A sailing vacation is supposed to be relaxing. Right? Allan Cram and his family discovers the stressful side of paradise.
One would think that after spending a lifetime flying helicopters that thump and bump through the sky between 100 and 150 kts, that drifting along the clear blue seas of the Caribbean at 7 kts, would be the ultimate in relaxation.
Not true. At least for me. And that either places me in the ranks of countless other novice sailors who feel the same, or perhaps I’ve simply reached my level of incompetence.
The great disadvantage when it comes to sailing is, of course, my heritage—I’ve always grown up beside lakes and rivers but I spent more time on a floatplane than in a boat or a canoe. My ancestors were not sailors either. And that would make me a born “landlubber.”
But sailing uses many of the same principles as aviation, so I have always been attracted to sailing, and scooted around several times in a Hobie Cat on freshwater lakes and on the ocean while on vacation. But when it came time to purchase our first boat, I couldn’t convince my wife to go for a sailboat. She had grown up on the West Coast zipping around the Gulf Islands in a speedboat called the “Black Bart.” No, she has no tattoos but I’ve heard the stories of her formative years on the water.
So we purchased an 18-foot Bayliner and hurtled along Saanich Inlet to Saltspring Island and over to Sidney Island for weekend picnics. Once nicely planed out it would reach 35 – 40 kts. But our young children didn’t like pounding across the waves so more times than not we would be ploughing through the water at 5 kts, engine noise and exhaust polluting our surroundings. Why were we not sailing, I would ask? Then after the boat rarely left our garage for several years, we sold it.
A few years later my wife discovered the world of nautical fiction and she devoured the “Aubrey/Maturin” series by Patrick O’Brian, moved through CS Forester’s “Horatio Hornblower” series and Alexander Kent’s “Richard Bolitho” series. She studied encyclopedias of nautical terminology and ship construction of the 1700s and talked about Lord Nelson and his ship, the HMS Endeavour, as though he were at one time a neighbour living next door.
Conversations soon included all things nautical. And if one believed in signs, then we had all the signs we needed. I had discovered by chance a charter company in the Caribbean who would sell us a beautiful new yacht, pay for the insurance, moorage, repairs and on-going maintenance, send us a cheque each month for charters, and we could use the boat up to 12-weeks a year at no cost.
One day my wife was in a huge used bookstore looking for a new series to read when from the shelf above her head a book tumbled out and landed on her foot. It was the Seaman’s Handbook published by the Royal Canadian Navy in 1962. She read the first few pages which described the austere and cumbersome beginnings of the Canadian Navy and on page 3 it read: “Thus the birthday of Canada’s Navy was 4 May, 1910.”
She was in that bookstore on 4 May 2010, exactly 100 years after the founding of the RCN and as she drove home the local radio announced the Centennial Celebration of Canada’s Navy and listed some of the events going on in Esquimalt—home to the Pacific Fleet.
Needless to say, she purchased the book and we purchased a yacht.
And this is when the good “signs” seemed to shift sideways on us. When we arrived in Tortola for our first sailing vacation, we excitedly scoured the marina for a boat with a Canadian flag and our name on the stern. Eventually we found it—but they had the wrong port of registry. We wanted to see “Victoria” on the stern, not “Vancouver.”
Then for some reason we had to wait several hours before we could board her, unpack and settle in. After flying the red-eye from LAX we were all in need of a good sleep.
When we finally got underway the next morning it became apparent that even though my wife and I were certified “Day Skipper” sailors, we were both on a steep learning curve on a larger boat. It’s difficult to give commands, when you’re not sure what command should be given.
If anyone remembers the movie The Princess Bride when Vizzini, Fezzik and Inigo Montoya kidnap the Princess they board a ship to sail away, and Vizzini, clearly not a sailor, tells his crew to “Pull that thing, and that other thing,” referring of course to the halyards and/or mainsheet.
Well, that’s what I felt like. Our yacht, a Beneteau, was made in France. And for some reason they had labelled the “mainsheet” the “gross.” Whenever I wanted to ease off the mainsail or power it up, I would tell my children to tighten the “mainsail” and they would look at me like I had six heads. Eventually I began saying, “Pull on that brown rope!”
Inigo Montoya has another line that became relevant to us while sailing: as they are slicing through the eel-infested waters away from Guilder, another sailboat is following them. Inigo says, “He’s right on top of us. I wonder if he is using the same wind we are using.” I thought this to myself several times as other sailboats passed us as though we were standing still.
The winds in the Caribbean that week were stiffer than expected—a steady 30-35 kts—and the seas were at seven to eight foot swells. Once again we were pounding through the waves. I tried several times to reef in the mainsail, but the rigging for the single-point reefing system was buggered and we couldn’t get a proper sail shape. So I endured the overpowered mainsail and watched another yacht approach on a collision course.
Freshly certified, I knew the basic collision regulations and I was the stand-on vessel—allowed to keep her course and speed. But the other vessel wasn’t taking any action to avoid a collision, so I altered course, much to the appreciation of the “sailors” on board the other vessel.
Maybe they were hanging on for dear life as well…
To get where we were going I knew we’d have to tack and “beat” the wind for several hours, but the expression of concern on my family’s faces as I endured wind-whipped saltwater spray at the helm soon convinced me to power down.
And wouldn’t you know it—we had to start the diesel engine and motor a good 10-miles to the next harbour, plugging along at 5 kts, just like we did with the Bayliner.
Maybe what we need is a cruise vacation, where the only decision we have to make is: do we walk around the ship again or have a drink?
“Aegean Sea from Beneteau Oceanis” by Konstantin Zhukov