Perhaps had it not been for the ancient Phoenicians, New England’s legendary schooner fleet, or heroic America’s Cup skippers, sailing — as in the simple skills needed to propel a boat by wind alone — would not be imbued with such mysticism.
As an outdoor skill, sailing is easier to learn than, say, skiing. And most of the time a sailboat is easier to control than an independent-minded horse.
But perhaps partly owing to the ancient and intimidating vocabulary (“Trim the main sheet! Coming about! Hard to lee!”), neophytes approach their first encounter with a sailboat with something between caution and downright dread. Hey, we’ve all seen those shipwreck flicks, right?
Not so with kids, who understand that learning new skills is the natural order of things at their age. But take an average middle-ager who has spent a lifetime dreamily watching white triangles of sail far offshore from the beach, and learning to sail becomes one of those special lifetime achievements.
“With adults,” says Chuck Leonard, executive director of the Duxbury Bay Maritime School, “sailing is one of those things that they’ve always wanted to get around to learning. Always been on their bucket list.”
Which only means that the adult approach to sailing has a great deal to do with attitude, and like most sailing schools, DBMS is always mindful of keeping neophyte sailors feeling comfortable with their environment.
Beginning instruction for adults is done on one of seven boats in the program’s fleet — broad Marshall catboats, descended from the boats New England fishermen once used — that are both safe and easy to sail.
The school also has high-tech racing boats, but, says Leonard of the adult program: “We’re not out here teaching racing in this program. We just want to teach people how to sail.”
Learning parts of the boat is perhaps the most accessible phase, since the controlling lines (ropes), sail, tiller, and centerboard are simple and straightforward on a Marshall cat.Rigging the boat — hauling up the sails and putting the centerboard down — is also easier, but the student sailor now senses the moment of sailing is near, and the anxiety in neophytes can rise a bit.
As a volunteer instructor in the adult program at DBMS, I have seen the moment dozens of times when we cast the mooring off, get our bearing on the wind, and move out into the bay. There is a chucking sound of waves against the hull that seems to emphasize that the boat is actually in motion, being pushed only by the wind.
On average to light days, I put a student at the controls soon after starting — i.e., sitting in the stern (back), tiller in one hand, sheet (rope attached to the sail) in the other — even if he has no idea what he’s doing. Sailing is so much about feel, this is not the time to talk, but to let the hands and eyes work the boat. If the student makes some radical error, which is unlikely, the instructor is always close enough to correct it.
This brings up the next phase to learn, and that is the relationship between the wind and the sail.
“That is always the hardest thing to teach,” says Leonard. “But as you watch someone learn to move the tiller and the boat and sail move, then they learn to move the sail correctly and you see they suddenly get it. That moment when they first do get it, that’s a lot of fun.”
Tom Gosselin, a 65-year-old Duxbury resident, said: “The feeling of the natural forces around you and learning to respond to the wind is just amazing. To do this later in life, I think you have a great appreciation for the beauty, and the interaction with the wind, sea, sun clouds, and the total silence. Just amazing.
“You learn to respond to the natural forces that move the boat and your spirit at the same time.” He has had two lessons thus far and is working to become certifield to solo.
The Duxbury program allows sailors, once they demonstrate basic skills, to use available boats for up to two-hour sails in Duxbury Bay. The entire season-long program costs $525.
DBMS has 18 junior sailing programs beginning at age 5, with a variety of age group offerings and lengths of program. One-week programs cost $210; three-week programs range from $449 to $499.
At the Lincoln Maritime Center in Hingham, which also teaches youth and adult sailing, some 250 to 300 sailors and rowers get out on the water each day, according to director Ellen Dresser.
The Lincoln Center offers a variety of programs starting at age 7, right up to adult sailing. “We teach sailing to people 7 to 87 is what we say around here,” said Dresser.
“We’ve been pretty steady [with numbers of students],” she said, noting that the economic downturn that began five years ago did not seem to have much impact on Lincoln’s success. “In the summer there are always families looking for things to do, and compared to the cost of going away to camp or some other things, we’re very reasonable.”
In fact, Lincoln Center offers scholarships to needy students. Said Dresser: “Our goal is to provide for as much participation as we possibly can. We get people sailing without the yacht club money.”
Like the Duxbury Bay Maritime School, the Lincoln Center is a 501(c)3 designated nonprofit operation, and offers participation to students from any town, without any membership requirement.
“There are many reasons why adults want to sail,” said Dresser. “Some people want to sail as a family, so the parents take lessons. Sometimes people have sailed on big boats and want to get back to the feel of small-boat sailing.” Lincoln Center also has a schedule for sailors in the learning programs to use the boats on their own two days a week.
In Plymouth, though the sailing school partners with the yacht club there, sailing instruction and boats are used by nonmembers as well, according to program director Abby Arenstam.
“The adults sail in prams, which are like big bathtubs,” she says, while the youth sailing has a range of boat from Optimist dinghies to 420s and a Hunter 17.
Similar programs are also available to the public in Scituate and Cohasset.
Tony Chamberlain can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.