Woman Enough

How to Sail (in a million irritating steps)

Posted in Uncategorized by womanenough on September 13, 2011

The secret is this: I had no idea how to sail four months ago.  I had spent time at sea, an experience for which I can get eighteen individual chicken pot pies on the table by the strike of six ,with homemade cranberry sauce, no sweat. I was not so well prepared for, well, anything nautical. I could tie some knots.

Specifically, two. I could tie two knots.

And I knew the names of some things and I knew only to listen to your captain, and that when your captain yells at you, s/he probably doesn’t mean it personally.

And that was all well and good until I was learning how to sail my own boat, and my boyfriend was emerging as the captain, and all the power and all the information seemed to be stacked on his side of things. We had a serious list, and it was starting to feel a little personal.

Sailing can be hard*. Sailing with someone who knows what the heck he’s doing makes it easier. And it makes it a little harder, in a way that has more to do with pride, self-esteem and patience than with sailing. But nothing is worse for a ship than strife within the crew, and thus my sailing experiences have been greatly improved by considering the role of pride, self-esteem and patience in my overall success as a student. Frankly, I’d love to hear from anyone anywhere for whom pride, self-esteem and patience don’t benefit from consideration.

I was a pretty good student in school, and thus it has been a shock for me that learning has been the hardest part of learning how to sail.

It feels bad to do things I’m not good at, and, predictably, I’m not good at anything I’m doing for the first time. Most people aren’t, because skills are learned with practice. We wouldn’t value them if they were innate.

But it doesn’t change that I want to be really good at things. I don’t want to wade through the part where I’m bad at it to get to the part where I’m good at it.  I don’t want it explained to me in six ways I may or may not understand. I don’t want to watch someone else do it better. I just want to do it. Often, I just want to be left alone to do it. On my 24′ floating home, there is no “left alone.” There is no privacy within which to make and correct your mistakes before they go public. And, usually, there is some sort of tangible consequence to my mistakes.

So the pressure is there. Whether it’s starting the engine or  sailing off the anchor or plotting a course or raising or dropping sail, I have to do it all poorly for a while so I can do it well later.

Unless things are really breaking down and the consequences are frightening, Elias does not yell. He calmly corrects. I get really sick of the correcting. But I’m getting better at recognizing that it’s part of a process, that I can’t be great at everything right off the bat. He is correcting me because he wants me to be a good sailor. He wants me to be a good sailor because that will make me happy. I can’t really fault him for that.

But correcting is tough, because it means being really comfortable knowing that I will make mistakes. Often, they’ll be stupid mistakes. Avoidable. Repetitive. There is often no redeeming aspect to a mistake, they’re just mistakes. They don’t make me stupid, they don’t make me a bad person, they don’t even make Elias wish he lived on a boat with someone who knows more knots or makes fewer mistakes.

They’re just mistakes. If they’re the good kind, they give me valuable information and maybe I won’t make them again.

Like many men and women who sail together, Elias (man) calls the shots underway. It feels terrible to write that sentence, but it’s true. I’m pretty sensitive to this, because I’m not really a let-your-gentleman-friend-call-the-shots kind of girl. But I am definitely a don’t-sink-because-you’re-too-proud-to-recognize-your-boyfriend’s-strengths kind of girl. For now, it works, because Elias has a lot of knowledge that I don’t.** He can teach me a lot if I’m patient enough to acknowledge what I don’t know. I’m starting to get better at things, and that’s exciting for both of us.

It’s a shared responsibility to make sure we don’t sink into a pattern in which I stop learning and just follow orders. I can’t become complacent about the learning, even though it’s a lot easier to sit back and watch the world pass by at three knots. I have to keep absorbing that information, thinking critically about the decisions being made, and building my own confidence.

Elias has to keep sharing information with me, he has to keep correcting, even though sometimes his help is ill-received.

We both have to treat each other with love and respect. All the time. Even when I’m mad because I made a mistake. Even when it’s raining. Even when it’s raining and we’re hungry and something breaks.

It’s tough, but it’s working. I know a heck of a lot more now than I did when we set out on our first day sail in early May. And I don’t just know a lot about sailing,  I know a lot about how I learn. And I know more about how terrible inexperience can sometimes feel, and how great small successes can be. I know that the business I mentioned earlier, about the pot pies? That’s nothing to sneeze at, because that job was really hard and I didn’t have any idea how to do that the first time, either. But I learned.

And now I know six knots.

*It can also be playing cribbage in your bathing suit while a record spins.  It can go either way, and whichever kind of day (er, moment) I’m having, I try to remember that the other kind exists, because it’s probably right around the corner).

** Elias was asked to review this post before publishing. His only edit was that he doesn’t actually know that much more than me, but is much more confident faking it. I don’t believe him.

Photograph of sail school from travel-to-croatia.org.

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