Lit Bits

LEARNING TO SAIL: First Boats

Kids on duck boat

YOU HEAR LOTS OF COMPLAINTS these days about how there aren't enough young people coming into, and staying involved in, the sport of sailing. Modern sailors, with much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments, love to debate the reasons for this. Many heap blame upon the venerable Optimist, the default training dinghy for the last half-century or more, and deride it as being too slow and boring to hold the interest of today's hyperactive media-addled youth. Even at the highest levels, in the exalted realm of the America's Cup, the working assumption seems to be that we must somehow make our sport more exciting and telegenic if it is to survive.

My own experience teaches me this probably isn't the best way to get kids interested in sailing. For children, or anyone, to learn to love sailing, and to get good at it, I think they need, first and foremost, a sense of adventure and/or a desire to connect with nature. Given this, there are then two other important ingredients: access to the water and a boat they can think of as their own. It need not be a fast boat, or a fancy one, or even a pretty one. It just needs to belong to them, figuratively or actually.

In one sense, I was very lucky. I lived in all sorts of places while growing up, many of them landlocked, some of them a bit depressing, but we always spent summers on the coast of Maine. Even better, we stayed on a small island that could be accessed only by boat. From an early age therefore, as a matter of necessity, I was exposed to rowboats and outboard-powered skiffs and was taught how to handle them.

Boy in skiff

My brothers and I were also given a boat--a small wooden duck boat that had been exhumed, I believe, from my grandmother's coal cellar. It was a very simple craft, drew only a few inches of water, and was easily controlled with a kayak paddle. Unlike a kayak, however, it had tremendous form stability, as its hull was shaped much like that of a modern IMOCA Open 60, with a fine entry forward and very flat broad hindquarters, so that it did not mind being overloaded and mindlessly romped upon (see photo up top).

We had the duck boat only one summer, but for me it was an important summer, in that it was the first time I was allowed to use a boat alone and unsupervised. I roamed the narrow channel that bounded our island to the east, much of which was mudflat and sandbar at dead low tide, and explored every nook and cranny of the shore on both sides. What I remember most is the intense feeling of freedom and independence and how this sharpened my appreciation of my surroundings. When hacking about on foot through the woods on our island, the dense thickets of pine and the dramatic rock ledges were annoying obstacles to be overcome. Seen from the water, however, from a boat I commanded, they seemed mysterious and beautiful.

At the end of that summer, we stored our duck boat upside down in the open pasture behind the little beach from which we routinely launched it and covered it with a tarp to protect from the winter weather. That fall, however, Henry Blake, one of the lobstermen who lived across the narrows, discovered it and decided to conduct experiments. What I was told was that he mounted a 35-hp outboard on the back of the boat, to see how fast it could go, and took off down the narrows at full throttle. The boat went airborne, then shattered into pieces when it hit the water again. Henry and the engine barely survived. Of course I should have been upset that he had so thoughtlessly destroyed a boat I thought belonged to me, but really I was awed by his audacity and courage.

IN TERMS OF LEARNING TO SAIL, I was less fortunate. We did not belong to a yacht club. There was no "youth program" for me to enroll in, and none of the adults in my life were inclined to teach me. This is a little surprising, in that my grandparents on my mother's side had lived aboard a schooner before settling on the island, and my father, who was raised in the Midwest, had raced on scows as a boy. I do have vague recollections of a couple of excursions made on a small cruiser my grandmother maintained when I was very young. I remember spending a rainy afternoon in a cold cabin trying to heat food over a can of Sterno, and I have one very vivid memory of motoring through some scary-looking whirlpools in a place called Hell's Gate, but I have no memory of ever sailing on that boat. I certainly have no memory of anyone ever trying to teach me anything about sailing.

In this respect, too, our island was not well situated. In the narrows on the east side we could at high tide paddle about safely in the duck boat, or in a cheap inflatable kayak we owned for a while, but it was too sheltered from the wind for sailing. In the open river on the west side there was wind, particularly in the afternoons after the sea breeze filled in, but the current was very strong. Especially on an outgoing tide, there was a real danger that an inexperienced child in a sailing dinghy might get into trouble.

My desire to sail was at first abstract. Sailing vessels were prominently featured in certain books I enjoyed, most particularly Song of the Sirens, by Ernest K. Gann. I was also keenly inspired by a movie, Captain Horatio Hornblower, starring Gregory Peck, that I saw on television one Saturday afternoon.

Immediately after watching this film, I taught myself how to draw square-rigged vessels in detail and started building crude model boats with square rigs that I sailed across our swimming pool. Eventually I stumbled across the book Dove, by Robin Lee Graham, and was transfixed. Here was a boy just a few years older than myself, equipped with a sailboat just a few feet longer than the outboard skiffs I was by now allowed to handle on my own, who had sailed by himself all the way around the world. That could be me, I realized, if only I knew how to sail.

Dove cover

Dove under sail

I developed a plan to convert a small pram we kept on the island into a sailboat. At school, on scraps of looseleaf paper, I sketched out the details: an oar for a rudder, some plywood scraps for leeboards, a slender sapling for a mast, an old bedsheet for a sail, and I thought I'd be all set. But when I showed my drawings to a friend who knew something about sailing, he laughed and assured me this crude concoction would sail very poorly.

Fortunately, I was soon saved from despair when I saw an ad for Kool cigarettes in a magazine. Send us $88 and a Kool carton top, said the ad, and we'll send you a real sailboat--a Sea Snark. I feverishly tore out the ad, convinced my parents to switch to smoking Kools for a while, and started saving my allowance. Eventually, with the help of a parental subsidy, I had enough money to send away for the boat.

Kool sailboat ad

The Sea Snark arrived in a large cardboard box. Inside the box I found an 11-foot slab of unfinished styrofoam shaped like a hull, a small lateen sail, a daggerboard, a small rudder, and two lengths of light polyester line. There were also two pamphlets: one explained how to assemble the boat; the other explained how to sail it. I in fact had little trouble putting the boat together, which says something, as I had (and still have) no inherent mechanical ability. Learning to sail it was something else. I read the instructions carefully, but was confused by the section (really it was just a short paragraph) on sailing to windward. I wondered: how could a boat possibly use the wind to sail against the wind? It made no sense to me. There was no explanation of the principle involved, just a crude diagram that showed a Sea Snark magically zig-zagging upwind.

Oh, well, I thought, all things will become apparent on the water. And I tossed aside the pamphlet, launched my new boat, and set out to teach myself how to sail.

This turned out to be surprisingly easy. If you're interested in learning yourself, I can tell you most everything you need to know in just one sentence: as you point your boat closer and closer to the wind, pull the sails in tighter and tighter; as you point it further and further away from the wind, let the sails out more and more. Really the only hard part is figuring out where the wind is coming from. Anyone who can sense this instinctively can quickly learn how to sail a boat reasonably well on their own; people who cannot (there are more of them than you would think) may well never learn. There are, of course, many fine points to be absorbed. Indeed, one of the things I love about our sport is that there is always something new to learn. But the business of simply making a sailboat go somewhere isn't very complicated, especially if you already know something about boats to begin with.

The Sea Snark was well suited to this cavalier trial-by-error approach to sailing. It was, above all, a very forgiving boat. Though it weighed just 30 pounds, it did not carry enough sail to make it especially tender and could be handled by a novice like myself in some pretty stiff air. I soon discovered, however, that it was possible to capsize the thing, particularly when jibing in a breeze. But I also found it was very easy to right again, and indeed I enjoyed this and would often capsize the boat on purpose, just for the fun of it.

The Snark was not a fast boat by any means, but it sailed well enough to keep me interested. Because it was so light it needed very little air to get moving; in a strong wind on a broad reach it would actually plane a bit. It did have some quirks. Upwind, sailing alone, I found it was best to have a 15-pound rock up forward to keep the bow down, though downwind the boat was a bit faster without the rock. In any sort of decent breeze the Snark had a heavy weather helm, and in a really strong breeze sailing to weather the entire hull would twist in a rather alarming way. Also, since there was no way to fasten a cleat on to the styrofoam, I had to constantly hold the sheet in my hand, which could get painful when the wind was strong.

Kool boat assembled

AFTER THEY SAW ME SAILING in the Sea Snark, my brothers wanted to try, too, and learned to handle it as easily as I had. Soon we were lobbying my parents for a bigger boat, so we could all go sailing at the same time, but they suggested instead we just get more Snarks. This perhaps was the boat's most significant virtue: it was cheap enough that a family of modest means could acquire an entire fleet of them.

One boat was purchased brand new from a dealer. Another one (another Kool boat, in fact) we purchased second-hand from a private owner, and two more were acquired in a manner similar to the first, through an offer made by the Budweiser beer people. In all I believe we spent less than $500 on our five boats, which, even in those days, was a spectacular value.

Inevitably, my brothers and I and the many friends who visited us on the island wanted to do something organized with the boats, so we formed a club, which we pompously named the Long Island Corinthian Yachting Association. We especially liked to pronounce the acronym of the club's name out loud.

LICYA's very first event was an around-the-island race, in which three boats participated, each with two crew aboard. The Race Committee (our parents) decreed this must be held on an incoming tide, so that competitors could not be swept out to sea. Because of the tide, however, some legs were much slower than others, and eventually the Race Committee became bored, towed one boat across the finish line, and declared it the winner. Several protests were filed--two against the winning boat concerning the propriety of the finish; two against the losing boats, which had tied up to trees onshore to await the turn of the tide; and one more against the winning boat, which allegedly at one point had been pushed several hundred feet across a sandbar.

In the interest of promoting less controversial competitions, LICYA then established a short round-the-buoys course on which to hold races. It was a challenging circuit, designed so that the tide remained a factor, but not prohibitively so, and included such interesting obstacles as a barge wreck and a large rock on which seals liked to sunbathe. These races were very successful, and we all learned quite a bit about the details of sailboat performance while trying to beat each other. For the better part of two summers, at least, we raced the boats almost every day.

LICYA race start

LICYA race pre-start

Snark under sail

One of our Snarks under sail. That's my mom's cousin Eddie swimming out to the rock with the seals on it. He did this every day whenever he visited

I enjoyed racing Sea Snarks, but really I was more interested in voyaging. In considering what sort of voyage I might undertake in an 11-foot styrofoam boat, I hit first on the idea of sailing out to Seguin Island, which lay three miles out to sea. The Race Committee immediately vetoed this proposal, but said I was welcome to go exploring in the other direction, up the river, as far as I liked.

A friend and I then developed a bold plan to sail up the river to the city of Bath, a distance of about 15 miles, in two separate boats. It was, at first, a very pleasant passage. People in other boats paused to talk with us, and we had fun pulling their legs, telling them we were going all the way to Augusta, about 40 miles up the river. To see their eyes widen at the thought of this was most gratifying. By the time we reached Bath, however, the wind was blowing hard and our hands were bleeding from clutching the sheets for so long. We went ashore, had a burger, contemplated the prospect of beating against the wind all the way back downriver, and then called the Race Committee for a lift home.

This episode taught me that Snark voyaging definitely had finite limits, but it did not dampen my enthusiasm. On days when the others did not want to race, I took my boat and went off on my own to explore the river immediately north of our island. There were five other uninhabited islands within two miles of us, four of which had abandoned houses on them. As I had on the duck boat earlier, I savored each shoreline in detail as I sailed along. Often, too, I went ashore on one island or another, secured my boat, and threaded my way inland to creep around the lonely houses, most of which had been vacant since the 1920s and were filled with strange artifacts. The sense of discovery, the feeling that I might be the first to have entered these places in many decades, was intoxicating.

What I valued most during these tiny voyages was my autonomy. For me it was a point of pride to be able to set forth on and return from these ventures, under sail and without assistance. Often, after I'd been gone for two hours or more, the Race Committee would send someone in a skiff to check on me. The search party would find me creeping along some back channel in a mere whisper of wind, working my way home inch by painful inch, and would ask if I'd like a tow. No thanks, I'd say cheerfully, I can do this, and I waved them away.

Usually I did make it back on my own, but sometimes I miscalculated and would still be laboring against some contrary current or breeze when it came time for dinner. Out would come the skiff again, but this time with an explicit order from the Race Committee: you must accept a tow. I surrendered my painter reluctantly and sat silently in my Snark as it rumbled along in the wake of the skiff, thinking glumly to myself that my adventure had been ruined.

IT WASN'T UNTIL AFTER WE GOT TIRED of conventional racing that we learned just how mortal our Sea Snarks really were. One year, to spice things up a little, LICYA abolished the rules pertaining to right-of-way and decreed that boats could hit each other while racing. We called this "bumper-boating" and enjoyed it immensely. Soon we forgot all about the pedestrian business of trying to be first around the course, and our races deteriorated into wild melees in which we concentrated solely on trying to capsize, dismast, or otherwise disable one another.

Bumper-boating was much more visceral than regular racing and demanded more skill, as skippers who were best at maneuvering their boats quickly in a tight spot under combat conditions always had a distinct advantage over their opponents. The climatic moment came one windy day when one skipper found some running room, quickly built up a great head of speed, and T-boned another boat full out directly amidships, causing it to break into two pieces. This drew wild applause from those watching on shore, but also marked the beginning of the end of our fleet of Snarks. A few days later, when another boat broke apart in a similar incident, the Race Committee felt compelled to ban all LICYA bumper-boat competitions.

I remembered Henry Blake and our duck boat and thought the Race Committee was over-reacting. There is honor, I argued, in going down with your ship. But the problem was our ships were essentially disposable. As the Snark hulls got older, the styrofoam, after much exposure to the sun, became brittle and less resilient and much more likely to crumble and crack. We tried fiberglassing one hull, but this was an abysmal failure. The glass added much weight and did not take well to the old foam, and we ended up with a bubbly, blistered, heavy boat that sailed porly. And even without the stress of bumper-boating, we soon learned our surviving hulls were none too sound when one day the mast on one boat, my Kool boat, suddenly dropped right through the bottom of the maststep while under sail.

New Snark hull

New Snark hull, straight out of the box

Old Snark hull

Old Snark hull, after years of use

For most LICYA members the demise of our Snark fleet spelled the end of their interest in sailing. Of the several kids who played on those boats, I was the only one who stayed involved in the sport. Even before the Snarks started dying, I had succeeded in obtaining a more sophisticated boat, a Hobie 10, that had all sorts of fancy controls--a boom vang, an outhaul, and a cunningham--that I had never seen before. It was also light-years faster than the Snarks and much more fun to sail, at least as far as its performance was concerned. As I studied the sport more closely, sailing magazines started piling up against my bedroom wall and the books I read became increasingly more technical.

Hobie 10

Me on my Hobie 10... a faster boat at last

Would my brothers and my friends have stayed interested in sailing if they, too, had faster boats like the Hobie to sail? I seriously doubt it. The fact is my brothers did have access to the Hobie, for I wasn't proprietary about it, and they weren't very interested in it. One became obsessed with cars; the other one went all nutty about baseball and computers. Where I thought of the Sea Snark as my "first sailboat" and looked forward to learning to sail on other sorts of boats, my brothers thought of it merely as a toy they once had some fun messing around with.

To think you can ever permanently capture the interest of people who are not inherently fascinated by sailing by tantalizing them with modern high-performance sailboats is simply fallacious. Yes, indeed, the fastest sailboats today can run at 40 knots or better, and to a sailor that is beyond exciting, but to everyone else it is barely highway speed. Tell a kid who is pining to drag a knee on Japanese sport bike screaming through a corner at over 100 mph that he might have more fun sailing on a Moth with foils, and he will likely ask what it is you're smoking.

I realize my perspective on this is a bit skewed because I am much more a cruiser than a racer, but I do believe cruisers and racers do have certain fundamental things in common: we love sailboats because they demand that we be self-reliant, because we enjoy being on the water, and because we are captivated by the idea of harnessing a natural element, the wind, to move us from place to place. We will not be able to grow our sport by convincing people who do not value these things that sailing is somehow exciting. We can only grow our sport by making sure that everyone who is capable of valuing these things has a meaningful opportunity to go sailing.

This is harder than it used to be, first because access to the water is now much more exclusive. The simple cottages on the coast that kids like me used to get to spend summers in have been increasingly displaced by enormous seaside McMansions only hedge-fund managers can afford. Yes, there are still yacht clubs out there, but there aren't really any more of them, and many of them have always been a bit elitist to begin with. Meanwhile, many of the gritty working docks along the shore where you could maybe stash a small boat for the season if you had the right connections have been torn down and replaced with condos and swank retail villages. It's also harder and harder to lay a mooring of your own without spending half a lifetime on a waiting list.

And boats are definitely a big problem, too. But, again, we don't need faster, fancier boats to lure kids into the sport with. We need cheaper, more disposable ones--boats like the Sea Snark--that we can hand to kids and say: do what you will with it. Ideally, we'd have so many of these we could issue one to each child at birth. We'd let them go off unsupervised, as soon as possible, on a nice bit of interesting water to have adventures on their own. We'd let them find out for themselves what it feels like to master wind and water with a hull and a sail. We'd give them the time and the space to forge an inviolable personal connection to the elements.

And yes, they may well come back to us with a busted boat and an alarming tale or two. But if they are sailors at heart, they will ask: may I have another, please? And then they will say: please, teach me more.

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