I gots da fever: one man's journey to sailing

I had not been in control of a boat since I was 16 years old. Sure, that is not exactly true.

We hired a tinny on the Sunshine Coast with the view to catching a fish. Fortunately, no fish were harmed in the practicality of that adventure.

We also bought a secondhand kayak and put it on our jetty. “Have a look at our new boat,” I would say to anybody who dropped by. “It’s the green one.”

They were always disappointed. I traded the kayak about a year later for a mountain bike. That remains largely unused too.

But, one day it occurred to me that the thing that I had been looking for was sailing. I remember waking up one morning and just knew. Funny thing was that I had not realised that I had even been looking.

Maybe it found me. I’m comfortable with that.

“Where to from here,” I considered? Buy a sailboat? Probably not. That involves spending a not insubstantial sum of cash for a ‘hobby’. This for a guy who at the age of 50 had no toys whatsoever was not my first and natural instinct.

Lessons on how to sail? Yep, that felt right. So I let my fingers do the walking and three months later my bonafide learn to sail course started. Two full days of the basics: from theory to rigging to unassisted sailing a Laser on the afternoon of day one.

Then crewing a 22 footer on day two. At the time I put on my bravest face, but the loud snapping of the Mylar mainsail after hoisting had me filled with fear. It sounded so aggressive! And how did you stop it again?

I knew nothing about sailing, save a sailing basics book I was trying to decipher. But our instructor, who was patient to a tee, had already covered off on capsizing. Oh! So that was possible, right?

Plus that knife taped to the tiller is for what? To cut myself loose if I am trapped under the boat and tangled in a web of ropes. Or lines, or sheets. Wait … what?

Not to mention that there was apparently a difference between turning one way and turning the other. One is called a ‘tack’ and the other might take off the top of your head. Me, anxious? On day two? After my first full day of covering the basics on day one, when I should have been resplendent with confidence?

Unfortunately, however, on day one while trying to impress with my glorious figure eights, I pulled when I should have pushed. It may have been the first time when sailing but, alas, not the first time in life!

This is when I discovered the arch nemesis of the tack. Capsize, blood loss, appropriate treatment and little compassion occurred shortly after in that particular order, then I was back out there again. Cold, wet, but oddly determined.

Two years on that physical scar is still visible if you are one to invade another’s space. Thankfully, the emotional scar faded about a year ago. In my experience, passion trumps pain.

What else did I learn on days one and two? Capsizing a small sailing craft is not the end of the world. Righting it is achievable if the righter is in reasonable physical condition.

Creating forward motion, for no cost at not much more than a brisk walking speed, is actually exhilarating. That was a genuine surprise. I heard the water burble, my word not necessarily yours, around the back bit of the boat for the first time. Angels sang. Lets call that stage one.

Next came stage two, which for me was the gross acquisition of mostly useful and relevant data. Or in other words: reading books from the library. Obsessively.

When I had read them all, I read them again. Funny thing happened too: I recognised some of the words. The principles however would come a bit later.

Around this stage I stumbled upon a work colleague who had spent the previous year sailing a 33 foot yacht around parts of the Pacific with his wife. One day I may even tell him how important his adventure was in the earlier phase of my obsession. Maybe not. Seems a bit clingy.

It was he who said “don’t buy a project boat. Buy a known brand.” Simple. Consider it locked in, I thought.

He also introduced me to club racing with an interesting chap who, in his earlier years, had sailed with a small crew in a similar sized craft from South Africa to Australia. He mentioned that they had been knocked down three times and I remember thinking, “that doesn’t sound particularly good”. So I made a mental note to check that term when I got home. Oh dear!

But after a few days my enthusiasm, like a tall mast countered by an appropriate keel righted itself and I was strangely keener than before.

I am currently halfway through a book that features words like ‘heavy weather’ and ‘sailing’ in the title together. Some of the photos scare me a fair bit, but if I am going to be responsible for others then I need to go into this with a sense of reality.

I do, however, reserve the right for there to be tears the first time I encounter 40 knots plus. Just so we are clear.

It was around this time that the words ‘harness’ and ‘lifelines’ started to resonate. Getting knocked down was not going to be the end of me. Hopefully.

If I am honest, I would have to say that racing was not for me. We were often at an acute angle, scrambling over each other, finishing last for which there was always an excellent reason.

When finished we had to pack everything away. Mainsail, genoa, all the lines and tackles, everything. I noticed at this stage that words like self-furling and lazy jacks started to resonate.

About a year after the epiphany, I bought my first sailboat; still my only sailboat. Twenty two feet of trailerable gorgeous. It was perfect.

The price was brilliant, it had some brilliant features inside the cabin that I thought I could improve, it was registered on a registered trailer and the photos on the website showed the current owner coastal racing off the Gold Coast beaches. That was probably a good sign.

There were a couple of negatives though. It was stripped back to bare essentials for racing and the parts that had been removed had been sold on Gumtree. So, there was going to be a bit of time spent.

The electricals were non-existent, no pushpit, pulpit or stanchions to run out safety lines. But,, apart from that, the sail wardrobe was good, the outboard seemed in pretty good nick and he was asking only $2500! Where do I sign?

Congratulations Scotty, you are the proud owner of Wagtail. My very own little non-branded project sailboat. Oh!

A common trait amongst humans is that we can find a way to justify pretty much anything; so justifying this was easy. All in all, there are no regrets.

The opportunity to learn new skills has been open-ended. It seems that the list never runs out. If anything, by the time I have finished doing one thing, two new things have become candidates for time and, usually, money.

The first major commitment came in the form of a complete rewiring;  I mean complete. The only electrical fittings left were obviously still there because the bolts connecting them to the boat were corroded fast.

Half an hour later, with the help of my trusty cordless angle grinder, we had a blank canvas. “What now I thought”? Ah, Google.

After a week I had an excellent diagram of a workable layout and a 110 amp hour deep cycle battery from my parents Winnebago. Generously donated and definitely not deviously taken.

It would be fair to say that the electrical component cost more than I had expected. The battery was a great saving of $200 to $300, but the isolation switch, bus, fuse box, switchboard, navigation lights, cabin lights and stereo cost $500.

That is what my wife thinks anyway, so lets just leave it at that. Keep walking. Nothing to see here.

Actually, it was an interesting test of my integrity, when you can pay $3 or $80 for something that seems similar and promises to do the same job. Maybe it will. Maybe it is just the timeframe that differs. Maybe I will only own her for a year or so before selling. Maybe I do not really care about the next owner. Maybe I do.

Turns out I did and, 12 months on, there is no sign of corrosion or degradation of the electrics. The basics of a new skill learnt. Tick. Put that in the bank for when I am in the middle of the Pacific.

The great financial crisis, as it turns out, was not terrible for everyone. We were fortunate to sell our house as the wheels of commerce issued its first squeals of protest.

A few months later the financial world crumbled and we were once again fortunate to happen upon a home for sale that we wanted to buy as much as the owner wanted to sell. Where do I sign?

As much as this house needed extensive renovating, it had some classic bone structure, ridiculously high ceilings and features that only a European builder would design into his own home back in the 1980’s. Oh and it was on one of the Gold Coasts extensive canals. Wagtail, meet your new, actually quite old, pontoon.

So now there are lights, a good little entertainment system, some watts of solar and a battery that so far seems unphased; yes, most definitely a dad-pun.

Since the rewire I have added an auto-tiller and float switch for the bilge pump. A small inverter would be nice to keep my laptop charged, but maybe that is next year.

Electrics done. What next? Well, my eight horsepower Mercury made a strong case for funds allocation by promptly developing a hole in the bore from being incorrectly stored. I still had a certain look of terror every time it missed a beat, which it did. Resulting in my wife opting out of a nice putt-putt down to the Broadwater, more often than not.

My fault. I have the tendency to not be good at something until I am good at something. I’m OK with that.

Many websites and phone calls later I was the proud owner of an extra long shaft 6hp Tohatsu. It came standard with an alternator, which I may or may not run out wiring for. She does not really need the extra juice. See how we go.

Once again though, great to have options. At least now I had confidence in my ability to get home should I at some stage take that next bold step and motor the six knots to the Gold Coast’s marine playground.

Only problem to resolve now were the four bridges between home and my desired destination. Hmmm! The lowest one being only 3.1m above HAT. Yes, definitely starting to acquire some book smarts at this stage.

So I ran some numbers, suggesting that my mast, at about 8m above the coachroof would likely be a problem. Feeling confident enough at this stage to rule out the need for an actual physical test; blessed be maths.

What to do, what to do? So I googled and I googled. Whisker poles at 90 degrees to the mast, the mainsheet tackle attached to the bow to ease down the mast? Some arrangement using a 12 volt winch to assist raising it back up?

Hang on a sec. How heavy was that mast when I bought her home and had it in the front yard during antifouling? Probably only 20 kilograms to 30kg. But leverage would be acting against me, right? It is 8m and I stand well under two.

Maybe it was time to put contingencies in place; for, if sidestays got snagged or if my mainsheet tackle locked in, a spare pair of hands just loitering was what I needed.

Well, my hands got sweaty and my legs started to shake, but the lovely wife was about 20 metres away. So I hoisted like I have never hoisted before because, as a point of clarification, I had never hoisted before. Yes, a stay got snagged.

Then the mainsheet locked when I tried to lay it back down. Oh dear. “Therese”, I called calmly. No response. I now had two options, it is good to have options. A lucky man has options. I could call again, this time probably not as calmly and probably considerably louder, or I could wait until I was once again blessed with her presence. I waited.

That was the first time and, if I am to be honest, the shaky legs and sweaty palms stayed with me on every mast raising or lowering for some time to come. But, as with many things, preparation, practice and confidence pay dividends to those who invest.

Now I wonder what all the fuss was about. I had to lower it to come home recently in 15 knot winds with 20 knot gusts. So, in about 5 minutes now the mast is up, the forestay is secured and I am homeward bound.

Naturally, an 8m mast is not going to just suspend itself comfortably in mid-air so, after some trial and error with lesser materials and strapping techniques, I ended up using the boom as a crutch to crade the mast, which now merely lays back from the aft bolt of the deck plate. It extends well past the stern by a few metres. All in all it is a practical and workable solution.

The chapters on tides started to make a lot of sense at this point as well. 60 minutes running with the tide at 6 knots or 90 minutes when my free time and the tide table cannot agree. But I like to tell myself that I am a practical guy and I will try to pick my days and times accordingly.

It is not that the extra hour round trip is necessarily a bad thing. It’s just a good habit and is what a proficient sailor would do. Such is the goal.

So that squares away ownership and maintenance. In fact the preceding comes nowhere close to the covering off of maintenance but, for the sake of expedient story-telling, maintenance for now is covered.

What came next was a covent for more convenience. Let us call this stage three for now.

Suffice to say that an hour to an hour and a half driving to my preferred playground, setting up the spars and then setting up the mainsail and then in reverse to go home can carve a bare minimum of four hours out of the day. No hurry though, right? You’re sailing!

Well, yes and no. I am always in a hurry. Sitting still is not as easy as it sounds.

So how to do things quicker so that I can practice more? That question might take on a little more relevance if I had mentioned that in the past year I had been unable to get more than one sail up at a time.

The practicality of maintaining a true course while raising the mainsail and then the jib had completely eluded me. While there is no denying that my lack of experience is the main reason for this dilemma, the only time I can get out on the water is the same two days every week that everybody else can get out on the water.

Anybody who has been on the Gold Coast Broadwater on a nice day will understand that it can be somewhat of an asylum within the channels. Not to mention my little boat’s desire to present her beam to the wind the moment I take my hand of the tiller.

Yes, I am aware of the irony that having both sails up would provide the balance that I need to maintain true course, thus the need to get both sails up.

I tried tying off the tiller to amidships but that proved completely ineffectual with a continual tirade of large to ridiculously large semi-displacement and planing vessels passing within metres at 20 knots plus.

I tried using the auto-tiller, also to no avail. I fell like I should mention at this point that it is not that I do not have family or friends, it’s just that I am determined to do this by myself. Everything. All of it.

Anyway, long story short is that a well-balanced sail set-up eluded me. What to do, what to do.

That is when my inane desire to economically solve problems become aroused. Time to google a roller furler for my jib.

About an hour later I had what I was looking for and about six hours and $80 later I had a functional way to release the headsail at my leisure. Brilliant. One more problem solved and one real step closer to autonomous sailing.

All I had to do now was to raise the mainsail, point the bow in the direction that myself and the wind could both agree on and just pull on one of the jib lines when I was ready.

It was almost as easy as it sounded too!

Next time though I would know to close the forehatch. Live and learn.

Undeniably, this small convenience has been the most rewarding. Taking something that was beyond me, finding an appropriate solution and then fabricating that solution, has increased my desire to find or make the time.

Let us be honest, boat ownership, let alone sailboat ownership is not the same as owning a car. With a boat there is the before and the after. Not just the trip.  So anything that makes the necessary more enjoyable or quicker is our friend.

So, difficult and somewhat annoying has become simple and enjoyable, all in one foul swoop. Sometimes I just feel like a lucky fella. Touch wood. As long as it has been treated for water ingress, right?

Stage 4 was the very real awakening that it can be exceedingly difficult to please two mistresses.

Do I spend all day out on the water tomorrow? What does the weather look like?10kn to 15kn from the west. Nice. An ebbing tide at 7am to help me on the way: perfect.

What? We are supposed to have lunch with friends? Oh dear!

What I am getting at is that compromise is an inevitable part of sustainable sailing. With compromise however, come choices. Having choices is good.

So, instead of a day on the water, I decided to sail in my backyard. Save the three hours, just leave the mast up. It is always up when moored in the backyard, it pleases me greatly.

Not to say that this option is ideal, as my ‘searoom’, for want of a better term, is about 250m wide by about 400m long, with potentially up to 50 neighbours watching on and wondering WTF!

Well, for the first few times anyway as I do not think I rate a glance anymore and am perfectly free to adjust the trim to see how it affects the steering, practice tacking and intentional gybes amongst other things.

I still need to have a crack at heaving to, deploying and retrieving a drogue and man overboard under sail. But, one step at a time. It is sailing right?

So that is where Wagtail and I are up to. No mad rush. Learning new skills. Working on the plan.

The nerves still talk to me on occasion and the legs shake a bit now and then.

It seems to me sometimes that sailing can have two heads. One of them smiles at me when the wind is fair, the sun shines and the water behind the back bit of the boat burbles. The other head, however, has access to your bank account details, can tempt you away from significant others and also has the ability to seriously cause you harm if you do not take her seriously.

But, I love it when she smiles. ≈

Scott Opie
Selden Asymetric Rib Technology
Race Yachts
M.O.S.S Australia
NAV at Home