Saturday, September 15, 2007

Jamaica Donald and Panama Bill

Last weekend, Steve and I learned to sail at Belle Haven Marina in Alexandria.

This weekend, Steve is in Mississippi, and I was scheduled to practice my sailing with my friend Ruby, who took the class a week before us. Unfortunately, this morning I awakened to a "small craft warning" due to high winds, our outing canceled via a call from the marina. But the bright side is, that gives me the time and opportunity to write about our experience last week.

The class convened at 10 a.m. on Saturday morning at a couple of rickety picnic tables wedged in under a canopy between dozens and dozens of boats. Six students awaited the two on-boat instructors: Donald and Bill. Donald hailed from Jamaica originally, and had sailing in his blood. He told us he was sailing before he could walk. Donald had a scraggly little pirate beard and was probably in his 20s, based on the fact that I heard him discuss his Facebook page with one of the dockworkers. The other instructor, Bill, claimed to have learned to sail two weeks ago. We laughed; his weathered boat shoes were just two of many signs that Bill knew his way around a boat.

I wished I had my camera. Bill was probably in his '50s and had a grizzled look about him. He wore a light-colored Bermuda shirt and standard khaki shorts. One of his boat shoes (no socks) was sliced open on the side, toe to ankle. He topped off the outfit with a light-color brimmed hat and a cigarette that defied gravity as he spoke, dangling off the corner of his lower lip. I decided to call him Panama Bill. Not to his face.

Steve and I set out with Donald and another student named Milena. Milena was from Bulgaria and was wearing cool sunglasses and trendy shoes, both noted repeatedly by Donald to the extent that even Steve wondered later, without my prompting, if Donald was going to ask her out.

I had a tough time that first day. The sun beat down on us, with not a cloud in the sky for any relief. The temperature hovered around 90. And Donald had a very zen style of teaching. "Feel the wind." "Drive the boat." I became frustrated because I couldn't feel the wind and I didn't know how to drive the boat or I wouldn't be in the class. When I tried to ask questions, Donald replied, "no excuses!" Steve, on the other hand, caught on much faster and really enjoyed the experience. Milena didn't seem to learn too much, but her enthusiasm lent a needed levity to the day. Whenever something exciting would happen, like a good gust of wind, Milena would exclaim, "Oh, Madonna!" We came home Saturday night, exhausted, and I fell asleep at 8pm on the couch. The next morning I dreaded going back to the marina, but I figured I might as well finish the two-day class.

We all met again at the picnic tables and headed to the 19-foot Flying Scot with Donald. But after we boarded, Panama Bill drove over in a dinghy with one of his students, a young guy named Brenden. "I'm going to need to impress into service one of your crew," Bill said, his eyes twinkling. Apparently his two other students, a married couple, had gone home because the wife was sick. I took about 1.5 seconds to consider the situation, and I volunteered to switch. I was in the dinghy before anyone knew what happened, and happily motored off with my new instructor. Bill, who appeared to be wearing the same outfit as the day before, kept the mood light, chatting with us, giving specific instruction when it was needed, standing on the bow smoking much of the time. He mentioned a fiance, a move into her house, and the need to sell his own place so he could afford a 45-foot steel hulled sailboat. Bill also mentioned that his 21-year-old son had just knocked up his girlfriend and gotten kicked out, and now wanted to stay in Bill's house -- the one he wanted to sell to finance his boat. Bill wasn't sure what to do about this. I didn't offer any suggestions, but I was thinking that his son is 21 and should be able to take care of himself at this point.

The sailing went well. We learned "man overboard" drills and improved our maneuvering skills through a course of buoys. After some initial tentativeness, I did begin to catch on, and as the day wore on, I can say, I started to almost know what I was doing.

Sometime after our lunch break, Bill brought us in to a floating dock with a large flagpole. He climbed off the boat onto the dock and told us it was time to go on without him. My fellow student and I stared at him -- no doubt Brenden was thinking the same thing I was: "Oh my god, where are you going? How do we do this without you in the boat?" Cigarette in hand, Panama Bill lounged in the dock's lone furniture, a single white plastic chair, and sent us off through the buoys on our own, shouting directions when we made boneheaded moves, which was less often than I expected.

Steve's boat was engaging in similar maneuvers. When Steve was at the helm, it seemed to go well; when Milena was driving, there seemed to be a lot of back-and-forth going on, but no progress being made. I kept hearing Donald yell, "Steven, no helping!" Finally I heard Steve yell back, "I'm not helping!" and then I saw Steve just put his head down.

Meanwhile, I docked successfully three or four times, and I took the boat out totally on my own, managing to round "Bob," the white buoy near the sandbar. Unfortunately, it was at that point that the wind completely died. I futzed with the sails for a while, hoping for a puff, but got nothing. We were drifting. Toward the sandbar. After about five minutes, Bill and one of the dock workers motored up to tow the boat in. "We're calling it a day," Bill said. No more wind. I was disappointed that I hadn't been able to bring the boat in myself, but there was no other choice. On the way in, I saw Steve's boat, noticing that he had busted out the paddle and was manually pulling in to the dock.

As Bill, Brenden and I took down the sails, I realized I was starting to understand the rigging. It's all coming together, slowly. But I'll need to practice a bit more to get it firmly ensconced in my brain. Panama Bill said there is no such thing as an expert sailor, and I believe him. But I'd like to become one with more than half a clue.

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