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The gift of sailing is better than any techno gizmo

2008 February 17

This past Christmas, I opened a gift from a magazine publishing company and discovered that they had chosen to send stylish iPod docks to their hundreds of employees and regular contributors. My wife and I found this vastly amusing because we don't own an iPod, so the dock was as useful to us as a 78 rpm record (yes, we've made the transition to CDs) or a Betamax movie tape. Their assumption that everyone owns an iPod struck us as both a sad and a hilarious commentary on today's world.

Not having an iPod seems to be almost un-American, but my wife and I belong to a mysterious and apparently quite small sect that doesn't require constant noise piped to our ears. Who, in fact, actually relish quiet time either together or apart. We gave each other books for Christmas. We're clearly throwbacks.

Not too long ago, during our house rebuild, my wife found a strange aluminum-colored box in the parking lot on one of our daily (sometimes hourly) trips to Home Depot. She brought it home, wondering if it was one of those things they call "Blueberries."

I, being far more worldly, recognized it as someone's Blackberry but, like the iPod, I don't have one so didn't know exactly what to do with it. We were going to return it to lost-and-found, but that evening it rang. I figured out which button to push and the owner on the other end was ecstatic when I said we could make the hand-off at Dunkin' Donuts the next morning.

When he arrived he was so grateful I thought he was going to burst into tears. People who have just found a kidney donor are less effusive. "My entire life is on this Blackberry," he said. No question: we're out of sync with the new electronic world
and I was beginning to think I was obsolete.

Which brings me to our neighbors. They're pleasant enough people, and they have a couple of kids that I've become quite attached to because they are computer wizards.

I feel a bit like the neighborhood child molester when I rap on their door. "Pardon me, Cliff, but would one of your kids like to play with my computer? It seems to have crashed again." I may not have an iPod but I couldn't exist without a computer, although I don't profess to be particularly savvy about it. The kids next door, on the other hand, are as comfortable with a computer as I am with a hammer. "Oh, Mr. Caswell," they'll say with exaggerated and precocious sighs, "We told you last time to just hit Escape-Tab-Control-F6-Option to fix it."

Oh, yeah. I forgot.

So when Cliff and the kids appeared at my door a day or so after Christmas to ask my help, I was a little surprised. "Hey, you do something with sailing magazines, don't you? We need some advice."

It seems a relative had given them a fiberglass sailboat, one of the many nameless types that are found on lakes like ours. It was far better than one of the Styrofoam Kool boats, smaller than a Laser, and drier than a Sunfish. The reason for arriving at my door was that Cliff, though an airline pilot and quite savvy about aerodynamic things, didn't have a clue when it came to the boat. Besides, he didn't really want to go sailing.

The kids, on the other hand, were ecstatic about the gift and couldn't wait to hit the water, but Dad wouldn't let them out without some tutoring. Ask Caswell, the sailboat guy next door.

I'll give away the message of this column at this point, partly because I've already bored you stupid with my stories and partly because I want you to see through my eyes what I discovered.

I'd run the junior program at my yacht club one summer while I was in college and that was, um, five-goes-into, um, a lot of decades ago. But as I stood on the lakeshore looking at two eager kids and a freshly minted sailboat, I realized that I hadn't actually taught someone to sail in a long time.

Oh, sure, I've been sailing and racing every year since that junior program, but all the people I've sailed with have known how to sail. Some of the time it was racing on beer can races with friends, where I'd suggest we bring the genny in a couple of clicks and someone would say, "Hey, that made a difference." I've showed friends sharing a charter how to steer in seas so that the wake looks reasonably straight.
But starting from absolute zero was a new challenge. I had to gather my entire knowledge of wind and sails and rudders and how they all work together. It was a fascinating exercise that started with, "OK, see this piece of rope? It's not called a rope, it's called a sheet. I know, I know, it doesn't go on a bed. Bear with me, here."

Some of my summer as a junior instructor came back, with things I hadn't thought about in decades popping to mind: "Remember, when in doubt, let it out."

The kids were little sponges, absorbing every word and grasping the sailing concepts a lot faster than I had with the Function6-Option-Escape keys. The first few sails were in the morning, when the wind was light and they could master the skills of reaching and running and beating, and the coordination of tacks and jibes.

It wasn't long before they were comfortable sailing up and down the lake, and I could hear the kids discussing their newfound knowledge like siblings. "Don't let it luff so much, dummy!" "Hey, you're going to capsize us!" "Watch out for a jibe!"

It was an enlightening experience for me as well as for them. It made me re-examine the very roots of my knowledge of sailing, and I had to shuck off more than a few bad habits that I've acquired over the years because, after all, you don't want to start someone off on the wrong foot.

It also made me realize the pleasure to be found in the sharing of something truly wonderful like sailing, especially when you're introducing it to a first-timer. Sailing is a wonderful antidote for a world that seems to be too full of iPods and Blackberrys.

Just remember that every sailor, from Christopher Columbus to Lord Nelson to Dennis Conner, had someone say to them at some point: "OK, see this rope? It's called a sheet."

Now it's your turn.