Learning to Sail I

Heroic epithets and ballast babes

“Master mariner of land ways and sea ways,” and “the great tactician” are epithets for one of western literature’s greatest heroes – Odysseus of Ithica. Odes to his legendary skill with sword, sail and battle strategy fill the pages of Homer’s tales. So fond was my son of this Achaean sailing legend, that we once named a family dog after him. But that was myth – not reality.

Hailing from the land-locked state of New Mexico, USA, words like dinghy, yacht, mast or keel had never crossed my lips, let alone entered my mind. Then I moved to Phuket; yachting hub of the Andaman. As regattas came and went, I would seek passage as ballast or beer-maid. Simultaneously, that mythic, master strategist’s name kept being bandied about in the unlikeliest places – was it a sign?

At the King’s Cup Regatta held in December 2006, I had the great fortune of spending a day aboard S/Y Switchblade with her owner, Mike Downard at the helm. It was clear from the start that Mike was a teacher. Though he argues that he never instructs while racing, the signs are obvious: patience, positive reinforcement, concise explanations and an ability to pull a crew together to focus on their goal.

With instructor certifications that include IYT/RYA / BCU BDA for windsurfing, canoeing, dragon boat racing, dinghy sailing, racing yachts and dinghies, and teaching shore-based nautical theory, and 25 years of experience, Mike knows a thing or two about boats and teaching. For five years he ran a water sport centre in Docklands London before setting sail for Thailand, where he launched Sail in Asia (SIA), a multi activity water sports centre at Ao Yon on Phuket’s Panwa Peninsula.

I knew that if I ever wanted to be more than attractive ballast, I was going to have to learn to sail properly. After meeting Mike, I knew I had found my teacher. I signed up for SIA’s Introduction to Sailing course along with two other women. Julia, Rebecca and I gathered at Ao Yon early one Saturday morning where we were given a laminated card illustrating of a series of knots and two lengths of rope. Over coffee we discussed our objectives while tying and untying bowlines, figure eights and rolling hitches.

“I had done a bit of sailing before and was frustrated just letting the blokes do everything,” said Rebecca. “I also have this dream” she went on, “that one day I will have my own boat and be able to disappear when I feel like it.”

“My partner has a boat and we often spend holidays sailing. I am able to follow instructions but want to learn more so that I can make a better contribution” explained Julia. It seemed we all three had a common motive – though it was easy enough to enjoy sailing with the men in our lives, we just weren’t satisfied in a passive role.

As part of SIA’s program, our course included three full days of training culminating in participation in local club races. Following a short amount of on-shore practicum each morning, (including knot tying, course plotting and basic sail theory), we made our way to the vessel for hands-on training.

The objective of day one was to understand the concept behind and management of the sails.  Following a brief lecture and white board diagrams demonstrating how sails operate (wind doesn’t actually push but rather, pulls a vessel along by its sails,) we went aboard S/Y Tuay Lek, a Platu sports boat.

Once aboard, we rigged the sails and released Tuay Lek from her mooring. Throughout the day we each took turns handling the helm, main sail and head sail as we learned-by-doing the meaning of terms such as trimming, tacking, jibing, hove-to, ease-off and reading the tell-tales.

Day two found us familiarizing ourselves with basic map and navigation skills. Ashore we planned a return trip to a neighboring beach. Mike introduced terms and concepts like chart datem, knots (the speed kind as opposed to the rope kind), tides and GPS. On the water we again rigged the ship and took turns at helm, main sail and head sail, for an entire day at sea.


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