03 November 2012

A Sailing Lesson in Santa Marta

When the student is ready, the master appears. - a Buddhist proverb

Oh my, that's an awfully big rip you have there.  Lucky for us, That's s/v Juffa across the fairway.
For the past year and a half, we have been trying to learn how to sail. Most of our learning has been sans instructor, in The School of Hard Knocks. Our lessons have come accompanied by jammed fingers, stubbed toes, broken arms, rope burns, ripped sails, sunglasses overboard, frayed tempers, bruises, recriminations and tears. With rare moments of sheer terror. Oh happy days. Perhaps I'm painting too bleak a picture. Truth told, we've also had those magical moments, when we adjust our sail trim, pick up eight-tenths of a knot, and find glory in the ability to master the forces of the wind for our purposes. But anyway.

Early on, we did have some actual instruction on the art of sailing - almost all of it through the Hoofers, a sailing club at University of Wisconsin - Madison. Over Memorial Day weekend (2011), we took a beginners' course (ASA101) on Lake Mendota in a teeny little J-24, which we feared would tip over at any moment. We had a few more lessons that summer in Madison, and then in early July, we took ASA103/104 during a three-day cruise around Door County on a 47' Beneteau. ASA stands for American Sailing Association, by the way, and these are good basic courses that we did in a sort of slapdash rush. After we bought Joy, our broker came out with us one afternoon to give us an "orientation" sail on the South River. From that point on, until a couple of weeks ago, it was all on-the-job training with no adequate supervision.

And then we met Brits Bill and Caroline on s/v Juffa, a Fountaine Pajot Lavezzi that was parked across the fairway in Marina Santa Marta. Bill and Caroline's boat is newer and spiffier than ours, but otherwise quite similar. And Bill and Caroline Know What They're Doing. If there was an actual certification required to sail a boat around the world, it could be called ASA 9-They-Know-What-They're-Doing, and Bill and Caroline would have it. Or they would have the British version, I guess. We met them at our first cruisers' potluck - an important rite of passage (click here to read about it). Then we had drinks on their boat, and dinner together on someone else's boat, and they had drinks on our boat. As they got to know us, Bill and Caroline began to pity us - in the nicest sort of way, of course, and we took absolutely no offence, especially since it led to our Best. Sailing Lesson. Ever.

First Bill, who is good-humored and easy-going and does NOT act like a know-it-all, even though he is one, happened to notice that we were using our spinnaker halyard as a topping lift. Which is NOT tickety-boo, as they might say in the British Navy. So of course we told him our topping lift story, which Ean wrote about here. The upshot of that previous adventure: the line that holds up the end of our boom, which is subsequently supposed to go in to and down the mast so we can raise and lower said boom, had been pulled out of the mast (notice my clever use of passive voice here).

Then Bill watched us unfurl and lower our big genoa, so we could examine the two-foot-long rip in our sail. Our preliminary plan: sail tape. In Great Inagua, we had taped the torn luff of this same sail, and it had held up well for several hundred miles of sailing. But Bill, while admiring our tape job, had a better plan. Also, he couldn't bear to look at our jury-rigged topping lift.
So it was, that Bill and Caroline generously volunteered their skills and time to get us sorted out.
Bill prepares to go up the mast.

Bill went up Joy's mast and finessed our old topping lift back in and down our mast. Then Caroline, with greater patience and perserverence than Ean or I could have mustered, fished the topping lift back out of mast at its base. Voila! Our topping lift is back in business. But wait; there's more. Bill then spent several hours sewing our sail back together again, as Ean sat at the feet of the master, listening and watching and learning.
Caroline is unlashing the main halyard, which will be used to winch Bill up.

So.  Ya stick the needle through there, and it comes out here.  Then do it again.  It's called "sewing," now isn't it?
By this time, Ean and I were humbled beyond words and wondering how we deserved such unstinting expert friends. In our cruising so far, I've come to whole-heartedly agree with a bit of wisdom we heard from Blue Water Sailing editor George Day: I'd rather be lucky than smart. And Ean and I were feeling very lucky indeed, to have met Bill and Caroline. But, of course, we're always trying to get a little smarter as well. So, bravely, we asked if they would do just one more little thing. We asked: Will you come out with us for a sail? And they did.

Best. Sailing Lesson. Ever. In one of my previous lives, in the world of process improvement and total quality management, I would have called it "just-in-time training." The students were ready and the teachers appeared. We learned almost as much in that one afternoon as we had in the previous 3000 nm of sailing. We learned about Joy, and how to sail her. We learned about reefing and sail balance, and we got to see what a well-honed sailing team looks like. Best of all, Bill and Caroline were incredibly gracious and modest and patient with us.

Lucky, lucky us - and now we're smart(er), too. Thank you Team Juffa!


  1. I beg to differ. I think "just-in-time" would have been anytime between buying the boat and rotoing your brazo. It's so like you to think everything happens for the best.

    1. Just-in-time because we were ready and able to learn what they had to teach. Just in time to prevent anything WORSE than a broken arm. Right, Mr. Glass-Half-Empty?

    2. Half empty is better than all empty, which would be very sad, indeed.

  2. This comment was originally left by Sarah, but I fat-fingered the "delete" link instead of the "publish" link. Sorry, Sarah.

    I like the Buddhist proverb! We did a paid one-day sailing course back in April last year and have had little sailing experience since. That was until we met Keith at the marina we live in, he's taken us out for a sail on his boat and I think we learnt more from him that day than we did at the sailing course. He's really keen to share with us, and other novices, what he knows and not afraid to test our comfort zones - we were barely out of the berth before he had me at the helm to take us out the marina and channel to the bay. I don't even drive a car so to say the experience was nerve racking would be an understatement but I remember everything I learnt because I was so in the moment with my fear, doubt and determination. I think the sailing life would be very lonely and daunting at times without the camaraderie of other, more experienced sailors.

  3. Sarah, lonely and daunting indeed - well put. I only hope that we are able to help others as much as we have been helped along the way, when we are the "more experienced" ones.