By Liz McGinley
n what ended up feeling like a small miracle, my husband, Tom, my sister, Cathy, and I were lucky enough to escape to Nantucket for the summer of 2009. Even though the bad economy was the reason we were free to be there, it was still a thrill to have the once-in-a-lifetime chance to spend ten uninterrupted weeks on an exclusive little island where the word “summer” is commonly tossed around as a verb.
After settling in and attempting to embrace the local mantra, “there’s nothing to do and no time to do it,” the decision was made that we needed a little bit more “nothing” to fill up the period that elapsed between hitting the beach and squeezing fresh lime juice for sunset margaritas. Tom decided it might be fun to take sailing lessons and took the initiative to sign the three of us up with Nantucket Community Sailing, headquartered at idyllic Jetties Beach.
The first day, our young instructor, Riley, brought us over to a chalkboard where he proceeded to draw a few diagrams explaining the basics of sailing. He rattled off some vocabulary words I tried to commit to memory. Straining to make sense of concepts like tacking and jibing, the premise seemed somewhat complicated. While nodding emphatically at him as he spoke, I decided it must be the kind of stuff that comes naturally once you’re on the boat. Besides, I was coming into this experience with a bit of boating knowledge from the years when my dad owned a 26-foot Aquasport. I knew a thing or two about red and green buoys and thought this kind of knowledge would put me ahead of the game. As it happened, I thought wrong.
Soon enough, Riley announced it was time to head out to the Rhodes 19. The launch operator cruised us out to the mooring. With about as much grace as a greasy pig, I managed to slip and fall head first into the sailboat as I attempted to climb from one bobbing vessel to the other. It turns out that water that looks smooth as glass from the safety of your towel suddenly seems like a wild rapid when you’re off shore. “I’m fine, really,” I proclaimed even though blood was gushing from my calf where I had scraped against what I later learned was called a “cleat.”
Once on board, Riley gave us directions for rigging the boat. Basically, we had to unwrap the main sail and jib, hook them up to the masts, and raise the sails. From a distance this task looks simple, like something you could do with your eyes closed and your hands tied behind your back. In reality, the boat and all its parts felt like an assembly-required item from Ikea, where the dozens of instructional diagrams are impossible to follow and there always seems to be a critical piece missing. After appraising what needed to be done, I began to find it hard to believe how many people voluntarily participate in this ritual for so-called “fun.” Knots needed to be tied and sails unfurled, all while the tiny boat rocked violently from side to side. Riley watched us struggle while munching away on some raw carrots. Everything was heavy and on the road to rusty. I was drowning in canvas, my fingers sore from knot tying, snapping, and clipping. As a person who often hems pants with a stapler, I was hoping to discover a few shortcuts, but none were forthcoming.
Once the thing was adequately rigged, Riley unhooked us from the mooring ball and off we went. He took the helm first, demonstrating how gently the tiller needed to be manipulated. After making the task look easy enough for even a child to master, I volunteered to be the first victim. Within seconds we went from a gentle, soothing ride to completely lurching from side to side as I grappled with which way to push the tiller. So much for instincts kicking in. All the shrieking that ensued sounded more like we were riding the Cyclone in Coney Island than cruising a tiny sailboat in Nantucket Sound.
Once Riley helped me steady the boat, everything seemed okay again, at least for the moment. As long as no sudden shifts in wind occurred, we were golden. Holding my breath and white knuckling the tiller, I silently prayed no rogue gusts would force me to change direction. Riley took this moment to explain the critical, yet panic-inducing expression “ready about.” Basically, if you want sail in an upwind direction, you need to tack, which requires a zigzag route into the wind. Unfortunately, each time you turn the boat into the wind, the boom comes flying across the hull and the crew needs to duck their heads. To forewarn everybody, it was suggested we shout the heart-stopping phrase “ready about.” This was all well and good except sometimes, you accidentally turned the boat into the wind, and the massive boom came swinging across unexpectedly. The constant threat of this occurring with enough speed and strength to decapitate us filled me with terror. Wondering if I could survive being knocked unconscious and thrown from the boat, I spent a lot of time hunched down low contemplating a mouth guard and helmet. Even worse, Tom could never remember the words “ready about,” but instead often yelled “tally ho,” apparently subconsciously thinking he was on some fox hunt in Oxford instead of a rickety old sailboat whipping about in Nantucket Harbor. It occurred to me that I might be better suited to a less stressful hobby, like knitting.
On one particularly difficult morning as we thrashed back and forth across the harbor, a colleague of Riley’s came sailing up alongside us with a boat full of young children. The instructor could not steer the boat close enough to a mooring ball for one of the kids to grab it. She asked Riley to help, and with barely a word, he catapulted “Cirque du Soleil-style” out of our boat and into hers. At that moment, what was already a nerve-racking endeavor suddenly evolved into freaking high-level chaos. Completely abandoned, we began panicking at full throttle. Cathy screamed “abort mission,” and against all reason, frantically suggested we ditch the sailboat. Apparently, she wasn’t of the mind that the captain should go down with the ship. Tom shouted back, “this must be some kind of test, to see if we can sail alone.” Both of them looked at me and demanded I steer, since thus far I had spent the most time behind the wheel. As a person who hasn’t driven a car on the highway in about 15 years, it was odd that I was the one chosen to save us from what felt like an out-of-control death spiral. At first, I wondered if I would ever see my children again. Then, I started thinking about whether or not our homeowners insurance would cover whatever damage was about to be done. The boat sadistically banged up and down as I attempted to gain control of the tiller.
In reality, an average vacationer at the beach that day might have described it as being “absolutely beautiful, without a cloud in the sky.” I’m sure from the comfort of a beach chair, the air seemed balmy; the atmosphere, tranquil. But from the vantage point of our sailboat, it felt like the combination of churning currents and hurricane strength winds would surely cause us to capsize. From our delusional perspective, The Perfect Storm was but a slight breeze compared to these wicked conditions. Even though the odds of serious injury were probably relatively low, destroying our boat along with a few others in the somewhat crowded mooring zone did not seem out of the realm of possibilities.
Miraculously, we managed to stay afloat during Riley’s absence. And eventually, the launch operator skillfully deposited him back into our boat. After the crisis passed, I realized we could never take one of these death vessels out without having someone like Riley aboard.
Even after logging countless numbers of hours on the boat, I still never got a feel for how it operated. It seemed likely that an aneurism might burst as I strained to make sense of all the “sailing” vocabulary bouncing around in my head. In the heat of the moment, with just seconds to spare before running aground at Brant Point, we would somehow manage to abruptly whip the boat around, severely tilting it to give the main sail a quick dunk before heading back in the more perilous direction towards the jetties. Riley would chuckle. Tom would squeal. I could feel gray hairs sprouting on my head. And Cathy would hyperventilate while screaming “let the sails luff,” since doing this was like pulling the emergency break. When the sails were luffing, the wind couldn’t fill them up and propel the boat forward. This allowed us to stop and have a discussion about which way the wind was blowing and to set our next course. We certainly weren’t in any danger of being recruited to crew for the America’s Cup. Constantly tightening and loosening ropes, I am convinced our instructor thought we were pathetic.
With the ordeal behind me, I will never again use the expression “smooth sailing” to mean “coasting,” when in fact the skill required to achieve that level of kumbaya is similar to landing a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier. The sailing lessons forced me to realize that I am not a sailboat kind of person after all, but more of a lie on a towel on the beach kind of person. Where it is safe. Where I never have to wonder if the day will end with me losing a few teeth. Just give me a beach chair and a New York Times best seller on a sunny afternoon. That’s the dream I want to live.
Liz McGinley is a writer dedicated to logging hours of time hunched over a laptop on a quest to find humor amidst the ever-evolving plot line of her life. She is known for her mild obsessions with French pressed coffee, high-end cocktails (always shaken, never stirred), and Bartlett’s Farm corn on the cob.