Aerodynamics and fun, learned aboard a sailboat

Aerodynamics and fun, learned aboard a sailboat

Groups of young sailors try their racing skills in Newport Harbor as part of their Sail Newport instruction.  In the background is the Claiborne Pell Bridge spanning the East Passage of Narragansett Bay.
Groups of young sailors try their racing skills in Newport Harbor as part of their Sail Newport instruction. In the background is the Claiborne Pell Bridge spanning the East Passage of Narragansett Bay.

NEWPORT — OK, I learned the mainsail has sections called luff, leech, foot, and clew. So does the jib sail, and both are attached to the mast by what I swore were ropes but are called lines.

There were also the Cunningham, the outhaul, the boom vang, and other weirdly named things that allow you to use points of sail, something with its own head-spinning vocabulary, including beam reach, broad reach, close hauled, and run.

And we hadn’t even left the dock.


“Don’t worry about the terms, I don’t expect you to remember them,” said instructor Brian Kelley. “It’s just for background. The more you sail, the more you’ll get familiar with them.”

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Luckily, I wasn’t alone. Nor are the many others taking lessons at Sail Newport, a nonprofit in its 30th season of teaching sailing to landlubber, middle-aged newbies like me right down to fearless 5-year-olds, tens of thousands of us over the decades.

I had come to Sail Newport never having set foot on anything smaller than a giant sailboat on a Caribbean sunset rum cruise, never having paid attention to how boats were driven, or rather piloted. It always fascinated me how with wind coming from one direction, sailboats can go in the other, so I figured I would take lessons.

The takeaway: Despite the mind-numbing terminology, it was surprisingly easy. Well, it was with Kelley paying attention to the sail stuff anyway. I mostly sat in the back of the boat, manning the tiller, twisting it one way or the other to steer us and marveling at the way the boat would often lean so far over, the waters of Newport Harbor lapped over the railing.

Paul E. Kandarian for the Boston Globe
Kids warm up dockside prior to lessons at Sail Newport.

As it did just that while we skittered past the majestic Claiborne Pell Bridge (or Newport Bridge), I instinctively tensed up, drawing a laugh from Kelley, 30, who grew up in Framingham and took lessons with Sail Newport when he was 10, instilling in him a lifelong love of the water.


“I know it feels like it’ll tip over,” he said. “But that rarely happens. Usually if you go too far, the sail will slap the water and pop you right back up.”

Sailing is a science, Kelley said, one that involves reading the wind by watching a vane atop the mast and little flaps of nylon on the mainsail that you keep straight by steering the boat, using the wind to get you where you want to be. It’s about tacking and jibing, heading one way with the wind, the other against it, a zig zag approach.

A boat is like an airplane, he said; the same aerodynamics are applied with wind providing lift. It’s a delicate dance, I found out, swinging the tiller one way, tightening or loosening the sails to work the wind, and powering forward, tacking and jibing. I held the tiller so tightly, my arms burned by day’s end.

Sail Newport instructors are all about safe boating, outfitting us in life preservers and giving the basics about on-water safety, including warnings about ducking under the boom, a long, horizontal pole attached to the mainsail that swings left to right — at eye level.

“It’s called that,” Kelley said, “because it goes ‘boom’ if it hits you in the head.”


The views along our roughly one-mile trip out of the harbor were amazing, from the sprawling Hammersmith Farm, childhood home of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis, to the Castle Hill lighthouse and beyond.

Paul E. Kandarian for the Boston Globe
Instructor Brian Kelley uses a chalkboard to teach terms and maneuvers before a lesson.

I went out two days with Kelley, the first fairly calm. We happened by a group of Sail Newport youth doing racing drills in dinghies outfitted with small sails. Watching them maneuver their boats with fearless ease made me realize the wisdom of starting at a young age.

The next day was a different story, with 15-20-knot winds roiling the water even at dockside. But we tacked and jibed across the harbor, setting sail for distant Jamestown, past Fort Adams, and into rough open water. There were six-foot swells, the dark water pushing us along. As we dipped into the troughs, we saw nothing but water fore and aft, the view of land obliterated until we rode the next swell.

Back on land, instructor Andrew Labbe had just returned from a lesson with David Hruska, 57, a graphics designer from Barrington, who took a lesson, his first, to refresh his sailing memory.

“I learned to sail in Great Barrington” on lakes and ponds, Hruska said, adding with a laugh, “but that wasn’t the ocean.”

He said it came back quickly, under Labbe’s tutelage, and added “I’m definitely coming back.” He said he would join Sail Newport as a member for $100 a year, allowing for discounts when renting boats. “This is affordable sailing at its best.”

Sail Newport began in 1983 after the United States lost the America’s Cup race here to Australia II , ending the sport’s longest-running win streak. A group of local sailors created the nonprofit at Fort Adams to refresh the sailing spirit: Since it began, Sail Newport has taught more than 14,000 children and 10,000 adults, as well as managing more than 500 championship regattas.

This year, donors gave Sail Newport a new fleet of 14 J-22 sailboats, which at 22 feet long “are just large enough to be comfortable without being overwhelming,” said Kim Hapgood, Sail Newport’s longtime program director.

The program averages about 1,000 children a summer taking lessons. The majority of adults taking to the water do so for the first time, Hapgood said, and are often “visitors who know the sailing mecca that Newport is, and just want to give it a try.”

A plus of using Sail Newport, she said, “is not hassling with boat ownership. You can rent a boat as a member for $75 for three hours or $96 if you’re not a member.”

She recommended new sailors sign up for three sessions for a total of 18 hours (rates start at $150 a session for nonmembers), but added “everyone learns differently, it’s just getting people to the point where they’re comfortable.

“By the second or third lesson, you start mastering skills, so we don’t have to tell you how to rig the sail, or tack, or jibe,” she said. “You’ll do what you need to do with a high degree of familiarity.”

I took two lessons and had a blast in the process, which is sailing’s bottom line.

Asked what first-time sailors say after taking lessons, Hapgood said, “Generally, they’re quite amazed. It’s a different experience from what they anticipated.”

What to know:

LUFF: The fore edge of a sail.

LEECH: The outside edge of the triangular sail — the one that’s not attached to anything.

FOOT: The bottom edge of the sail — the one attached to the boom.

CLEW: Aft bottom corner of a triangular sail.

Paul E. Kandarian can be reached at