HomeBlogEssaysLearning to Sail on San Francisco Bay

sailing san francisco akyla
Sailing on Akyla.

Learning to Sail on San Francisco Bay

With the mountains four hours away, I decided that I needed a new sport. So I put my name on every crew list in San Francisco.

With a month on Lake Charlevoix doing little else besides sailing under my belt, I thought I was ready for the San Francisco Bay. After all, it does get pretty windy on the main basin. I found out quickly that on the Bay, sailing is the easy part, and racing is a whole other day at sea.

Thinking that it would be hard to find a boat in need of sailors, I put my name on every crew list in San Francisco. Barely 48 hours went by before I got my first phone call. Within a week, I had a choice of boats. Early one Saturday morning, I took the bus across town to the South Beach harbor where I was a last-minute addition to the crew on Akyla—it means Shark in Russian. The boat is aptly named because five minutes after I stepped aboard, I felt like I had been thrown to the sharks, all my skills in doubt. What little I knew about sailboat racing—Tuesday nights in Boyne City followed by cheeseburgers and beers at the BRI—did not prepare me for the level of intensity involved in sailing on Akyla in the Champion of Champions race on the San Francisco Bay. I thought I was pretty fluent in the parts of a sailboat, until now. Moments after we shoved off, there were commands being shouted—fortunately not all at me—that may as well have been in Russian. I mean, what’s a cunningham, a vang, or a running backstay? I couldn’t have told you then, but I can tell you now, they all change the shape of the sail, though on a level that was far beyond my understanding.

I knew from a crew plan emailed to me earlier in the week that I was to be the “cutter” that day. Though I could guess what that is, I could not have defined the term, nor had I any idea how important the minute details of my technique would be. In land-lubber-speak, I was to release the active sheet (the line that controls the sail) when the boat tacked or gybed (changed direction, against or with the wind respectively). Sure you think, you could do that. Well, it’s not as simple as it sounds. First of all, in order to even get into position to accomplish this, I have to get myself from the windward (high side) rail, out from under the lifelines (thin cables that hold the rail meat—us— on the boat when we’re leaning over the edge), turn around and drop about four feet to the leeward (low side) of the boat without knocking one of the seven computers Velcroed to the two the cabin walls with my hip, or creating any extra movement to the boat with the shifting of my weight (we were reminded several times to be like ninjas) which can cause our speed to drop a fraction of a knot (potentially meaning the difference between first and second place), get the handle off of the winch (a task my little hands are not particularly built for), and uncleat the sheet—all within a span of five seconds. To do this without feeling like a drunk elephant took practice. Eventually I did manage to do it—although if it wasn’t my hip knocking the computers, than my knee was in the way—and get in position ready to release the sheet, which is an entirely new paragraph.

In a race scenario, releasing the sheet—also referred to as blowing—is a highly refined skill, nearly as precise as a slalom turn on glare ice. One can not simply let it go. In the worst case, it’s likely to catch itself in a knot. In the best case, it just won’t come off, and the trimmer who is now trying to pull the sail to the other side of the boat will be unable to do so. It is necessary, in one sweeping motion, to lift one’s hand clutching the loose end of the soon-to-be lazy sheet directly up several inches above the winch so that it is fully free in something around a hundredth of a second—you know, the standard time difference between gold and silver in the men’s Olympic downhill. Release too early and the sail won’t make it across the boat, possibly getting stuck on the stays; release too late and you’ve probably dumped all your speed. Either way, the skipper’s going to yell at you, the boat suddenly drowning in a tsunami of four-letter words. I spent years in alpine ski racing and working at a famously crude men’s magazine. I thought I knew how to swear. I didn’t. Though, much to my mother’s dismay, I do now.

Eventually, I did get the hang of this, at least I think I did, because the yelling gradually lessened. However, I was not done yet. Following each tack, I then had to climb up onto the new windward rail, trim the running backstay and pre-feed the lazy sheet. Now, for the duration of the tack, I can relax.

The start of our first race went well. We broke away from the other boats and had the first mark to ourselves. One final tack and we rounded the mark and prepared to set. That is, we prepared to raise the spinnaker, and my list of jobs and their sequence suddenly changed, unbeknownst to me. More yelling. The spinnaker goes up outside of the jib and I had to tail, meaning I had to take up the end of the halyard, cleat it, and get it clear and out of the way in the cabin. I then would release the jib halyard to bring that sail down. Gybing with the spinnaker was a fairly calm affair, I simply had to hand the new sheet to the flyer, move across the boat (like a ninja), and blow the old spinnaker sheet. Since the sail is so large, and we’re sailing with the wind, the huge chute would gracefully float across the bow—if we did it right. On this day, the winds were on our side. When it was time, we raised the jib, dropped the spinnaker, rounded the mark, and headed for the finish line.

And so, under surprisingly blue skies, the day continued like this. There were three separate races, two courses were the same—a windward/leeward without too much tacking—and the third was a downward triangle. We won them all handily and sailed for home amidst a series of jovial high-fives. Putting the boat away is pretty easy with six people anxious to get to the clubhouse to collect our winning pitcher of beer. As the sun set in a pink haze over the Bay, I sat on the weather-worn deck and sipped my Full Sail Amber Ale with my new friends.


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