When I first stepped aboard a sailing boat, shortly after my 50th birthday, my first lesson was to appreciate life in the slow lane.
Often no WiFi. Certainly no television and usually little phone signal.
Oh and the boat sails at a leisurely four miles-per-hour which — to a busy business manager —was akin to standing still, only it seemed a whole heck of a lot slower.
Luckily, I don’t suffer badly from motion sickness, though the most experienced of sailors will admit to feeling queasy some days. It seems to be an attitude of mind to some extent, and you learn coping strategies, such as not getting hungry on a rolling boat as those gastric juices have to have something to do.
Fortunately, I had been introduced to a captain who has been sailing all his life and was seeking a new First Mate. Without him, I would never have made it through the first season or two when bad weather, wet clothes and a lousy diet of whatever we had on board (In his case, this amounted to several out-of-date tins and no small amount of whiskey) might easily have put me off.
I was pulling ropes with very little notion why, and getting frustrated by the need to constantly “stow things away.” No novice sailor really understands this until you are in heavy waves and everything NOT stowed away is flying across the cabin.
But those are the trials and tribulations for a novice. Luckily there are compensations, too. Like feeling like your lungs have been bleached clean after a day on the water. Knowing that your eyes have been fed a smorgasbord of delights from morning to night. And to sleep at the end of a day’s sailing for a full 10 hours and more, when a work day might typically allow half that.
The light sparkles on water, even when it’s grey. Clouds scud and take on shapes you never have time to see when stuck indoors. Seabirds call and porpoises and seals nose-up beside the boat — even a whale once, as we crossed the expanse of the Irish Sea on a blissfully calm day.
Sailing is frequently boring, or I find it so anyway, and it’s genuinely one of the reasons I have come to love it.
It’s an antidote to stress and striving, as well as a largely solitary pursuit for someone who works in a job full of people, phone calls and issues requiring attention.
Sailing has taught me to walk along a pontoon, among strangers, wet-haired, straight from the marina shower block, just as nature made me (although with the benefit of clothes, I hasten to add). I might not have been able to do that comfortably before, having swallowed the wisdom that makeup was a necessary defense against others’ judgment (or possibly just my own).
Sailing has taught me to live in small spaces, with fewer possessions, and to be more tolerant of fellow passengers, since living cheek-by-jowl is not optional.
It taught me, like last night, that to get up at 4.30 A.M. to check mooring ropes in a gale, can be exhilarating. Mortality is something to be respected on a boat and, while I can honestly say I never once felt unsafe, that’s in full recognition that every step and process needs to be carried out mindfully. The rule is, one hand for work and one to hang on while the boat is moving. It’s a good rule.
If all these privations sound a lot less fun than other holidays, then let me also describe the fabulous days that turn it into a joy of sailing. The days when the wind races across the water and white water spills onto the deck. The days when there is nothing around but stunning, coastal scenery in every direction, and when you feel as wild and free as the breeze itself. Those days stand out like shafts of sunlight against a backdrop of drizzle and slack sails — but they come often enough to draw me back to the water.
Fellow sailors can offer kinship, too. After a mishap last year, the first people we met were a couple who had made the bold decision to sell their home, buy a boat and travel as the wind took them. Their company made up for a lengthy layup for boat repairs (and revealed a shared liking for gin and chocolate, that we were all more than happy to indulge).
So it’s not all solitary. You can choose where to moor up and who might be a kindred spirit, or stay quietly under your own awning if that’s what the day and the mood demands.
At this point, I ought to stress that I have no ambitions to be a great sailor. With just half a dozen seasons behind me, I happily accept that I’m far more comfortable as crew than skipper. Others will be different, but I come on board to escape responsibilities, not to acquire more.
I’m also not rich and the boat we sail is a beautifully maintained, but stately, old lady which is valued at less than some of my friend’s cars.
It’s true that mooring fees are an extra expense, but sailing is still cheaper than many holidays — and trips away are available whenever the sun shines. People ask, “Where are you going on holiday?” and look bemused when I answer honestly that we often don’t know ’til we get there.
Last night’s gale necessitates a longer stay in our current harbour for example — but that’s okay, since the very point of leisure sailing is… sailing, not always reaching a destination.
For someone brought up to always “do my best” and “go the extra mile,” it perhaps took me until now to realize that NOT doing; NOT deciding; NOT being in total control is liberating. I treat the sea with respect and thus far, she never fails to fill me with awe and wonder.
There are so many branches of sailing; from single-handed day sailing, to high-octane racing and indeed motor sailing (of which sailors with sails are haughtily dismissive). Though in my experience, it’s still more of a man’s game, with many more boat-owners and enthusiasts being male.
There’s no good reason for this, hard work though leisure sailing can be, and there are lots of clubs which welcome novices of any age to join their passion.
Like me, you might acquire some skills then offer yourself as crew. Many marinas have noticeboards advertising for companion sailors or racing crew — depending on skills acquired.
My captain is 72, and I’m 58, so it’s not age-barred and many countries offer initiatives such as the UK’s “Able to Sail” programme, which takes those who have experienced illness or disability out on the water to let them experience the freedom.
One word of warning, make your intentions known well in advance if you answer a small-ad for a sailing companion. Finding yourself stuck as a galley-slave, or worse, in a confined space with a libidinous seadog is NOT the way to improve your sailing skills.
Or invest in your own boat and be master of your own destiny. Just stay safe and always tell someone when you set off and when you will next be in touch.
Coastguards and lifeboats are wonderful, but the aim should be never to need them.
May you enjoy the feeling of the wind in your hair.
And all the pleasures in the joy of sailing.