, and as the solution revealed itself. I was paralyzed by the journey of 1000 miles rather than animated by the single step in front of me. As I am prone to do, I focused so much on the end goal — knowing how to sail — that I didn’t break it down into the steps I need to take to me to get there.
That first step, I now realize, is to master my role as crew: raising and lowering the sails, helping the skipper by knowing my job when we’re underway (lookout, trimming the jib, watching for obstacles, paying attention, being aware), learning the language so we can communicate with precision, keeping lines neat and safe, keeping alert for the radio, and various other tasks I am currently mediocre at at best.
As crew, I have a specific job with components that are mine to own, that I can fiddle with until I truly understand how everything works, that I can hone the processes of until they are smooth and I can do them instinctively. This simplification, to sharpen one skillset, has given me a specific role I can master. It has given me a purpose. It has removed the fear and ineptitude I felt because of my lack of knowledge.
This has changed everything for me. Where before I had a wall up, where before I was nervous about sailing, now I can’t stop thinking about it. On our first sail after my mindset shift, I no longer felt like a bumbling idiot. Instead, I felt the eagerness of a novice apprenticing. I felt confident, a vessel for new experiences. I began to get to know our boat. I began to get attached. Standing barefoot on the bow after our sail, with my arm wrapped around the forestay and feeling the liquid world move beneath us, I fell in love.
On our drive home Sunday, I kept checking the rearview mirror to see our little boat behind the car. “I feel like we have a family of seven now,” I said. “The four of us, Tootsie and Tubbles [our cats], and Egretta.”
If you’re interested in more details about that first sail as true crew, I wrote about it in the Becoming crew post on my sailing blog.