Sailing and the Stars

In the summer of 2003, I was part of a two week workshop in Annapolis, MD at St. John's College, a most unusual college that teaches all classes with a "great books" program.  The focus of the workshop was "bridging the gap" between the sciences and humanities...the first year of the program highlighted astronomy and physics.  We read many of the early philosophers and scientists, including Plato, Timaeus, Aristotle, Copernicus, Gallileo, Euclid, Newton and Descartes, Dante's descriptions of the heavens and others.  We looked at the stars through Scott Lee's personal telescope, which he lugged up and down the three story dormitory, saw the moons of Jupiter (all of them in a row), followed Copernicus' map of the heavenly bodies in their planetarium,  and then in their observatory.  Over the weekend in-between I went to Washington, D.C. and found the Smithsonian natural  history museum, with its explanations of how the earth was formed, its collection of crytalline forms and its current seismographic recordings of tremors around the earth considerably more interesting than before.  I must admit that I was enthralled with astronomy, looking up software for the stars and Hubble telescope photographs, which are astonishingly beautiful.  I read Dante all the way home on the plane.  I also went sailing.  Patricia Cook, one of the faculty at St. John's, who truly bridges philosophy and science (trained in both chemistry and philosophy), relayed an offer from her husband, who teaches philosophy as well as sailing at the naval academy, to sail with him.  I easily decided to indulge in an old love, and altogether four of us went out on the river and eventually to Chesapeake Bay. 

When my mother turned 53, she decided to start sailing.  She bought an O'Day day sailor, one that was difficult to tip and that four people could comfortably sit in.  It was perfect for absolute beginners.  We read a small book, took it out on the lake, and spun it around 360 degrees as we rode directly into a storm.  The day sailor was replaced by racing boats... a C-scow, an M-16 scow, and my brother picked up an E-scow.  My sister, brother, mother and I all sailed, but that was a very long time ago, and mine was sporadic, since I no longer lived here.
When I came back from the seminar, my sister and I stopped by the Lake Harriet Yacht Club (LHYC) and discovered that a free women's sailing clinic was being offered the next morning....we went....we joined, boatless, the LHYC with the intention of crewing...then realized that we needed to learn this all over again...we took lessons from the Minneapolis Park Board (recommended!), four nights of them...felt ready to go, and then I crewed, and knew I still needed more experience...not the easiest thing to start as a beginner again....we joined the SCUM club (U of MN Sailing Club) in early August, sailing twice a week with more experienced sailors and informal instruction...and crewed, sailed, were instructed some more, and after many crewing bruises, ripped up hands, a quite a few humbling times and a couple of dunkings, passed the skipper tests just before school started again (my goal).  Little did I know the difficult times were just beginning.

By the next summer, I had forgotten most of what I had learned in August, just as I had feared.  But I still was in SCUM, and passing the tests meant that I now was an instructor!  Needless to say, I scrambled.  Sometime during the summer, I decided to try a race - with the LHYC - on a hot day when the wind was about 3 mph, not being terribly brave, but fairly wise about my abilities.  The SCUM boat that I sailed, an MC, was truly scummy - seagull heaven, apparently, was the other word for the deck,  and there was nothing on board to wipe it off - an inauspicious beginning.  Sailing solo when you're new at it is sort of like driving a car when you're a novice, with a stick shift going uphill.  There is simply too much to pay attention to, and no ingrained habits, so you're not too smooth in your movements.  I hoisted the sail (tough one), straightened out some wierd way of stringing the lines, and then took off from the buoy, pulling on the sideboard releases after another sailor saw me going sideways (you can't steer without a sideboard or rudder down).  But nothing happened - I continued to slide, right into someone's metal lift, where I thankfully was stopped.  Totally puzzled, I looked underneath and discovered that the last skipper had tied up the sideboards so they wouldn't drop - nice in a storm, but I'd never seen anyone do that.  Eventually I got out there, and even started the race, but was so far behind by the end that I didn't finish.  How humiliating, I thought.  I was reassured that this happened to everyone, and of course didn't believe it (it was true - one woman never finished a single race her first summer, and she's a pretty good sailor today).  I tried a few more times, but everything was trouble - the equipment wouldn't work right, and I wanted to steer clear of everyone, fearing that I'd hit someone if I stayed close (and many of their boats were way too nice to do this).  I couldn't even figure out the starting sequence, i.e., when the race was starting.  (to be continued)