“Fall off the wind!” the skipper yelled.
The problem? I had no idea which way the wind was blowing. Or which way that meant I should pull the tiller.
After three classes about sailing – in which I learned the basic vocabulary and the fact that you can’t sail a boat directly into the wind – I was now at the helm of an actual sailboat.
Sailing was always on my bucket list, but I figured I’d only have the time and money to try once I retired. Then a friend told me about the North Coast Women’s Sailing Association, which introduces women to sailing through volunteers who share their time and their boats.
Women-only teams race each summer Tuesday night out of Edgewater Yacht Club, while newbies like me learn how to tack, jibe and trim a sail on prep boats. The program is a steal, at less than $100 for the season.
The organization started 20 years ago when a group of women boat owners gathered to sail with their friends. But it’s morphed into something much bigger, with 120 active members and a mission to get more women involved in a male-dominated sport.
“The whole mission is to empower women and let them go as far as they want to go,” said Commodore Shauna Welch, of Parma. “You don’t have to start in sail camp as a kid to race in club races.”
Women join because they want to meet new people. Because they want to conquer their fear of the water. Or like me because they want to try a cool new sport.
The association definitely makes an elite sport more egalitarian. But figuring out the language is tough.
“There are 15 terms for everything,” said Welch, who joined a prep boat seven years ago and now races her own sailboat three times a week. “And each captain is a little bit different.”
Each kind of sail has its own name: the jib at the front, the main at the back and the hot-air-balloon-like spinnaker for catching the wind behind it. There’s also a specific word for each corner, like the tack. But tacking is also a verb, meaning to turn the boat 90 degrees while sailing into the wind. Tacking requires pulling the jib line, to switch the jib from one side of the boat to the other. And accidental tacking is what I did when I didn’t fall off the wind correctly.
Once you get the feel for the language, deciphering the sport is like learning geometry. It’s completely unintuitive and requires thinking through multiple steps: If I pull on this jib line, the sail will get tauter, and then what will the boat do?
Sound confusing? It is, definitely.
And it’s a lot of work to rig the boat, to run the lines, put up and take down the sails every time.
(“I guess it’s like skiing,” one woman said. My reply: “You don’t have to build the chairlift every time!”)
Sailing can be disappointing, when there’s not enough wind to move, or too much wind to safely take the boat out.
But the sport is also exhilarating, especially on windy days, when the boat heels on its side, crashing through the waves. It’s challenging, bending my brain in a totally new way. And it’s always beautiful, as we slice through the water, watching the sun set on the downtown Cleveland skyline.
By the end of the season, I felt comfortable in my deck shoes. I knew which lines went where and how to cleat them. And I was getting the feel for the sail, when to let go and when to pull while you tack.
Next year, I can’t wait to be part of a real race team, where I can add the task of dodging other boats to my repertoire.