I bought my sailboat, Eliana II, in October of 2015, just in time for a Halloween trip to Catalina Island. It is now December of 2016. I had hoped to have left on my Pacific tour by this past October. Now, I am hoping for October of next year. I can say for certain that I am making good progress; it is not as though I’m not working toward my dream. It is just that work on sailboats is slow going, and expensive. I’ve completed a lot, most recently installing a Monitor Windvane steering system, an expensive autopilot system that allows a sailor to let go of the steering wheel for days at a time to attend to other matters on the boat. With that installed, Eliana is pretty close to ready. She could go now if push came to shove. My sailing kitty, however, has been all but spent on getting her where she is at now. And I have a house full of belongings that I need to deal with. I certainly don’t want to get rid of everything, nor do I want to pay for storage for all of it. The recommended practice is to get rid of anything that I won’t be taking with me.
So how did I come to decide to do this? What was it that caused me to decide to take such a huge step and plan to sail off into the sunset? I considered myself a typical American. I had worked in the same career for about 20 years. I had an hour long commute which took me across the Golden Gate bridge. I owned my own home, and felt trapped in life, working to pay the mortgage of a home I was rarely at. I was also single with no children.
As I drove home across the bridge, I would often look out over the bay. I would often see dozens of sailboats, against a picturesque background of Angel Island, Alcatraz, or the San Francisco waterfront. And while I was stuck in traffic, I would wonder how all those people managed to not be at work. And it seemed such a better place to be than to be stuck in traffic. In March of 2014, I took my first plunge and signed up for a sailing class.
I chanced upon Modern Sailing School. Never having sailed, and knowing nothing of it, I performed an Internet search for schools. Modern Sailing had a nice website, and was located in Sausalito, not too far from my home in Petaluma. The site explained various certifications I could obtain, and had sailing packages to achieve them. I don’t know why, but the certifications seemed important. But also, I liked that I could take a week long course to earn them. I decided to use a week’s worth of vacation to learn how to sail in one go. I recommend this approach. There is a lot of value to have 5 days in a row as you are trying to remember everything.
The class I signed up for awarded two certificates, Basic Keelboat (ASA 101) and Basic Coastal Cruising (ASA 103). There was a textbook for each, and after completion I would have a basic understanding of sailing, and be able to charter (rent) sailboats up to 30’ in length for a day sail. The courses covered a lot of ground, from the names of all the controls and lines, how to tie the correct knots, “rules of the road” to safely navigate other traffic, and basic sailing theory. Sailing is a complex topic, it required some study, and some classroom tests.
As luck would have it, in the middle of a drought, it rained all week during my class. This necessitated a bit more classwork than normal. The entire first day was dedicated to book study, when normally we would try and get out on the water right away to see firsthand what we were discussing. Instead we talked about this names of the parts of the boat. Some things were obvious, like stern and bow, but I had no idea what a vang was, or the difference between standing and running rigging. And we learned to tie knots. Still a weakness of mine. Sailors use lots of knots, each has a name and a specific use.
Our instructor, Heather, took us out on the water the second day. The first half of which was docking practice. 30’ boats are large enough they don’t maneuver easily and they do not stop quickly. If you miss and hit the dock the damage can be costly. I nailed it perfectly the first try, and when my turn at the helm was given to the next student I was left feeling very inadequate at the task. Even now in my own boat, docking is one of the tenser moments for me.
After docking practice, we got out on the water and started sailing. It was overcast, with a nice steady breeze, and an occasional bit of rain. We were practicing a maneuver called a jibe. During a jibe, the boat is sailing downwind, and turns such that the boom moves from one side of the boat to the other. Done wrong, the wind will catch the sail and slam the boom hard from one side to the other. Stuff breaks. People get hurt. So, we took a moment to talk about it, rehearsed what we all had to do and got into position. As we performed (our very first) jibe, there was a massive wind shift. The sails started to flog around madly, the boom was shaking around. The boat stopped. I thought we did something wrong, but Heather explained we did not, it was just the bad weather. The wind had picked up. Then it started pouring.
We sat there doing nothing, so I asked Heather what we should do. She said that we should call it a day, but in the heavy wind and rain it wasn’t safe for us to take the sail down. So, we would wait a few minutes and hopefully there would be a brief break when we could safely leave the cockpit and go forward to the mast and lower the sail. After a few minutes the rain got worse, and then lightning. At this point she started to look concerned and said, “Ok, here is what we are going to do. We are going to take the sail down.” I have since been on the foredeck of a boat in pouring rain with 10 foot swells, so the conditions that first day are not even slightly concerning for me now. But then, on my first day, it was pretty exhilarating.
I took a few more courses after that first week. Bareboat Cruising (ASA 104) was several days staying overnight on the boat. It included sailing and navigating at night, and how boat systems like propane stoves, and the electrical systems work. Advanced Coastal Cruising (ASA 106) was a weeklong trip from San Francisco to Monterey Bay and back. That course introduced ocean sailing, planning for longer trips away from shore, and paper chart navigation down the coast. I also took a racing class and participated in some races with the club.
Heather was a huge inspiration for me and deciding to buy a boat and adapt a cruising lifestyle. She grew up sailing in Sausalito, and after graduating college spent a few years hitchhiking around the Pacific. I had no idea this was even possible. Apparently, if you are an experienced sailor, you can lend your skills to shorthanded boats for free passage to wherever they are going. After a while, you can even get paid for this. I now know of number of people who spend their life travelling all over the world, getting paid to sail with other people. There is something that is very romantic about that to me. It is also remarkable to me that with all of our technology, innovation, and advanced forms of transportation, an ordinary person, even someone in poverty, can travel the world via sailboat.