Learning New Skills

I was recently taken sailing, and was constantly confounded by the extent of nautical lingo. At first it seems a fairly simple concept: you mount a pole on something that floats, string a sail from it, secure the corners so it catches the wind and off you go. Easy, right? Well, maybe in concept…

The reality is there’s more than one sail, each with far too many names (apparently to compound confusion among the crew. Instantly obeyed orders in life-threatening situations obviously aren’t quite dangerous enough for those that think up these things) and a dizzying profusion of ropes. But then these aren’t ropes; there are no ropes on a sailboat, silly. I learned this nugget the first time I tentatively stepped aboard, despite the wide array of potential author-entangling/drowning evidence to the contrary. There are lines, halyards, braces, outhauls, and sheets, for example, but no ropes. As each name assigns a rope a particular task, the word ’rope’ seems to have been tossed overboard with other expressions such as ‘unsafe’, ‘lunatic’ and ‘waiver’.

It was blowing a Beaufort Scale Force 7, which is far too conservatively described as a ‘moderate gale’. Martin, our skipper, scoffed at the blood red danger flag snapping and straining enthusiastically above the harbor. Commercial boats were restricted to port. “Oh, that doesn’t apply to us,” he said cheerily, and radioed in the crew count to the harbormaster (he needs to be informed of how many ‘lost at sea’ forms to prepare). The Beaufort Scale provides descriptions of conditions at Force 7, such as wind speed (eyebrow ripping), wave height (alpine) and sea conditions (boiling liquid innards of hell). “The 707s won’t be out today, this sea would eat them alive,” offered Martin conversationally, as we surmounted a mountainous swell, teetered precariously at its zenith, pivoted sharply downwards and plunged vertically into the next, “can someone light me another cigarette? This one keeps going out.” (Intermittently submerging during a raging tempest could be the culprit, I silently observed with surprising sarcasm.)The 707 class of craft are smaller than Martin’s yacht, but not by much. The crews of these had wisely retired to the harbor pub to watch the race from the balcony, drink beer and not die.

As for the vernacular, I’d never been told to ‘hoist’ something in my life before, nor ‘belay’ some action. ‘Trim’ means to adjust the tightness of the sheet (rope) for optimum sail efficiency, ‘ease’ means to slacken, which coincidently happened repeatedly to my bowels whenever the boat tipped sideways at the alarmingly precipitous angles the more experienced aboard seem to consider perfectly acceptable. “Don’t worry!” someone yelled above the black roar of wind and sea, “this boat can go beyond ninety degrees and not capsize!” (Now, I don’t particularly want to pull out the ol’ math books here, but as far as I’m concerned, anything beyond ninety degrees is capsized. Common sense would dictate neglecting to roll beyond ninety degrees would be an essential requirement of not capsizing.) However, there’s far more at work here than my less-than-rudimentary grasp of seaworthy geometry, so I trusted these people to get me home safely.

Obviously they succeeded. Since then, in an attempt to pick up the terminology in a state more conducive to learning than a sobbing fetal ball of abject terror, I’ve taken to reading a lot. And the more I read, the more complicated this sailing malarkey seems to get. The simple concept of a bed sheet, broom handle and bathtub has succumbed to notions of juggling chainsaws atop a soccer ball. There are so many variables involved, it’s becoming apparent, no one is ever going to become a perfect sailor. It seems to be more about risk elimination and the hedging of bets than ever being absolutely comfortable 100% of the time.

This experience admirably demonstrates the first thing one discovers when entering a new job or industry: the amount of jargon. The pervasion can often be quite daunting and it’s a steep, analogous climb up the learning curve. But death is rarely a consequence, so take solace in that and hit the books.

Oh, I didn’t mention if I actually enjoy sailing?

The answer is yes, despite my affectations. I love every second of it.



My first sailing experience was first published on jobsite.com.

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