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Let’s call it learning to learn to sail instead

2023 January 1

Interest in sailing saw a remarkable uptick starting in about May of 2020 that hasn’t let up. Google searches for the phrase “How to sail” had been increasing steadily since 2004, but doubled during the first Covid spring and have remained high ever since. And unlike most other sailing-related searches which generally trend down and come from a few developed countries, this specific search phrase suggests that people all over the world want to learn to sail.

The enthusiasm is confirmed in the market. One broker recently told me that it has been almost impossible to find a boat to sell, new or used, in the three seasons including and following the start of the pandemic, but that buyers, especially first-time buyers, are everywhere. Interest rate hikes may be tamping down some of that demand, but cash deals and DIYers are multiplying.

More directly, most sailing schools are jam-packed with new students, and new schools are popping up. In my town, you can learn to sail in at least five places: two clubs, a community sailing center, and with a captain or trainer for hire. Or you can, as a lucky few do; find a rare boat to buy, read some books, watch some videos and set off.

But what does it mean to “learn to sail?” Is mastery of sailing a thing? I started sailing 53 years ago at a summer camp and still learn every time I set foot on a boat. I return to sailing as often as I do precisely because it continues to teach.

Chaos Theory suggests that when we combine diverse systems like physics, mechanics, motion, energy, behavior and the human mind and body into one thing, the inevitable result is random and diverse. Edward Lorenz’s “butterfly effect” predicts that two similar weather models will quickly diverge at the fluttering of one butterfly’s wing, making long-term weather forecasting impossible. Likewise, I remember no two sailing excursions the same way and my crewmates concur. The fact that we lived Chaos Theory together is what makes sailing interesting and storied.

The best metaphor for learning to sail is learning to play an instrument in order to make music in an ensemble. The basics of playing an instrument, like a piano, can be broken down into simple concepts, and most people can bang out a song, just as most people can sail a small boat on a reach and tack and jibe after a few lessons. Some piano students will get good enough to join a garage band. The sailing version of this happens in daysailing, evening beer can racing and weekend cruises. But to join an accomplished orchestra is a calling requiring lifetimes of collective study.

Sailing’s version of this social magic is the team that barely needs to speak except for timing or to be cordial. 

“Bearing away five degrees.”

“Tacking in three boatlengths.”

“Who needs relief?”

This is a sailing team whose members bring complimentary talents, share an objective and are aware of their responsibility to one another, because they have committed equal amounts of time to rehearsal, contingency planning and constructive debriefs, as well as mastering the skills required to do their own work. Everyone is aware of the systems. Everyone knows how their work affects another’s. Everyone is ready to step in or step out of a task or pick up for someone else. Empathy rules. And the boat dances to the fewest words. The team is one.

However, teams rarely stay the same and dynamics and culture change, as Chaos Theory predicts. To taste this rare magic is life affirming and magnetic and when it comes to an end, we are called to start all over and learn to sail again.

So I’d like to propose that we reframe what it means to “learn to sail,” since learning to sail barely scratches the surface of the symphony that awaits the searcher and his or her friends. 

Instead, let’s call it “learning to learn to sail.” Google will be so confused.