Learning the Ropes

It was always the men in Ann Hood’s life doing the tacking and jibing while she sat back and enjoyed the ride. Now, after a few sailing lessons, she’s taking the helm for the first time.

I want to be Hayley Tobin. Eighteen years old. Pale blond hair, long legs, golden tan. A sophomore at Stanford University. But for me the most envy-producing thing about Hayley Tobin, the reason that, as I watch her nimbly jump barefooted from dock to J22 sailboat, I want to be her, is that the girl can sail. Has been sailing, in fact, since she was eight. Is on the Stanford sailing team. Is here in Newport teaching sailing. Is getting ready to teach me.

I want to be Hayley Tobin, Sailing Goddess, Mistress of the Tack and Jibe, but alas, I am a landlocked fifty-two-year-old woman who gets port and stern confused, who can’t tie a knot, who stares up at the telltale at the top of the mast blowing in the wind and still can’t discern the wind direction.

Don’t get me wrong. I love to sail. I just don’t know how. For years, my husband and I actually owned a boat, Obsession, a beautiful twenty-six-foot Pearson. But for all those years, as my husband sailed us out of Conanicut Marina in Jamestown, across the Bay, through crowded Newport Harbor and beyond, I held on to our children. As babies, I clutched them to my chest; as toddlers, I held on to the straps of their life vests as they staggered about. By the time they got old enough for me to let go, we’d sold the boat.

My history with sailing, it seems, always involved a man. In high school, I dated a boy who drove a copper GTO with a fat racing stripe up the hood and sailed a large boat out of Wickford Harbor. His eyes were an unforgettable green. His hair a tumble of sunkissed blond. In other words, I did not pay very much attention to how he was making the boat move in the wind. In college, I dated a boy who sailed a Sunfish, fast, across Indian Lake. He had dark curls and biceps that danced as he sailed the boat. Sometimes he handed things over to me. We would promptly capsize and I would happily let him lift me back onto the boat. Post college, another boy, another sailboat. A night in Newport with said boy on said boat. Enough said. So I love to sail. But never learned how. Until now.

Sail Newport was founded in 1983, after the loss of the America's Cup. Located on Newport Harbor in Fort Adams State Park, its mission is to encourage sailing and promote public participation in sailing related programs. Although Sail Newport runs world class regattas, rents a fleet of J22s, and participates in summer weeknight races, it is their adult sailing lessons that have brought me here. Brad Read, the director, has told me that after six lessons, I should be able to take a boat out myself.

I don’t tell him my history. I consider requesting a female instructor, but then I decide that I am older now, more mature. I will not be distracted by muscles or curls. But when I see Hayley Tobin, I admit some relief. It proves temporary, though. As soon as she starts using sailing terminology and filling a sail with wind, I get all tingly. That’s when I realize — no offense, guys of my youth — that it’s sailing itself that excites me. It’s the feeling of letting the wind take you across the glittering water, the beauty of a sail puffed and gleaming in the sunlight. Is it possible that I will actually become a person who can achieve that?

Hayley smiles a perfect white toothed smile. “Ready for some chalk talk?” she asks.

I glance at the boats bobbing in the water, beckoning me, then follow her away from them to a tent.

“J22s,” Hayley says, “are simple and straightforward. Fast to rig and de-rig. They have a fixed keel so they won’t flip on you.”

I think briefly of that Sunfish tossing me into Indian Lake. No big strong guy here to rescue me. Or to turn the boat over if it capsizes.

“That’s a good thing,” I say. Is Hayley frowning at me? I wonder.

“Points of sail,” Hayley says. She speaks in a matter of fact, rapid-fire way that makes me slightly terrified of her.

“Okay,” I say hesitantly.

Hayley draws a clock and writes furiously on it. “Close hauled is one o’clock. Close reach two. Beam reach three. Broad reach four. Running five.”

She looks at me for something, so I nod, even as I think: What in the world is she talking about?

“This is the no-go zone,” she continues.

Hood 2I keep nodding and smiling, but I am completely lost. I got an A in French, but that was a long time ago. Didn’t I read somewhere that after forty it’s virtually impossible to learn a new language? Still, the overachiever in me makes me concentrate on this chalk talk. When Hayley quizzes me, I do okay, but not because I’ve grasped the meaning of what she’s telling me. My rusty skills of memorizing for a test kick in, and I’m able to spout beam reach and close haul without actually understanding them.

As we get on the boat, Hayley grins, on to me. “It’ll kick in. You’ll see.”

Ah! The certainty of being Hayley Tobin. I, on the other hand, am not quite so confident.

There is something familiar aboutbeing on a sailboat. The rocking, the feel of the fiberglass under my feet. As Hayley directs me in untying some ropes and tying others, in hoisting the mainsail, and the backwards, counter-intuitive movements of the tiller, I am filled with a wash of memories. The way I would trim the jib on Obsession as my husband let out the mainsail. How to fill a sail with wind when it starts to luff. Ducking under the boom as I switch sides. And, best of all, the thrill of it. All those boys and all those long ago kisses were only made more thrilling by sailing.

That night, I study my book, START SAILING RIGHT!, an American Red Cross publication that Sail Newport gave me before I began. Slowly, all those terms Hayley was trying to teach me begin to make sense. They are simply a boat’s direction relative to the wind, described in terms of sections within a circle. Since a boat cannot sail directly into the wind, from there to approximately forty-five degrees on either side is the no-go zone. All of the other terms describe where the wind is coming from: across, behind or in front of the boat.

When Hayley and I meet under the tent again, I not only answer her questions correctly, I actually sort of understand what I’m talking about. Even better, though, is after just one private lesson, I tack and jibe fairly smoothly when we go back out onto the water. I am a person who likes roller coasters and driving fast, so it is no surprise to me that the few moments when I catch the wind and the boat seems to fly are my favorite ones. Even though navigating my way through the tangle of boats back at the dock makes me slightly queasy, there is a real high in actually doing it. I can’t help but remember the day my husband put me in charge of our boat, anchored off Newport during the Folk Festival, while he left via dinghy to attend a funeral. Slowly, the boat began to drift, and as it neared, and then hit, another sailboat, I was powerless to do anything. Now, I think as I take the sail down, I might handle that better.

When I was in high school and college, my ability to retain information was remarkable. I could recite entire poems, spout off dates of wars, and memorize the periodic table without any trouble. Now, thirty years later, when I show up for another sailing lesson, I can’t even keep straight what to do with the tiller to tack and jibe. That night, the old A student in me crams, staying up late to study. But my START SAILING RIGHT! book only confuses me more: “Just before you grab the main sheet to throw the boom, transfer the sheet from your sheet hand to your tiller hand…” Huh?

My eyes land on this disarming piece of information: “If you steer straight through the jibe without controlling the mainsail, it will suddenly swing across uncontrolled.” Although I have fond memories of losing control on those other sailboats, this is something else altogether. In light winds, these slam jibes are not too much of a problem, but in strong winds they can cause damage to rigging and gear and, I suspect, to me. I fall asleep praying for light winds.

Once again, though, my studying combined with just getting on the boat and doing it pays off. Even though logic and my tenth grade geometry teacher tell me that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, in sailing you zigzag. When you sail upwind, you tack by pushing the tiller toward the sail. Downwind you push the tiller away from the sail, or jibe. Forget the book. Tiller and toward both start with the letter T. My mnemonic trick has me yelling “Ready about” and “Hard a-lee” with the authority of someone who actually knows what she’s doing. Driving home that night, I shout jibe-ho as I cross the Newport Bridge, just for fun.

Hood 3My final lesson is in a group. I Am joined by my friend Laura and another woman named Barbara. To my surprise, Hayley is not our instructor. Instead, Darragh O’Connor, a dark-haired, dangerously cute Irish guy, complete with a brogue, leads us onto one of the J boats. Despite my trepidation about my own old bad habits, I think I might actually be up for this challenge.

This instructor is more laid back than Hayley. He lets us take turns at the tiller and with the mainsail and jib. We sail far and fast, past the house on the rock, past other boats racing, past the Ida Lewis Yacht Club. The day is sunny and glorious. As I move from position to position, I feel both slightly awkward and slightly certain. In other words, as promised, I am learning to sail.

At the end of the afternoon, as we head to Laura and her husband, Steven’s, house, Laura says, “We should rent a boat and take the guys out for a sail.”
“Good idea,” I say.

I no longer want to be Hayley Tobin, I realize, with all those decades stretching between eighteen and here. No. I am happy that she has taught me, and taught me well. But happier still for all those kisses and sails past, and the ones I can look forward to, this time as captain.