A Late-Summer Suggestion: Learn the Art of Sailing

The time is right to conjure the magic of harnessing wind and water

photo: SailTime Alabama

It’s taken us a few centuries of late summer days over a hundred degrees, but by now it’s a God-given truth that nobody on this earth has perfected the do-nothing-ness of the Dog Days as Southerners have. When it comes to lollygagging, we have no equal—leaning over the sink to eat a ripe tomato as you would an apple; checking that cord to make sure your floating cooler is firmly attached to your inner tube; watching the dog breathe as he flops under the porch fan.   

Because we’re such professionals at all that, the suggestion I’m about to make goes in the opposite direction, requiring you to detach yourself from your favored wicker chaise to learn something new—namely, how to sail. True, you can get busy out there keeping a sailboat from turning over in a stout breeze, but that’s part of the point. It’s the antidote to the Dog Days. 

The main reasons for you to drink deeply of this sailing antidote are three. First, sailing teaches us the ancient art of reading the mercurial forces of the wind and the water. Our kit has changed over the millennia, but the actions of the wind and the water haven’t. Shorn of any modern instrumentation you may or may not have aboard, this is how sailing also teaches us the way the larger world—meaning our whole biosphere—works. When you sail, you receive the same messages from those earthly forces that Odysseus did, and you become an actor in the dialogue, trying to position your boat to gain the greatest locomotive advantage from them (arguably minus Odysseus’s infamous shore leave to conduct his years-long affair with the sorceress Circe). 

Captain Steve McClure, the lead captain at Mobile Bay’s SailTime Alabama, a central Gulf Coast school and charter service, puts it more concretely: “You need to learn to feel the wind on your face and neck, see the cat’s paws on the water when calm, know the direction of the waves when breezy, check the mast head fly, and feel the heel and speed of the boat underneath you. All of these tell your brain where the wind is from.”

The second great lesson to be had is one of focus. Aboard every sailboat, there’s a lot of attention to be paid because no bit of wind and no bit of water will ever stop changing as you travel. Since part of your job is to respond to that, learning to focus on the slightest shifts in the elements will yield moments when you can, with schooling, anticipate what the wind and the water might do and prepare your boat for it.

The third lesson is that of respect. The wind and water are the boss. You may coax, cajole, beg, and curse them, but when the wind is against where you want or need to go, you’ll learn the patience required to tack upwind, back and forth in the famous herringbone pattern, until you get there. The reason for the herringbone is that it’s only possible, on what sailors call a close haul, to put your bow at a forty-five-degree angle into the wind. Your sails will luff if you try it any closer than that. In fact, that’s how you stop a boat if you need to, by turning your bow straight into the wind. 

Capt. McClure’s point on respect for the elements is far more specific: “Sudden afternoon thunderstorms are a frequent threat in Mobile Bay, especially during the summer. The wind can go from ten to forty knots or more in a few moments. You’ve got to learn that when a dark cloud is coming your way and the temperature drops dramatically, to get the sails down now.” 

There are as many versions of sailing schools as there are sailing craft and captains who teach—in salt or fresh water, you may opt for a thirty-footer on which you’re part of a crew, a group lesson with your family, or a simple private charter for an afternoon or two with a captain who teaches you, as the idiom has it, the ropes. 

Specifically, to become American Sailing Association certified, you’ll spend some time in a classroom, and you’ll definitely need to know the difference between a halyard, the rope that raises a sail, and the main sheet, or the rope that controls the angle of the mainsail to the boat—your sail-power control, so to speak. There’s much more, but on whatever path you choose in the sport, I’ll advise all new sailors to seek out the experience of capsizing and righting your boat as taught in dinghy schools. 

Beloved at sailing camps for kids, the classic American dingy is the Sunfish, a stubby little craft with a centerboard, a lateen sail, and no more than a kind of footwell for a cockpit. The boat’s dead easy to capsize if you forget to let the sheet out when the wind picks up and you’re on a slightly critical angle to the wind, or, if it’s dumping-in-the-drink day in dinghy school, you or your instructor can pull it over easily. Which is why the Sunfish is such a fine teaching vessel, because it speaks so clearly on how you have to sail in order not to turn turtle. The boat’s also relatively simple to right by swimming around to the hull, pressing both hands down hard on the centerboard so that, as the mast rises from the water, you can use your foot on the hull to kick it on up. 

Consider it your baptism and welcome to the waters.

Want to Learn?

Three schools to try across the South

SailTime Alabama

Fairhope, Alabama

On the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, this school offers classes and private lessons, as well as ownership plans, if the bug bites you badly. Specializing in keelboats.

photo: SailTime Alabama

Gulf Coast Sailing & Cruising School 

Punta Gorda, Florida

This spot on Charlotte Harbor specializes in certification, but they also do cruises and charters. No dinghies here; oceangoing keelboats.

College of Charleston Sailing

Mount Pleasant, South Carolina

The Cougars are known for their varsity sailing program, but the College of Charleston Sailing Association also offers adult classes and private lessons from the J. Stewart Walker Complex in Mount Pleasant.