Setting sail 


A large(ish) sailboat is a joy to sail. A boat in the 40 – 50-foot range with a displacement approaching more tonnes than you ever like to think about when the sucker's being pulled out of the water, just tends to give a guy confidence. It accelerates to speed almost unnoticeably, flattens out all but the roughest seas and feels rock solid with its leeward toe rail nearly submerged. It is not for no reason large Cadillacs and Lincolns of a certain vintage are referred to as land yachts.

A 16-foot Hobie, on the other hand, is not the craft you want to ever feel confident on. Moments after a warm glow of confidence and mastery begin to well up inside you, there is a very good chance a 16-foot Hobie will choose that precise instant to raise the upwind pontoon past the point of no return and unceremoniously dump your arse off the trampoline and into water you hadn't realized had gotten so cold in the waning weeks of summer.

What happens next is a very slapstick dance between you, gravity, the incredible weight of water filling a sail, nascent hypothermia and a raging philosophical debate pitting trying to remember how to right an overturned Hobie versus swimming to shore and leaving the damn thing to sink to the bottom... which it won't unless you go back and drill multiple holes in the pontoons.

If a Hobie was the first craft I'd ever sailed, I likely wouldn't be addicted to the pleasures of cavorting on water with only the wind and the interface between science and voodoo as a source of locomotion. For starters, there's the coefficient of discomfort, or the CoD. The CoD of any watercraft is, in the first instance, a measure of how long you can tolerate being aboard. Boats with generous, well-designed cockpits, cushiony seats, beverage holders easily within reach of the skipper and a modicum of stability have an enviably low CoD. Boats with cramped cockpits, hard seating, tortuously-placed hardware and skippers convinced none of the crew should drink while the boat's underway have, by comparison, much higher CoDs.

Hobies, having no cockpit, no seats and no beverage holders are off the chart, CoD-wise. Add to that the requirement to sit Buddha-like or kneel like a penitent, a 100-per-cent chance of getting wet, assuming any wind whatsoever, and the aforementioned characteristic of very rapidly morphing from speeding watercraft to embarrassing sea anchor and, well, you begin to understand what a junkie you have to be to embrace one.

As if the drawbacks of such a craft weren't enough, when coupled with what can only be referred to as diabolical wind conditions on lovely Sulfuric Lake, things tend to vacillate between bad and worse.

How bad? Bad enough to have to fight a stiff wind to get the sails up only to be faced with absolutely no wind when you're finally ready to pull away from the dock. Bad enough to feel as though you're in the eye of a hurricane when you are totally becalmed, sails listlessly luffing, while all around you there are signs of swirling 20 knot winds. Bad enough that once you get into those swirling winds, you can sail a full 360-degree circle without ever touching the set of the sails — and no, I'm not making that up.

How worse? Worse enough that after experiencing all the above you finally catch a bit of luck and enjoy a constant wind affording a comfortable broad reach back toward the dock. You've mentally calculated the perfect approach, avoiding neighbours' water lines, and offering a final, graceful sweep into the wind that, if things hold up, will stall the boat just as you gently kiss the fenders alongside the dock.

In the last seconds of final approach, one of two things happen. The wind totally disappears and your forward motion threatens to drift you into shallow water, then rocks, leaving you no choice but to hop off and pull the freakin' boat to the dock. That's the better choice. The more likely choice is a microburst of wind from a direction that'll leave you approaching the dock at warp speed with no options that aren't going to make you look like a completely inept fool in front of the assembled neighbours, drinks in hand, who've seen it happen before but never tire of watching you make a spectacle of yourself yet again. Of course, they all have power boats.

But sail I must. I'm in training. Next month I'll be on a much larger boat with a miniscule CoD plying the waters of Desolation Sound. Sailing in Desolation is often a misnomer. There never seems to be the right wind there to sail. As a result, we motor. Motoring a sailboat pretty much destroys the aesthetic pleasure of sailing. Even the best diesel found on sailboats sounds like someone's dropped a handful of various-sized nuts and bolts into the crankcase. Running the engine is not just an admission that you brought the wrong kind of boat to the party, it is a form of auditory torture.

However, whether sailing or motoring, motion of any sort in a large sailboat is preferable to stopping. Stopping a boat is an act of faith almost beyond the comprehension of non-sailors. To state the obvious, there are no brakes on a boat. And unlike a large motorboat that enjoys multiple, large propellers each capable of turning different directions and bringing a boat to a stop so quickly you can pop blood vessels in your eyes, sailboats have a single prop that looks a great deal as though it was stolen from the top of someone's beanie and wouldn't be able to blend a decent margarita at full speed.

Like I said, though, I'm in training. And Desolation is just another exercise to prepare for the big show. In November, I'll be joining fellow Whistleratics, Al and Irene Whitney, who have decided there isn't enough of Europe, the British Isles, the North Sea or the Mediterranean left for them to explore and it's time to bring their boat, the Darwin Sound back across the Atlantic... ocean. Needless to say we won't be running the engine much and we certainly won't be stopping between the Canary Islands and Barbados.

After pestering everyone I've ever known who owned a boat large enough to sail across an ocean to consider me as crew if they ever make a crossing, it's finally going to happen. And needless to say, Darwin Sound's CoD is small enough to counterbalance the Atlantic's immeasurable potential CoD. Or at least I hope it is.



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