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I was learning to sail at the 29 Palms Seaborne Applications for Integra...

Photo by Cpl. William J. Jackson

Not so smooth sailing

22 Jun 2012 | Cpl. William Jackson

I sat in a classroom with 12 other Marines learning the language. I was absorbed in it. Luff, tack, jib, boom, gooseneck, capsize, beam reach, close haul, cleat, sheets, lines.

 I was learning to sail at the 29 Palms Seaborne Applications for Integrating Life Skills also known as SAILS course. It was Latin. No, Pig Latin to me.

I joined the trip to the Del Mar Marina because I thought of sailing as a leisurely experience fraught with the pleasures of the sea and a relaxed environment. I love the outdoors, and sailing is just be another thing to knock off my bucket list. Soon I would be a certified skipper.

A couple two-hour classes scratched the tip of this brand new experience. I already felt I was in over my head. I had just begun, and I was already capsizing.

My doubts soon faded. The instructors ensured all of us we’d catch on as soon as we hit the water.

My restlessness was put to ease on the second day of class. Later, during my capsizing practices, literally hitting the water gave me the jolt I needed to understand how a sailboat works.

I knew if my main sail was luffing, or flapping in the wind, I’d have to sheet it in tighter. I knew my crew controlled the jib, that smaller sail in the front of sail boat, and I would have to help guide them to the correct shape of the sail depending on my heading. I knew how to steer with a rudder because I used to drive fishing boats back home in Nebraska. I knew I couldn’t sail directly into the wind so I would have to turn, or tack and jib, back and forth across the wind to get somewhere.

What I didn’t know was how much thought and finesse it took put all the pieces together. It was very apparent after a few classes I knew the techniques of sailing, but had not mastered the art of it. We all had the guarantee that we’d be good sailors by the end of the trip. I was focused.

 I hit the water crawling, slowly making my way around buoys, tacking up wind in figure eight paths learning how to control the boat. I felt accomplished.

I slept on a 22-foot sailboat with three other Marines. It was a cramped space, but it was home for the weekend.

I woke up to the swaying of the boat, nauseated, I had found my sea-legs. The marine layer was thick, and it was a cool 70 degrees while a light breeze rippled the water.

My mind had just grasped the concept of sailing in a bay the day prior. It was easy. There were no waves, hardly any traffic to look out for, and there wasn’t the fear of floating off toward the horizon. You know, normal concerns.

After breakfast we headed out to open waters. My new home for the weekend had now become my ride. To me, this was sailing.

The four of us on the boat were silent as we hit the open water. I took my place next to the mast, careful not to slip off. It was serene and very relaxing. Then waves crashed into us and the wind screamed past our ears. Off into the distance dolphins broke the surface of the water.

I made my way to the tiller, the lever attached to the rudder. As soon as I thought, “Man, I hope I don’t fall,” I slipped and lunged forward with my head hanging over the side. I could tell by the panicked look on my crew’s faces that had I slipped a few more inches, I could’ve been swimming, maybe for my life.

After my almost overboard experience, we headed back to the marina because I was going to be capsized. This was one of the prerequisites to becoming a certified skipper.

My partner for the exercise, Maj. Darren Jester and I set out together all decked out in full wetsuits prepared to be dumped into the depths of the Del Mar Marina.

It didn’t take as long as we planned. We were overconfident. It wasn’t even time to actually capsize the boat, but we did it anyway. The command to jibe the boat was called, and we didn’t follow through.

A quick mistake took us overboard. We were shocked. My eyes were so big I could have made an owl proud. Training kicked in after a quick refresher, and within a minute we had regained control and were back to sailing.

Now if we would have capsized when we were told, I wouldn’t have had that same kick in the ass I finally had to understand sailing techniques.

The whole experience had put me in a new mindset. I realized my own abilities to grasp something challenging now stronger. It goes to show that doing something challenging can offer great rewards.

Look at me, a landlocked guy from Nebraska can sail boats.


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