Saturday, March 22, 2008

Sloop Dreams

In which sailing takes us away

I had been sailing on San Francisco Bay several times, managing to make myself useful to my skipper by trimming and easing sheets and serving as ballast in the informal Friday night yacht races. Since moving back to The City some weeks ago, I determined to formalize my knowledge and so entered a sailing program through Spinnaker, located at South Beach Marina, adjacent to Mays Field.

The two-weekend program included a little theory and a lot of practice on the water. The first Saturday we spent a little time in the classroom but were soon out on the Bay and making fools of ourselves: nearly running our 27-foot Santana sloop, “First Class” into the dock, other parked yachts, the sea wall and a pair of square-rigged pirate ships that were giving live sea-battle demonstrations to tourists.

One of my fellow students went overboard, helping us do the man-overboard drill in, as they say, “real time.” All very exciting.

One of the most interesting aspects of the theory portion of the class was learning that the sail of a boat operates on precisely the same principle as an airplane’s wing, which is why sailboats are able to make headway against the wind. When a boat is “beating to weather” – tacking back and forth into the wind – there is a Bernoulli affect, so that the boat is not so much being pushed from behind as sucked from the front. When the boat is running with the wind, however, it is being pushed from behind. A boat that’s running can only go as fast as the wind itself, but a boat beating to weather can actually go faster than the wind, due to the Bernoulli affect. An addition, the keel also acts as a wing beneath the water, helping move the boat along.

It's incredible to think that people have been sailing for 5,000 years but recently did we realize that a bird's wing and a sail are pretty much the same, and that the principles applied to sailing could be put to use in flying. Such is the power conventional thinking.

Talk about “learning the ropes.” And it’s amazing how fast I learned them. I was pretty twitter-pated at first but, by the third day, I had it down – tacking, gibing, the commands, the names of the different lines (a line is a rope cut to a specific length and sued for a specific purpose aboard) and sheets (sheets be being lines used to trim (pull-in) and ease (let out) the sails), how the boat should feel at heel (when is leaning) and so forth. I helped that they switched-up instructors the second weekend. The first fellow was a bit of a Bly, the second more of a Dr. Phil who was able to put us all more at ease.

On our last day, the Bay was roughest, with winds approaching 20 knots. At times “First Class” seemed to fly over the choppy waves heeling to its full 20 degrees, her sails pulling beautifully. I felt like John F. Kennedy. I was flattered when our instructor called me “a natural” and said that I’d passed “with flying colors.”

Not so my hapless mates. Nice fellows, but they never seemed to grow comfortable with how the boat moved, and things like tacking and gibing never became instinctive. One them, a chap from Iran, would always tack when he was supposed to gibe and vice-versa. Now I know why the Persians lost the Battle of Salamis.

(America's Cup image courtesy terreaway via Flickr)


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