“The trick is to make yourself useful”: A Beginner’s Guide to Sailing – The Guardian | Gmx Pharm

Sailing has always been something best appreciated from land, I thought. Crisp, white sails dotting Sydney Harbor is more of a sight to behold than an activity to engage in.

I’m not fantastically rich either, having chosen a career in journalism rather than, say, owning a casino, so I’ve long assumed that ruled me out.

And if money wasn’t a barrier, skills certainly would. The Sydney to Hobart race, Australia’s premier yachting event, which kicks off on Boxing Day every year certainly makes it look intimidating.

But here I am at a marina in Sydney’s scenic Rushcutters Bay, boarding the Karma – a 35ft Dufour – for a sailing lesson.

My teacher is David Kelly who started sailing in 1985 “because it was cheaper than flying”. So far the sports theory of the rich isn’t entirely settled, but we’ll get back to it.

Rosemary and David Kelly board the yacht for training. Photo: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Beginners usually start with a minimum of a two day training course ($595 at EastSail). We only have two hours. A quick chat about wind direction and different sailing modes – hopefully this will make more sense on the water – and we pull into Sydney Harbor on a glorious summer morning. Life jackets on, of course, although Kelly assures me the only time a student has fallen in was trying to get out of the boat before the floating pier was installed.

It seems in no time at all, I’m at the helm and I’m sailing on “close range”. This term has something to do with the wind in relation to the sails that I don’t quite understand yet.

There are many new nautical terms. Before we reach the Harbor Bridge, I tac (turn the boat 90 degrees) and pull some lines to assist with a “jibe,” where the sail switches from one side of the ship to the other.

Rosemary at the helm while David gives directions
Rosemary at the helm while David gives directions. Photo: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian
Tell tails are used as a guide to setting a sail.
Tell tails are used as a guide to setting a sail. Photo: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Kelly takes over so I can see the underside of the bridge I’ve ridden across many times – a less conventional but no less impressive view of Sydney.

I realize how tense I was at the helm, afraid of tipping over if the wind alarmingly tipped us sideways, holding the sails in place or dodging other boats whizzing around. With Kelly it’s the other way around. “It’s so natural. Sailing was my mind. You have to slow down, it’s just about feeling the water.”

So is it a sport for the rich? “It can definitely be, but it doesn’t have to be,” Kelly assures. In terms of what to wear, the one thing you wouldn’t find in the average wardrobe is a pair of gloves (around $30), but even that isn’t essential.

Rosemary jibes.
Rosemary jibes. Photo: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Crucially, you don’t have to own a boat. Because those who need a crew.

The main costs are in the acquisition of competence. After completing the two-day initial training, there is an opportunity to complete an additional three days to reach the level of a competent crew or day skipper ($1,125 at EastSail). There are other models but this is the UK Royal Yachting Association certification which is widely known and internationally recognized.

At this point you are ready to join a Crew. The Cruising Yacht Club of Australia has a concierge program to match skippers with crew members, or you can just drop by a few hours before a race starts and ask the boat owners directly.

Sailing under Sydney Harbor Bridge
Sailing under Sydney Harbor Bridge “a less conventional but no less impressive view of Sydney”. Photo: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

The trick, says Kelly, is to make yourself useful. Even when it comes to folding a sail or making nasty toast in a galley, Kelly says “there’s a role for everyone”.

He warns of caution: Some clubs are “a bit posh, a bit conceited”. Look for races run by clubs that have sailing schools affiliated with them and you will generally find some events suitable for graduate students.

You can also organize a group of six to eight people and charter a boat. Prices start at around $1,000 per day. Kelly has sailed in many places – Singapore, Hong Kong, Seattle – but says Sydney is the best. “My favorite things to do are sail to Quarantine Bay, drop anchor, swim, have a beer.”

So it is possible to enjoy sailing without being moguls. However, it seems inevitable that enthusiasts will dream of one day owning their own boat, which involves expecting a small fortune and ongoing maintenance costs. As we cruise around the port, Kelly points to the yacht he owns along with three others. It’s called sanitation.

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