Monday, February 16, 2015

The First Rule of Sailing School...

For those of you who are new here, a little background info:

We own a small, hand built sailboat.
If you aren't new here, well, deal with it. I still can't believe we built it.
My husband and I have similar vacation tastes – nature-y, minimal tourists, mountains, oceans – with one tiny difference. I prefer lounging at the beach or pool, a little shopping, some reading, sightseeing, a nice dinner. He prefers, and I am very loosely quoting, "being as uncomfortable as I can possibly be without dying".

This is why I found myself at sailing school in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
These are tiny little boats with tiny little children, all sailing. Not puking.
Oh, I also have a serious issue with motion sickness.
There will be vomit.

Now, on with the story...

Our decision to go official and attend sailing school met both of our needs. Rob wanted some concrete assurance that he was doing things right while gaining a more thorough knowledge of sailing. I felt my duty as first mate was to be able to safely maneuver him back to shore should he succumb to a tragic bikini ogling accident.
The fact that the school we chose was in Tortola, British Virgin Islands was a compromise we were willing to make. Especially in November on the Coast of Illinois. 
How do you find Tortola? Fly south to Puerto Rico and hang a left. (Although it is not actually that simple and will be another story.)

Rob took care of the research and settled on Rob Swain Sailing School. (They also have classes in Rhode Island but, seriously?) We signed up for the two day Basic Keelboat class. Passing the class promised certification by the US Sailing Association.
Provided you study. 

This is a page from my lesson book. Looks super technical, doesn't it.
 We booked the trip in March. This allowed me a good five and one half months to stare at the text book, move it to various tables, dust around it and then another two weeks to actually open the book and read it. By the time we arrived at Nanny Cay Marina on the morning of day one I felt regretful that I had not studied more and fairly confident that I would be the oldest woman in the class.

Day One dawned pleasantly warm and sunny.
Then it rained for ten minutes.
Day One became ridiculously humid.

Class is held in the Rob Swain office and our lessons were taught by an adorable Irishman- Rory and a crusty Englishman - Toddy. (I would also describe him as adorable but he would probably sail up the Mississippi and kick my ass were I to do so.) Both these men are accomplished sailors yet taught with the understanding that we were all new. Our class was small – Rob and myself, a cute, young English couple- Jason and Jasmine- who were hoping to learn enough to not destroy any boat they might rent and a Canadian woman - Monique- close to my age, whose husband was buying a gigantic sailboat and was hoping she would learn enough to not run over the smaller sailboats and people in the ocean.

It should be noted here that in the course of one morning I had listened to no fewer than six different accents, all claiming to be speaking English.
My husband would also like me to point out that I seem to learn things better from teachers with accents.
I would then argue that it was only one German ski instructor and I didn't so much learn anything as much as I was afraid Klaus would just leave me on the mountain.


After a couple of hours discussing the points of sail, knot tying and basic parts of a boat we took a dinghy across the bay to continue Day One on the water. Our lesson boat was 24 foot IC24, Bermuda rig sloop. There is no motor. We were not there to learn motoring. We were there to learn sailing.

Toddy took Monique, Rob and myself as his crew. Rory, Jason and Jasmine banded together in the under 40 boat.
We spent the first forty minutes on the water sorting out equipment and rigging sails.
I feel the need to again point out that we were on the water, bobbing. It was humid. I have motion sickness. Oh, and I was now beginning to ramp up the anxiety over not studying more.
Rory and his crew set sail through the harbor. I never saw them again.
(Well, until the next day.)

Toddy gave Rob the tiller and very carefully we maneuvered into open water. Rob is very proud to announce that no ridiculously expensive boats were harmed in the maneuvering. 
Seriously. Expensive. And the rainbow? I swear, it was always there.
Once on open water we began our instruction in earnest. Everyone had a job and every job was rotated to insure we each understood just how a boat works. The beauty of learning to sail in Tortola is the dependable wind. The wind is almost always a steady 8-10mph from the East. This constant, consistent wind makes all the physics of sailing work. For example – to sail upwind the sails are on the right with the wind coming over the left or port side. This is a close haul. To stop the boat you simply turn into the wind. And in Tortola the boat stops.
Move the tiller to the left, the wind returns and the boat moves.
It's like magic.Or at least it is like sailing somewhere with consistent wind, unlike our inland bodies of water where the wind is affected by land.

I started on the starboard jib sheet, shifted to the tiller then to the port jib sheet. This involved a great deal of sliding starboard to port, looking up to check the wind, looking down to secure the sheets, sliding back to take a turn on the tiller and then repeating.
About the time we started making headway Toddy would call for us to stop then resume. It was intense and busy and so much fun.
It was also disorienting, dizzying and oh so nauseating. Because that beautiful Tortola breeze was blowing more like 10-15 knots. Or nearly 17mph. In a boat which is tilting heeling nearly into the water.

And this is where the motion sickness and the nerves come into play.

I was beating the nausea down from my first switch. It would ebb while I was busy then slam back to remind me who was actually in charge. I kept praying for Toddy to get a sudden yearning for rum and demand that we just continue on our close haul towards Norman Island and Pirate's Bight Beach Bar and Grill. 
I can smell the rum from here...
That did not happen.
Instead, Monique steered us directly into the path of an huge oncoming WAVE. Toddy shouted 'WAVE' in time for me to look directly into it. The salty water washed over all of us, leaving us laughing and refreshed.
Until I swallowed the mouthful of Caribbean salt water and Rob turned us to a close reach starboard tack. The boat heeled as we changed direction and my nausea went into a beam reach of regurgitation. I was no longer in the no-go zone of vomit. I was on a full on run.

And here is where we all learned the MOST IMPORTANT RULE OF SAILING SCHOOL: 
You always puke on the leeward side.

Rob, being the ever caring husband that he is, and Toddy being the guy who would have to clean the boat, both shouted – as the voice in my head chimed in – GO TO THE LEEWARD SIDE!
(For you non-sailing people, this is the side away from the wind.)
I promptly slid to the leeward side, grabbed my sunglasses so as not to throw them over the side of the boat and puked.
For the next fifteen minutes.

It was ridiculous. I was hot, cold, sweaty and praying to die, hoping no one had seen me but positive the everyone in the British and US Virgin Islands had been in full view. The voice in my head chided my poor constitution then attempted a pep-talk and finally just gave up with the final thought that here I was puking in the Caribbean and I had yet to have even had a single drink of rum.

Then Toddy said, "It's okay poppet. We can take you back."
And in my completely crumbled state my inner voice rejoiced that I had been called 'poppet' by a real Englishman.
I can not explain this.
I am going with salt-water toxicity.

I have no idea who got us back to the dock.
I have no idea how I actually managed to get out of the boat. If I hadn't felt so much like dying I would have been dying of embarrassment.
I do remember Rob practically carrying me to a bench and bringing me a coke.
I can't even say if I spoke with anyone else from the class that day.

I can tell you, with absolute certainty, that I was bound and determined to get back in that damn boat on 
Day Two...
As they say, the morning is a brand new day. I was well rested, drugged up with both drowsy and non-drowsy Dramamine and ready.
Class time covered the very important channel markers and even more important man overboard procedures, which we would be practicing in open water.
We took a break to prep for actual boat time. I drank more water, pulled on my brand new sailing gloves and dashed to the bathroom where once again my intestinal tract betrayed me.

There are no bathrooms on the lesson boats. So...
I bowed out of boat time.

Even though Rob, Monique and Toddy did their very best to convince me I would be fine and if I wasn't they would bring me back, no questions asked.
I just couldn't do it.There may not have been any questions but there would have been some exclamations.
My disgust with my lack of constitution was not strong enough to beat down my fear of being asked to leave the entire Lesser Antilles. So, while our school boat sailed from the harbor, I talked with Rehanna, the secretary of the school.
We talked for over an hour about the islands, island life, the school. I learned just as much on that bench as I could have learned from any book. Rehanna returned to work and I wandered off to explore Nanny Cay with the distinct feeling that I would never be a stranger on Tortola.

Eventually the school boats made their way back into the harbor. 

Rob at the tiller. Notice him NOT hitting the other boats.
Rob, Monique and Toddy all comforted me with the fact that they considered coming back to shanghai me back onto the boat and I comforted them with the fact that if anyone would need the benefit of a man overboard drill it would be me as I was clearly most likely to fall in the water.

After a final debriefing, it was test time.
I can not tell you how terrified I was of failing.
Suffice it to say, the UNWRITTEN RULE OF SAILING SCHOOL is this: 
Never take a tested class with your husband.
But if you must take a test with your husband then you must:
(okay, maybe three...)
Toddy, being the great teacher that he is, went over the test with us and allowed me time to defend my incorrect answers which turned out were only correct, but not 'the most' correct.
I promised to keep practicing and left the school with my US sailing book in hand and while it contained the notation that 'unfortunate to be ill but good overall otherwise' I had passed my test.

We celebrated with the 'best roti on the island' served by the 'best waiter on the island' at the GenakerCafe.

The Best Waiter on the Island with the Most Relieved Student on the Island.
We then retired to the Peg Leg for a Painkiller on the beach.
All classes should end this way. 

As usual, this is not a paid post. And as usual, please click on the links throughout. I must mention that Rob Swain Sailing School was wonderful. While I tend to poke fun at the experience, our instructors were very professional and obviously love, not only sailing but teaching new sailors the ropes. I mean sheets. 
Oh, and come back next week for more life on the Coast of Illinois...or wherever I might be!


  1. I love the ocean but get sea sick myself so I could feel your pain but hey at least you passed the test!

    1. I felt I was prepared with all the dramamine. But honestly, I think it was a combo of nerves, excitement and salt water! I was so aggravated with my stomach!

  2. Oooooh, oooh ooooh oooh, oooh oooh oooh oooh oooh. I want to go do that with TQ now. No, I mean now. Like I want to re-pack my island baggage and get on a plane and go there in the morning.

    Also, lovely to see your whole sailboat, I had only found pictures taken on board. Very nice!


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