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Even an old salt can learn new life lessons at sailing school

2012 July 2

My friend, Bobby, called a few months ago with the news. "Guess what?" he asked.

"I know, you want to borrow my chainsaw or my hydraulic jack or the weed trimmer again? No, wait, you've never returned my weed trimmer," I answered.

There was a pause and, in an exasperated voice, he said, "The big news is that I'm taking sailing lessons. And I'll bring the weed trimmer back this afternoon."

And so I discovered that Bobby, after years of hearing my tales of the delights of sailing, had finally decided to take a sailing course. It seems that the Chinese water torture method of promoting sailing works after all. Tiny grains of sand can wear away the biggest rock.

When he brought my weed trimmer back, he filled in the details. He'd always had sailing in the back of his mind, but never acted on it until one of those mass coupon e-mails on the Internet offered him a basic sailing course at a local school for half price. He signed up.

All went well apparently, and when he would come to borrow or occasionally return something, I would hear about his adventures on the water and what he was learning. It was fun to watch his enthusiasm for sailing unfold, like one of those slow-motion Disney films of a tulip blooming.

A couple of weeks ago, he called and asked if I'd like to go sailing. Two of his classmates couldn't make the lesson and he wondered if I'd like to sit in. It was couched in a most casual "we could use a hand on the winches when we tack" but I realized that he really wanted to show off what he'd learned. So I agreed.

I arrived at the dock to find two other couples plus Bobby and the instructor already rigging a 35-footer for our afternoon sail. Everyone had their chores, and I know that Bobby was covertly watching me as he expertly threw a hitch on a cleat, coiled down the halyards, and generally showed off his skills. He was like a kid riding a bicycle without training wheels for the first time-proud and slightly scared at the same time.

I won't bore you with the minute-by-minute details, but I came away vastly impressed, not just with what Bobby had learned, but also by how competently the instructor handled the crew of semi-novices.

And I had an epiphany.

As I was listening to the instructor, I realized that I'd heard a very similar patter before. No, it wasn't the sailing classes in a junior program a half-century ago, it was much more recently. And then I had it.

She Who Must Be Obeyed and I sat in on one of Tony Robbins' Life Mastery Courses when I was writing a feature profile on Robbins and, with just a few changes in the words used, this sailing class followed Robbins' advice for improving your life.
I realized that sailing and self-improvement courses share a great deal in common and, in fact, sailing teaches you many of the skills needed to succeed in life as well.

One of the things the instructor repeated over and over, whether we were setting up for a jibe or making a pass to pick up a buoy, was "plan ahead." It was clearly part of the regular drill for the class, and the crew would talk through what each of them would be doing-handling the mainsheet, tailing a winch or just staying low and out of the way.

A basic rule of sailing turned out to be a microcosm of life. Plan ahead. Set goals. Think through the cause and effect before taking action. Don't rush into things.

But that wasn't the end of the life/sailing metaphor.

There was one jibe that looked good right up to the point where a loop in the jib sheet tied itself tightly around a deck vent, leaving the jib flogging hopelessly until someone ran forward to free the sheet.

Once everything was squared away, the instructor looked at the crew sitting in the cockpit and just asked, "Well?" One of the men immediately said, "My fault … I left too much slack in the sheet."

And so here was another one of life's rules: accept responsibility. Once someone had taken responsibility for the mistake, it became a lesson to the whole crew. There was no need for the pointing of fingers, because one guy had manned-up and admitted he blew it. We moved on, just as you do in life.

Later in the afternoon there was a continuous discussion in the cockpit about right of way and, tah-dah, here was another teaching from the self-improvement courses: know the rules. There were the usual collection of starboard/port and upwind/downwind issues. All pretty standard stuff.

But there also appeared an important corollary to sailing and life-know when to break the rules. Big boats always have the right of way, even if the rules say they don't. Boats that might not see you always have the right of way, because you can be dead right too.

And it's the same with life. Once you've learned the basic rules, then you can break them to your own benefit, to think outside the box, to create what has never been created.

I'm sure there are many other rules of life that can be drawn from sailing, but as we were sailing back to the dock late in the afternoon, I realized there is one more important rule of both life and sailing-laugh a lot.

We laughed while reliving the bad jibe, and we laughed with the instructor when he told stories of jibes that made ours seem tame. We laughed because we were just happy to be on the water under full sails on a beautiful day.

And that's how an afternoon on the water, seeing through the eyes of newcomers, showed me that sailing is really an immersion course in life. To succeed at sailing and at life, you need to plan ahead, accept responsibility, know the rules, and laugh often.

It's great that, through sailing, I'm still learning.