My first sail - reflections

It's been a few days now since my first day on a sailboat, and now that I've had a bit of time to think it over and take it all in, I thought I would jot down my experience.

(note: I sometimes use the American term, Sailboat, in my blogs, especially the earlier posts. I eventually learned the are called Yachts in the UK, but 'sofa to yacht' doesn't have the same ring to it as 'sofa to sailboat'. So forgive me if I flip flop between the terms from time to time.)

The day of my trial sail I woke up super early and SUPER excited. I did manage to get some sleep, but was still up much earlier than I needed, and wanted, to be. The excitement didn't wain one bit during the hour long drive to the marina. If I'm being honest, 3 days later and I'm still buzzing.

Sailing with me, was an instructor from the school and an older gentleman who has 25 years sailing experience, but hadn't sailed in the previous 4 years, and wanted to see if his love for the water was still there or if his longing for the sea should be delegated to fond memories. It turned out that all three of us were born in September, and I took that to be a good omen.

I felt really lucky to be the only new person with two experienced sailors. Not only did I not have to share the instructors time with anyone else for the day, but they were both quite happy to tailor the sail around what I wanted to do. And top of my list was to see what it is actually like to tack a boat, as well as to learn a bit about reefing and putting sails up etc. Basically, anything and everything.

Spoiler alert: not one part of the day was a disappointment.

There was a brief discussion about the weather, as the weather man was promising high winds and rain. But the instructor was pretty sure we could time it so we'd be having lunch during the worst of it. Unfortunately, the clouds had a different plan for the day.

We powered out of the marina and into the main channel of the River Orwell heading towards the sea. Because of the impending weather, we knew better than to try the open water, and planned on turning up the River Stour which joins with the Orwell. After travelling up the Stour some distance, we'd stop for lunch and head back.

The journey down the Orwell was fantastic! Because I spend SO much of my life in my car, I didn't really pay attention to the noise the diesel engine was making UNTIL we'd put up the foresail and turned it off. Then the silence of the river hit me. It took me back to the peace and quite I experienced while living in Horsecroft Hall out in the country. Peace and quiet seemed to climb on board and settle in my soul.

It was at about this time that I could see out of the river and to the open sea in the distance, where a number of very small sails drifted across the horizon. As mentioned in my previous post, my heart called out to the ocean to let it know I'd soon be taking up its challenge.

Also during this leg of the sail, two other yachts with full sails up sped past us (our main was already triple reefed and we were just running with the foresail). As they past, we all waved at the crews on the other boats and they waved back. It was the simplest of gestures, but somehow made me feel like I'd been welcomed to the sailing community. I was now a part of this world, doing what they are doing. It was a very good feeling.

I really enjoyed sailing past the Felixstowe docks and seeing the huge cargo ships being loaded with containers. I love big things, and these ships and the whole dock area fascinates me.


Once past the docks, we turned to starboard and headed up the Stour. I had been steering most of this time, and had learned to read the various gauges (true wind speed, apparent wind speed, depth below the keel, etc.), where to travel along the river so as to give priority to commercial vessels, and more. I was a bucket full of questions that just kept spilling over.

I can't help but think that some of my friends would have hated the journey up the Stour. We were sailing into the wind in a 'wind against tide' situation. Essentially, we were travelling with the tide into the river while going against the wind. Wind against tide produces one thing - choppy seas. The waves were white capping, and the boat was cutting into them, the bow slapping down onto the trough of the wave which sent a spray of water up over the deck.

And then it started to rain.

At about this point, my fellow sailor asked (for about the 10th time) if I was OK. He wanted to know if I was experiencing any sea-sickness. He was steering and I was standing just in front of him in the cockpit. I turned, and with a huge smile, said 'I'm LOVING it.' He grinned and replied, 'yep, you're a sailor.'

We fired up the engine, dropped the foresail and put the kettle on as we pressed on up the Stour. Before long, the waves settled down and the rain stopped as the tide slacked off.

Instead of stopping to have lunch, we decided to just turn around and take turns at the wheel while others ate. I was amazed at how different the entire sailing experience changed just by turning the boat around. With the wind to our back, the foresail up and running on a slack tide, it was like a completely different day. Instead of fighting the wind and water, they were now working with us towards a common goal - or so it seemed.

After having a sandwich,  I returned to the wheel as we journeyed back down the river, turning to port to go back up the Orwell.

And this is where the fun really began.

We dropped the foresail and put up the mainsail, which was still reefed, but that was OK as we didn't need the full sail anyway. The wind was already gusting up to 20 knots, and we were sailing as close into it as possible. Which, I have to admit, I absolutely loved doing! It was a blast making small adjustments to our course to hold the boat as close to the wind as I possibly could.

As we neared the marina we decided it was time to try a little tacking. Of course, to make it more interesting, the wind had kicked up to 25 knots, gusting to 27/28 knots AND it started to rain, which quickly turned to hail as we started our first tack to starboard.

I'll pause here because you have to fully appreciate the situation I was in.

I had two experienced sailors working the sails while I helmed. I had a wet weather jacket, but didn't have wet weather trousers - so my jeans were very quickly soaking wet. I also didn't have gloves, so my hands were bright red from the cold. The wind and hail were beating into our faces as the instructor pointed where he wanted me to steer the boat.

A few minutes later, and it was hard to port as the two men shifted the sails. Although I didn't come around quite far enough, and the sails didn't billow out. He explained to me how to tack just a little further than needed to fill out the sails, and then bring the boat around just a little closer to the wind.

A few minutes later, and it was time to tack to starboard, and this time I brought it around right on the mark, filling the sails before tightening the boat closer to the wind.

We performed a few more tacks, all the while the instructor kept asking me if I was OK and if I was too cold. Seriously!? My cheeks were hurting because I was smiling so much (or maybe it was because of the hail). Either way I was having the time of my life and would have gladly spent the rest of the day at the wheel of the boat in the wind and hail.

I was really interested in how far the boat heeled over in the wind. From my flying experience, I knew it felt we were on a steeper incline than we really were. The instructor explained that, this being a racing boat, it was designed for the gunwale to go under water, and that we were still far from that. I found the whole experience really interesting and fun.

But every roller coaster ride has to come to an end sometime, and we soon dropped the sails and fired up the engine once more to motor up the Orwell a bit further. I was quite shocked, that considering all the hard work we did tacking into the wind, we hadn't gained much ground up the river at all. Tacking is seriously hard work for such little progress.

We powered up the river for a bit, before turning around and putting the foresail back up. During which time I went below and found some dry clothes, which was very welcome, and I instantly felt warmer and better.

As we eventually cruised back into the marina I snapped a picture of a wooden yacht sitting on the end of the pier. I have to say, this picture really doesn't do the boat justice. It was a piece of art as much as a boat. If you look closely at this end, you can see it has a tiller and not a wheel, and the mast was nearly twice the height of the one on the 36 foot boat I was on. 'Now THAT,' I thought, 'is what you call a sailboat.'