Time to test-sail Da Capo, the Catalina 310 at the Willsboro Bay Marina that I’m considering purchasing. Fortunately my good friend Mark Engelhardt, a seasoned sailboat racer, cruiser, and liveaboard, joined me today for a trial run. Even more fortunate? He lives in Montpelier, Vermont and was willing to come north for an early morning ferry ride to Essex, a hardy Rosslyn breakfast (I tempted him with farm fresh scrambled eggs and bacon!) and a sail.
Conditions were perfect. Sunny. Cool. And a building breeze of about 12 knots greeted us when we arrived at the marina. The owner welcomed us warmly, and after brief introductions we throttled up and loosed the dock lines.
“Normally we have to motor out on the channel,” the owner said. “But today we can sail. Wind’s perfect.”
The owner was at the helm, and for the first time I began to feel a little jittery. Butterflies? Was I ready for this? He backed out of the slip and headed out onto Willsboro Bay.
We ran up the main, unfurled the 135% genoa, and cut the engine. As the diesel died and the luffing sails filled, I was struck by the quiet. The gentle vibration of the engine was replaced by the slosh of water and the subtle sense of straining as the wind leaned into the sails and rigging, and the hull sliced through the waves. The vessel felt solid as she healed subtly away from the wind.
Breezy with Butterflies
The owner remained at the helm, describing the the boat’s character, and gesticulating to illustrate his points. He was relaxed and content. Confident. Hands lightly on the wheel, smiling.
I was feeling excited and nervous all at once. Wind power exhilarates AND calms me. But that childlike enthusiasm was only one part of what I was feeling. I was also catapulting forward quickly toward boat ownership. I’ve dreamed of this for decades. But was I ready?
“Are you ready?” he asked me.
I was. And I wasn’t. Suddenly the enormity of this step, this responsibility, this learning curve washed over me. I was excited. And nervous.
“Sure,” I lied. “You bet!”
I replaced the owner behind the helm and stood, feet shoulder width apart, suddenly more conscious of the wind’s power and the texture of the water rushing beneath the hull, pulling gently at the rudder.
A gust loaded up the main and I overcorrected, rounding up and causing the boat to wallow. I colored, resolved to be less jumpy, to trust the boat.
And then the wind buffeted us again. And I rounded up again. Steady. Gust. Fall off. Wallow.
Mark asked the owner if the boat gets squirrelly in heavy wind. It’s not bad, the owner explained in a circuitous way, more comfortable in French than in English. He explained that Catalina recommends reefing the main above 17 or 18 knots. He usually waits until 20 knots or so, he said smiling. I glanced at the gauges and saw that we were pretty consistently in the high teens, and the gusts were pushing us above 20 knots.
Another gust and I overcorrected again. My palms were sweaty. I was clenching the wheel tightly. I loosened my grip, widened my stance, breathed in and out slowly. Mark and the owner encouraged me to trust the vessel, to let it push through the gusts without rounding up. And I began to. Slowly. And she held her course, plugged through the light chop, accelerated.
“Have you ever sailed before?” the owner asked.
I was taken aback, though I tried not to betray it. I explained that I’d grown up sailing. As a young boy I learned to sail my family’s daysailer with my father, a Paceship 17 (P17), and then sailed an Alcort Sailfish during my middle and high school years. I’ve owned a fleet of windsurfers and a pair of Hobie Cat 16s. And any time I’ve had the chance to try out other sailboats I’ve grabbed the rudder or wheel.
But the truth is that I’ve done very little keel boat sailing. I’ve daysailed on friends’s boats, and I’ve chartered captained sailboats in France and Turkey. But sailing and owning a keel boat was going to be a totally new adventure for me. And it was turning out that my instincts and my muscle memory would need some work!
I began to feel more comfortable. I was resisting the reflex to round up each time a gust knocked into us, and my confidence was growing. I felt more confident, and I began to relax. The boat is heavy and handles predictably. The wind and my own responses were unpredictable, but I was getting the hang of it.
Mark swapped out with me so that I could handle the lines and he could run the vessel through some tests. And before I knew it we’d been out on the water for over an hour and needed to wrap up. Mark was satisfied that the boat was sound and handled well. I was relieved to have achieved a modest degree of comfort and confidence at the helm. And Da Capo’s owner was pleased that we liked his boat. It was time to head back to the marina…