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At the helm for a first time

By: Dana Richie

(Beacon Communication Photos)

With the wind turbines of Providence spinning in the background, I uneasily stepped off of the stable motorboat and into the rocking sailboat. For this assignment, I traded my business casual attire and notebook for a life jacket and a prayer.

At that moment, I was questioning whether I had made a terrible mistake asking for this story– to write about the Edgewood Sailing School and to try sailing for the first time. I felt the butterflies of anticipation, nervousness and excitement.. I did not know the first thing about operating a sailboat. I did not know the difference between a tack and a tiller, and yet there I was, sitting beneath a billowing sail for the first time.

I tried to steady myself in the belly of the boat as Alex Stepanov, a tall lanky youth with shaggy hair, round glasses and freckly sun-kissed skin, carelessly jumped onto the boat and showed me the basics of a 420 sailboat. He pointed out that there are two sails, so each of us would be in charge of adjusting the line for one. Sailing has its own language, I discovered. There are words and phrases like jibe and boom, and the whole process seemed like frantic multitasking– and I was frantic because I had no idea what I was doing.

After about a minute of explanation, Alex instructed me to pull a rope, tightening the sail, and sure enough, we started cruising upwind. Sailing school students in smaller boats– optis– zig-zagged in the distance. The sail, which was much thinner than I anticipated, rustled in the breeze, creating a comforting ambient noise. The water lapped against the sides of the boat as we charted our course.

Heading in one direction was the easy part, as I soon found out. In order to actually go upwind, the boat has to zig-zag, and in order to do that, you need to be really brave. That time came, and Alex asked me if I wanted to tack. I had no idea what that meant. He told me to tiller towards the sail, which minutes before sounded like complete nonsense. At this point, I knew it meant pushing the “steering rod” toward the sail. With such a dramatic change in direction, the sail caught and the boom slowly swung overhead. I intuitively ducked – I did not want to get yet another concussion.

The opposite edge of the boat started to rise, and Alex scurried to use his weight to stabilize us. I froze, not realizing that the boat would tip. I was so caught off guard that I managed to drop both of the things I was supposed to be in charge of: : the tiller (or steering rod) and the line to the sail. The dark and murky water was a lot closer. I was certain that I was heading for a swim. I held my breath as the boat continued to tip. At that moment, I understood why young children learning to sail scream and cry when they first go on the water. There’s something terrifying about being unstable and out of control, of not having your feet planted firmly on solid ground. And it didn’t help that I thought I was going to nosedive.

Thankfully, Alex was a superhero. He grabbed the line and leveled us out, handing me back the things I was supposed to manage. He seemed so calm, staring ahead into the distance. He slowly adjusted the sails, and it held the air gracefully.

We made small talk as we cruised. I asked if he raced. He said he used to, but he encountered a lot of racers who failed to appreciate the fun in it. So, he stopped. He said he’s the first in his family to sail, and he started when he was 8. I joked that at this point, reading the wind and currents probably felt like second nature to him. He humbly nodded in agreement.

“The wind speaks to me,” he said.

I was struck by this, by the obvious connection with nature. There’s a letting go involved with sailing, a relinquishment of control to the wind and waves. Yes, you have the power to steer, but it is nature that is really doing the work. There’s a vulnerability in putting yourself at nature’s whim, and I’m not just saying that because I nearly took a swim. I marveled at this and the importance of balance. The whole time, we worked in tandem– though let’s face it, Alex was the one working– to prevent the boat from tipping over. Unlike the consistency of solid ground, imbalance was the norm on the water, and I learned that there’s an art to that.

No lying, I was relieved when I made it back to solid ground. My legs felt a little wobbly.

From the safety of my car, I could fully appreciate the experience. I can see why people get hooked on sailing. It’s thrilling, and there’s so much to learn. It’s a language of the body, of being in tune with changes and adapting to them, of accepting imbalance but nonetheless trying to find stability.

Even though I was terrified, I realized sailing was the kind of thing that if you practiced, you would get the hang of it eventually. It’s staring fear in the face, confronting it and choosing to try again…learning the ropes, (oops, “lines,” I mean) if you will.

Published in the Cranston Herald on 8/2/2023


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