The Great Outdoors
Sailing into the sunset: After almost killing my girlfriend, I'm outta here
I nearly killed my girlfriend the first time we went sailing.
It was spring in northern Idaho, and a week earlier I’d giddily spotted a 15-foot West Wight Potter in a want ad. I bought it for too much money off a salty old prison guard who, at well over 250 pounds, never could quite fit inside.
But my brain practically short circuited itself dreaming of sunshine and breezy mountain lakes after months of brutal gray winter in the Northwest. We were only a couple weeks out of heavy-coat weather, yet I lured my unsuspecting love interest to North Idaho’s Hayden Lake, the former home to the Aryan Nation, long since repopulated with tony houses overlooking a forest-lined expanse of splendid green water.
Despite the brisk wind, chilly air and downright frigid waves, things started well. Once the sail went up, we rocketed away from the dock, barreled over the modest waves into the widest part of the lake and began tacking back toward shore. Then the wind changed. A squirrelly mountain gust body slammed the sail and sent the boom flying over our heads. Later, I would learn that what happened is known in nautical terms as a death roll.
I’ll spare you a combination sailing jargon/physics lesson and say only that it’s aptly named.
Water poured over the sides of the cockpit behind our backs — not an easy thing to accomplish in a boat designed to heel 20-plus degrees in the course of normal use. Somehow we scrambled to the other side and regained control before tipping over.
With the boom about to fall off, no motor and only my sailing "skills" garnered from a single year of skimming a Styrofoam dinghy around a much smaller lake, I managed to bring us ashore. To this day I have an uneasy feeling that the afternoon could have ended just as easily with our waterlogged and hypothermia-drained corpses bobbing around in life jackets.
I feel somehow obligated to tell that story before I try to convince anyone that sailing is a fantastic hobby. That Houston is a superb place to give it a try. That once they do, they may never stop.
Anyone who wants to start sailing deserves a disclaimer that the sport is endlessly expensive, time consuming and not particularly good exercise. When the weather is good, it somehow manages to be both blissful and thrilling at once. The rest of the time, it’s about as relaxing as watching the giant tree you’ve decided to cut down list perilously toward the house.
You should do it anyway.
There’s no other sensation quite like tricking the wind into pushing you where you want to go. With no noise, no motor, and the constant touch of the breeze and the current through the tiller, captains feel connected to nature in ways impossible to replicate.
Plus, those slightly more responsible than I am have a long list of American Sailing Association-approved schools to teach them the basics before using their new pastime to test the strength of their personal relationships. An ASA Basic Keelboat course takes two or three days and usually costs around $300.
“It will basically teach you everything you need to know about sailing,” says Ryan Kahre of South Coast Sailing Adventures in Kemah.
Plus, South Coast Sailing throws in two extra sails with a captain to elaborate on any maneuvers requiring extra practice.
Take control of your own craft
You needn’t even take a course to be seduced by the open water. Most sailing schools also charter boats for sunset sails, day excursions and longer trips. Should you become hooked, the region’s waterways are ripe with sailing clubs.
Want to vacation on the water? Why cruise with thousands of strangers aboard the SS Steam Table when you can pilot your own craft.
Advanced classes earn sailors what is known as bareboat charter certification. This allows you to rent boats unsupervised in coastal waters all over the world at rates that really aren’t bad if split between a group of friends. Sailing catamarans are often described as floating condos, and even smaller cruisers offer the same comforts of a hotel suite.
It’s fitting I should find a column about sailing at the end of my to-do list this week. That girl I almost drowned was accepted to the creative writing program at the University of Virginia recently, and I am packing my stuff to move with her.
Houston has worked its way deeply into my heart, despite everything I was supposed to think about the city before moving here. Writing about the outdoors, I’ve been humbled to discover thousands of people who cast aside the heat, the flatness and the traffic like so much mud from their running shoes. Talking and playing with them was the highlight of my week.
I’ll still write for CultureMap whenever they’ll have me, including travel stories I hope to contribute often. Thanks for reading. Now get out there.