A notice was posted on a Lake Pointchartrain online sailing page. A boat competing in the Mid Winter Flying Scot National Championship needed a 110-120 pound crew. National races. Big opportunity to learn about the boat I had worked on for over two years but not sailed. I jumped at the chance. Before anyone else could possibly respond, I expressed my interest. With a few emails, it was decided I was moderately qualified. During phone conversations with both the skipper and the crew, they explained my job would be to “help hold the boat down,” to shift around to keep the craft flat. Anyone can do that. Right? I made it very clear, I was NOT a skilled Scot sailor, revealing my advanced age and stressing I had minutes of Scot experience.
We all agreed. I know how to sail so how hard could it be?
The fact that I was crewing on someone else’s boat made it easy. Not much prep, little stress and I was looking forward to being on a compact craft for the first time in a long while. As part of a highly experienced crew it was a chance to learn a lot. I was excited.
During the cool, breezy day-before practice sail I assured myself the sporty weather, with sharp blocky waves on a small boat was good experience. Once on the boat — things changed. I felt clumsy and awkward. Everything was squished together. The first time I crossed the for a tack, I kicked the clutches on top of the centerboard. It was as if clown shoes suddenly dangled from my not-limber enough legs. Bull-in-a-Scot-style, I ducked the boom then flopped on the tiny spot on the windward deck. Unsure of every move I hesitated. Every bit of confidence I had at the dock, was suddenly gone. I was a clown, and had the shoes too big for the boat to prove it.
Still, I was assigned “extra” non-ballast duties; help set the spinnaker, trim the jib, work the centerboard, help with the vang and put the pole under the deck. There were surely other tasks doled out by the skipper and the crew, instructions for me to pull on this or that when something or the other was going on, but I was too focused on the size of my feet to absorb any of it.
The first spinnaker set, was a minor cluster with ample barking from all but me. I raised the centerboard at glacial speed, so slowly the regular crew snatched the line from my hands, swiftly providing an example of the way it should be hauled. She did this even though she herself was having topping lift issues. Lickidee split! Done. She spread her arms overhead like a cowboy in a rodeo after tying the calf to clearly express how fast I should move. I felt slow, week. No, feeble.
After aiding me, she could not set the pole. “Uncleat!” she barked. I checked under my big feet — and under my old lady buns. Good! I was not sitting a the line. A stopper knot with a one inch tail was at the cleat — definitely the bitter end — if I was looking at the right line. Yep, the skipper confirmed the line was too short. Hapless as I was, I was handed the helm, clinging to the vang and the hiking strap (which I wondered how to employ while at the helm) with my “free” hand. The skipper shimmied under the leeward foredeck to sort out the problem. Not reacting in a big puff, failing to ease the mainsheet (laying at my Bigfoot feet), could cause the boat to roll. Surely the skipper would be trapped along with his and the mate’s life jackets tossed below the foredeck. As he emerged, the good-crew commented “a mistake like that, and we all could die.” “What? We’re not going to die!” the skipper rolled his eyes. Her off hand comment, perhaps directed at my clinging to the hiking line, solidified the vision of a small boat catastrophe, caused by my certain ineptness.
The grand goof occurred while docking. Reacting to a hair clipping by the boom — even though I certainly know better — I knocked the winch handle into the centerboard pocket. I also know better than to drop a winch handle. Looking for leniency, I confessed the $50 winch handle slipped off the tabernacle where I sat it to check my aforementioned lightly clunked noggin. I left the hairbrushing part out though and stressed it wasn’t technically overboard. Luckily, the centerboard stopped the handle from falling into the lake. A bit too gleefully I exclaimed, “I can see it! I’ll get it.” Maybe, I though. If I can shove my arm up to the elbow into a three inch slot. I stripped to my base layer, scanned the boat for WD-40 or Sailkoat. Finding none, I jammed my bared, unlubricated arm into the too tight spot to retrieve the handle. Facing aft I had a good view of the skipper’s glare. He mentioned its $50 price while I imagined the Lake Pontchartrain Fire Department soon preforming their first ever Flying Scot arm extraction. I plunged deeper, wriggled and felt for the metal to touch my straining fingertips. “Got it!” He was clearly unimpressed by my successful effort to save his equipment.
Just as I was again wondering how I could be such a monumental bumbler, the agile, strong, coordinated, experienced crew skated off the foredeck, slamming very hard onto the concrete dock. Ouch! As she dusted herself off, it popped into my head. “I’m bad luck too!” In sailing matters I can’t help but be superstitious. Not only was I klutzy, I was the a banana on the boat. Unlucky. That did it.
The Scot settled on the trailer and the bruised mate disappeared to check her injuries. As I helped the skipper put sails away I offered to remove myself from the boat. For the real-deal races starting the next day there would be very light wind. “The breeze is going to be zip for the rest of the week,” I commented, hoping the skipper would at think I had a modicum of nautical savvy for checking the forecast. “I certainly did not bring any benefit to the boat today. Uh, more the opposite. You’ll do better without me. You don’t need me to hold the boat down.” He didn’t disagree. I looked down and shuffled my huge-for-a-Scot feet and continued. “It would not hurt my feelings — not at all — if I did not sail tomorrow.” I lied.
As we stuffed the sail in the bag he brushed off my offer, but later that night, after a few cocktails, the crew very nicely dismissed me for the rest of the week. She thanked me for offering, then reminded me there was an open tab at the bar. It was the first time, since I started sailing, I was voted off a sailboat. I have to admit, the open bar suddenly sounded pretty good.
Now the regatta is over. The winds were painfully light, so my offer was probably appropriate. Even if I was not such a clod, the extra 113 pounds would have been a handicap.
Watching the boats come in, experiencing being left on shore, I realized I had been given something much more important than how to impressively raise the centerboard. As a skipper, I’ve been overlooking the value of opportunity to share the fun of sailing. In the last year I’ve had the very good fortune to have had too many people offer to crew on my boat. I probably can’t ever take them all. But with so much generosity — sailors willing to give me the opportunity to sail with them — I’d lost sight of how it feels to eagerly want to gain experience, but get passed over because of a lack … of experience.