If you’ve passed over the Golden Gate bridge on a Sunday afternoon around 2pm you’ve seen my first love. The sight of sailboats leaving harbor with the wind in their sails–it always thrills me.
I’ve sailed small boats, in the Caribbean, from Cabo San Lucas to Mazatlan, across the Sea of Cortez to La Paz, and over the years around the San Francisco Bay, Monterey and Santa Cruz. I’ve had some rough passages and heavy weather, but I love it still.
The thing that always puzzles me is why? What’s the attraction? As my friends ask, Why would anyone pay good money to be wet and cold, stand long watches, eat foul food, and wear damp clothes for days on end?
I don’t know how to answer, except by saying: I grew up on an island, and learning to sail seemed like a good exit policy in a pinch. Not only is England a fair sized island, the British Navy has a long and illustrious history. So there’s the contagion answer. I wouldn’t have been nearly so passionate about the pastime if I’d been born in Kansas, for instance.
But there’s another answer that’s closer to the truth. One of my favorite times to sail was Friday evenings after work at Redwood City’s Spinnaker Sailing. For thirty bucks or so you can go out on a small sailboat, whether you’ve sailed before or not, and find out whether it appeals to you. There’s an instructor on each boat, and most Fridays the crew has at least a first mate with some experience, so there’s not a lot of risk. You sail out the slough with the tide, face a moderate chop in the Bay, then about the time the sun sets, turn back with the wind behind you, and laze your way back to the marina. It’s that part of the sail that truly appeals to me.
Of course there are racing sailors who want to be twitching at the sails to get the last knot of speed out of the boat, but that’s not me. My pleasure is in floating on the surface of the water, with nothing between me and the sea but a thin fiberglass hull, and no sound but the lap of water and the rustle of the wind in the sails. Absolute heaven.
It probably all started when I crossed the North Atlantic on my way to England at less than 2 years of age in a ship of the Cunard White Star Line. But I didn’t really begin to sail until I moved to Texas—of all places.
I’d sketched and photographed boats for all the intervening years, until one day I just broke loose and took a sailing class. Before long we were living in a house on a lake with a 25 ft. sailboat nearby. I called it “the floating bathtub,” so badly did it sail.
A lake is a good place to learn to sail, but the challenge of sailing is at sea. That’s where the romance is. Besides the sea stories of Jack London, Joseph Conrad and Robert Louis Stevenson, one of the most inspiring stories is Joshua Slocum’s book “Sailing Alone Around the World.” I think every lover of the sport wants to sail around the world.
Several years ago I met a fellow just back from sailing his 78-ft wooden schooner around the world. It took Merl Petersen 7 years. He didn’t keep a log, but he agreed to talk about it while I taped the conversation. So I wrote up the post-log, and I learned that was too much for me. The way Merl told it, it’s hard, dangerous and messy work, and things break down at the worst possible moment. And there’s the danger of getting run down by a 900 ft freighter in the middle of the night, outside shipping lanes. Certainly way beyond my capabilities.
But I love reading about other people doing it. A local magazine that’s free at any marina office or marine supply is Latitude 38; it appeals to anyone interested in sailing. It has an electronic site: Lectronic Latitude < www.latitude38.com/LectronicLat/> People write about their lives as they sail around the world, and it’s a great resource for the armchair sailor.
If you’ve ever had an interest in boats, visit your local marina this summer, and get the magazine Latitude 38. Maybe you’ll become as passionate about sailing as I am, and help keep the sport afloat in our glorious SF Bay.