A dozen or so years ago, my wife, Julie, and I arrived at the Cedar Point Yacht Club’s parking lot in Westport, Connecticut, with little more than dreams and ambitions. We’d been told the people there, all strangers, sometimes needed help racing their sailboats Wednesday nights. As outsiders we had often walked the docks admiring their beautiful boats and longing to be part of something we’d thus far only been able to watch from on shore. We made some inquiries. Julie was readily accepted. Me, they let tag along.
“You wrap the sheet around the winch in this direction,” was the first lesson. And, “No, it’s not a rope.” Our first regular ride was aboard a snarly, high-strung boat, brimming with bluster, chaos and bravado. Strange words like topping lift, cunningham and outhaul were thrown around. We were told to hang off first one side of the boat and then the other. Such a lot of fuss, when all I’d really wanted at the time was serenity and sunsets.
As our sailing knowledge grew, so did the number of invitations. “Care to join us in a race this Saturday? There will be sandwiches!” was a typical come-on. Each boat’s crew had a different temperament, different abilities and different things to teach us. One sunny afternoon an elegant Englishwoman calmly asked, “Would you be so kind as to trim in the jib a little? Lovely, that’s lovely, thank you.” A refreshing change of pace.
At one point, we found ourselves spending several years racing with another couple aboard their 1978 Pearson 28. They taught us our jobs and some of the finer points of sail trim and tactics. We learned the value of how to build a team, how the crew has to work in unison in order for a sailboat to perform at its best. The captain would yell, “Coming up!” and the sails would grind in. The captain would yell, “Coming down!” and the sails would ease-out, exactly as they should.
Six years ago, we finally purchased a boat of our own, the 1986 Sabre 36 centerboarder Nereid. We will race this boat, we said. How hard could it be? We should easily be mid-pack, my wife and I reasoned. We recruited another couple with zero sailing experience but plenty of spirit. “You wrap the sheet around the winch in this direction,” was their first lesson. And “No, it’s not a rope.” Weighed down with 30-years-worth of old parts, two anchors, 70 gallons of water and several leaks, we aimed our bow toward the start line and set to work.
Let’s just we say we were not mid-pack, either that day or for many days afterward. During one trying race, we fell so far behind we lost sight of our competitors. Worse yet, when we finally did spot the finish line off in the distance, the committee boat suddenly weighed anchor and started motoring away.
“Race committee, this is Nereid, over.”
“Go ahead, Merium.”
“No, Nereid (you idiot) we haven’t finished yet.”
“Uh? Nerium, where are you?
“No, N-E-R-E-I-D!” I spelled.
“Let’s just call it a day, Meried,” they said.
Then there was the time we were bringing up the rear in yet another race, and the race committee failed to give us the customary finishing horn. “Don’t I get the horn?” I yelled across the water.
“You are crossing the finish line in the wrong direction, Nerien,” the race committee yelled back, laughing.
As you may have guessed by now, the Cedar Point Yacht Club can be a pretty bare-knuckled place. It includes generations of sailors who have traversed oceans, winning trophies near and far in boats big and small. They are also, for all their competitiveness, more than willing to share their hard-won racing knowledge with newcomers, and I am proud to call them my friends.
One day one of the local ringers would come aboard and say, “Just tighten this, this and this,” and the boat would scoot along faster than ever—until we were back on our own again. Another day another ringer would come aboard and say, “Just loosen this, this and this,” and the boat would again flutter across the waves like a thing possessed—only to mope along as usual as soon as they were gone.
Eventually, though, we learned what to tighten and when, and now we move along pretty well. We even enjoy a podium finish on occasion. Best of all, though, is sailing back home those nights when the sun is dropping in the west, turning up the lights in both the sky and our souls—that and the fact we not only now consider the skilled sailors around us to be our peers, but we know we’re part of a crew that sails its boat as well as you could ever ask for. Well done, Nereid, they sometimes say.