Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A Yarn About a Sailboat without a Mast

I will apologize ahead of time for the sailing jargon that is about to come your way, but without it, this yarn would have been difficult to spin.

Sailors spin yarns. Some spin grandiose yarns, and some retell the same stories over and over. What these yarns teach you is that in sailing the unpredictable and unexpected will occur. To prepare, you listen to experienced sailors as they spin yarns about troubles on the water. You ask questions. You read books about tales of ingenuity and feats of great character and resourcefulness. You may watch YouTube clips or browse the Internet in search of harrowing experiences. You can also pose situations to yourself and troubleshoot theoreticals. But to tell you the truth, nothing prepares you for an event as much as the event itself.

I had not been sailing in a while when a friend invited me to join him and the owner of the boat for a Sunday sail. While I was a bit nervous about predicted heavy winds, I thought, as I usually do, if the skipper is comfortable going out, then we will all be okay.

On my way to the clubhouse, I thought about the shiftiness of the wind, the lulls and gusts I saw cascading through the streets, causing flags in close proximity to fly in different directions. I figured that perhaps the buildings were causing interference.

As we set up the rigging, I worried about my already slightly queasy stomach on the big waves caused by a passing storm. Normally on days with larger waves, my stomach can throw a bit of a fit, so with a queasy stomach, I wondered how I would fare. I also planned for leaning over the side. One of the great things about sailing and being sick is that you have the water right there. No need to worry about a mess.

Finally, the four of us were off, the owner (a Frenchman), my friend (a British-Belgian), an experienced sailor (a Korean) who was at the helm, and myself (an American). All on board had more experience than I did, and the mix of languages being spoken among the crew was quite fascinating, sometimes instructions or observations were repeated three times, once in each language.

On this small keel, duties were as such: helmsman took the main, the owner took the jib, and the friend who invited me took the gennaker. My hands were empty, so I focused on shifting my weight with the gusts of wind and staying out of the way of working sailors.

I admired the setup of the rigging on the little Open 5.70. It could easily be single-handed, similar to a dinghy.

As we sailed further and further from the buildings and shore, the waves grew bigger, the sky a tad darker, and the wind slightly heavier. Gusts would come regularly putting more and more pressure on this small keel boat, but our helmsman kept us at a comfortable heel. We flew the gennaker to take on a little more speed.

“Watch the bowsprit as it works with the gennaker, and you will get to see the wonder that is carbon,” my friend directed me.

I watched the elasticity of the bowsprit as the wind hit the gennaker and the bowsprit curved, and I began to wonder what would happen if the bowsprit broke. It seemed like it could be slightly dangerous, but we would probably quickly drop the gennaker and take care of any issues which might accompany a flying bowsprit. I also decided that troubleshooting issues like this while underway might not be the best thing. Though emergency preparedness is important, I am also superstitious.

I shifted my attention from the bowsprit to the gennaker trim, watching as the sail curled ever so gently when properly trimmed. Trying to understand the amount of pressure that was on the sail. With every gust, the trimmer shifted and adjusted the sail trim, and you could hear the gennaker sheet groan as it moved through the blocks. I did not pay much attention to the mainsail or main trim. A flying yellow gennaker against a grey and darkening sky is quite poetic.

As I silently waxed poetic, happy that my stomach was behaving, we lunged over a wave. A gust caught our sails. We kept sailing, and the gennaker was adjusted to the wind. We all shifted in our seats. Another gust, another adjustment, another shift.

A stronger gust, the boat heeled. We started to adjust and shift.


Within a split second after the gust, the sails we had been looking at lay in the water. The mast was down.

As quickly as it happened everyone grabbed something.

The owner grabbed the mast, trying to counterbalance its weight, and keep it from sliding completely into the water. I grabbed for the boom, not really sure what was going to happen but knowing that we had to hold on to the rigging.

As the rest of the crew communicated in a mix of French and Korean, I tried to understand how to help and pulled with the rest to try and get the mainsail out of the water.

As soon as the sails were down, and I saw the bare hull, I knew my stomach was doomed. With nothing to take my attention, and not wanting to get in the way, I was doing as told. I was not focused on more than holding a sail and confirming that yes, the mast had broken not just once but twice, preventing the mainsail from easy removal. The helmsman worked on getting the sail apart from the top fragment of the mast, and I sat there taking deep breaths trying to decide which direction I would yak when it finally came to that.

In the end, I turned around and retched off the side of the boat, not letting go of the sail, though there was not much pressure on it. As the skipper and crew salvaged the wreckage of a broken mast, I let loose the contents of my stomach into the seas outside of Busan.

After the retching episode, I did all that I could. I untied the cunningham as directed. I helped communicate that the lower part of the sail had to come up off of the mast rather than down. I did my best to watch the different things happening around me and help others stay safe. The scariest of which was in the maneuvering of the broken mast, the snarled middle part almost hitting the helmsman in the head. Finally, I helped get the furled jib back on the boat.

After we arranged the wreckage inside the hull on the starboard side, I sat in the middle of the boat and held onto the boom as we zoomed back to the marina with our little outboard motor.

No, zoom is not the right word, but we did slightly better than putter.

There was a brief discussion about a possible fuel shortage. A small container filled about a quarter of the way came out of the hold. None of us felt that was very promising, so further discussion resulted in two oars making an appearance. I was happy to see that while fuel planning might have been optimistic, other plans took being stranded out at sea a bit more seriously.

As we motored in, because I previously had considered sailing the ship solo, I asked myself, “How would I have dealt with this situation single-handedly?”

I don’t think it would have been impossible, but it would not have been as fast as this crew working together, of course.

Then my friend posed me a question, “What would you do [with a dismasted ship] if you didn’t have an outboard motor or oars?”

My immediate reaction, as I looked toward Haeundae Beach and all the buildings was that I would set off a flare, and then he clarified, “Out on the open sea, miles from land.”

In that moment, I could not wrap my head around the question. I just was not sure, but as he answered stating that you would have to salvage what you could and make due, I realized that yes, that is exactly what would need to happen. Get your wits about you, and set about troubleshooting and jerry-rigging your mast so you can have some kind of sail.

It just goes to show that if you are sailing on open water, you should have a toolkit and other spare things lying around that can help you in dire straits.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

In Cold Water: A Tale of Dinghy Sailing with Unfamiliar Crew

"Ready to jibe?"


Suddenly, the mainsail, which I had successfully trimmed in for the jibe was headed straight for the water and fast. I had no time to counter the weight of the wind in the sail with my body, being caught off guard at my botched jibe and the weight of my crew on the leeward side. Before I could think twice, I was in the water, swimming around the boat and toward the dagger board. My crew was hanging onto the mast, so as I reached for the dagger board which had not been locked into place, the boat went from a simple capsize to a full turtle. My crew was nowhere to be seen.

As I stood on the edge of the hull, dagger board fully extended now, I shook my head and hoped like hell that my crew could swim. I waited for her to surface, and reflected on how I got myself into this situation.

Earlier in the day, I had rented a Laser 2000 with a novice sailor. It’s not that I am all that experienced myself. I have been sailing for two years, mostly in summer, and I have hopped between Picos (small dinghies) and keel boats. Except for my experience on the Picos and my lessons with the keel, I have not been skipper much. I’m still learning how to identify the wind while sailing, and this is what gets me in trouble.

My rental earlier in the day was to gain experience, and experiment as skipper. After lunch, my English speaking crew from the morning headed off to her prior engagements, and I assumed that I would just be crew for another novice skipper, or I would gain some knowledge from the coach would was helping show us the Laser 2000s.

I was wrong.

As we headed back out toward the boats, one of the novice sailors, the only other woman left in the group, grabbed my arm and insisted that she ride with me. I tried to express that I just wanted to be crew, maybe she could be skipper. I received a very emphatic, “No.” So, there I was, heading back out, a little worse for wear, having woken up at 5:30 that morning to catch a bus.

As we left the safety of the beach, things didn’t seem so bad, except that I was having a hard time catching this wind, which was supposedly right behind us. The wind seemed to be shifting, but it is quite possible that my perception was off from the beginning.

We made it out to bigger water, and we tried some exercises, my crew, whose English was as limited as my Korean, insisted that we fly the jib. I asked her to hold off a bit. I wanted to get my sea legs before adding more power. Finally, her nagging won out, and we were flying the small jib. 

“Ready to tack?”


Tack Diagram (sailing) Clip Art

Some tacks were better than others, in many I lost speed before the tack for a myriad reasons. Finally, we started working better together. We, being me and the boat, or me and my crew, or all of us all together. I was feeling confident, and I was practicing maneuvering as much as possible. I had to get my sea legs as I was competing in my first ever dinghy regatta the following weekend.

As we sailed downwind, at a broad reach on a port tack, I felt pretty good about our position. The sail was out, we were flying, catching waves and surfing occasionally. Then, I decided it was time 
for a jibe.

As I attempted the jibe, something went horribly wrong. We caught a strong gust. The mainsail and my crew headed straight for the water.

I had begun to contemplate the possibility of my crew not surfacing, when I finally saw her. She did not look happy. The first thing she said to me was she was cold. I started immediately insisting that she come help me right the boat. I knew what we had to do, and I knew we could do it. She refused. She would not move from her current position. She shook her head stubbornly, frowned, and held tightly onto the bowsprit.

I started looking around. Standing on the edge of the hull, without it leaning even a bit, I knew it was hopeless for me to attempt this situation alone.

In the distance I saw the jet ski of the marina coming toward us. As it approached, I imagined my crew being lifted away onto the jet ski and carted back to the mainland. The way she was acting, I had started imagining that she was near hypothermia or had been badly injured.

As the jet ski approached, she reached out for it. Hoping to be carted away. Instead, one of the men on the jet ski jumped off and started trying to help my right our boat.

We pushed against the hull with our feet and used the dagger board as leverage. This boat did not want to budge, and it took a long time for us to even get her to a properly capsized position. Finally, we righted the boat, and my first move was to make sure we didn’t capsize again. As she tilted back toward the water, I jumped on the opposite side of the hull and grabbed to uncleat the mainsheet, setting the mainsail free.** I also took the opportunity to furl the jib. As far as I was concerned we would not be needing that bit of power anymore.

I boarded the boat to the best of my ability, but I found that jumping back into a boat after a capsize took the last remaining bit of energy I had. The man who helped right the boat, pulled me in by my life vest.

With my crew being cold and seemingly helpless in the water, as she back-floated over to the rear of the boat, I made the decision to head in. When she insisted that we go back out, I refused.

We headed slowly back in, and I called it a day.

**The cleated mainsail was much of the reason the Laser 2000 was extremely difficult to right as it added additional drag.

Luckily I went out the next weekend with crew I was familiar with. We maneuvered in low, shifting wind and came out sixth place out of eleven teams in the regatta.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Zoo in My Basement OR What Makes a Story**

I liked to tell stories. Stories that people would believe. Stories that others would help me construct as I gauged their reactions. In my book, I was not a liar. 

I lay on the bottom bunk in my friend’s room staring up at the bars that held his mattress in place. I shifted my attention to the dark blue flannel sheets which covered me. The stars on them nearly glowed as they reflected the night light.

My friend’s mom had told us to be quiet and go to sleep, but I was not ready for sleep. As I took in the smell of a foreign detergent on the sheets, I thought about my sheets at home, the cotton and polyester blend which was so much cooler and smoother than these, and I waited for the right moment to speak.

Thinking about the mystery that lay hidden in that basement, I could not hold it in any longer.

“Hey, are you still awake?”


“I was just thinking about the basement of Room 10.”

Sometimes we would use Room 10 as a shortcut to the yard at the back of the Motel. I knew my friend had seen the dusty, wooden stairs leading to a dark void, but he probably had never ventured down them.

Usually accompanied by my father, I had. 

“There’s a secret room in the basement. It has an orange light.”

So far, I had not strayed from truth. The steep, cobwebbed stairs led to a room filled with gas-lit furnaces and water heaters. The room smelled industrial, like steel pipes mixed with water and heat. Near the bottom of the stairs was a shelf which organized the letters for the motel sign. Usually, that was as far into the basement as I got, grabbing letters for the sign. But earlier that week, I had seen more.

I found a cellar or bomb shelter, an ill-lit, hidden compartment in the basement. This hidden room got my imagination churning. What was it for? Why was it there?

“A secret room?”

“Yeah. We have animals in there.”


I could hear by the tone in his voice that I had his interest, but he did not quite believe me.

“What kind of animals?”

“There’s a pony.”

I always wanted a pony when I was a child, so it made sense to start there.

“A pony?”

“Yeah, it’s a really big room. So big, I couldn’t see the end of it. There’s a pony and a couple horses.”

“What else is there?”

This time, I felt I was losing him. Horses? Ponies? This was a boy I was talking to, and his tone told me that he was not going to be that interested unless I upped the danger factor.

“There’s a gorilla.”

“A gorilla?! What? Wow!”

Now I had him, and as I continued to craft my underground zoo, I envisioned it in my head.

“Yes, a gorilla. And …” picturing what I knew about the jungle and wild animals, “And, a lion.”

“A lion? Wouldn’t he eat all the other animals?”

“No. It’s like a zoo. All the animals are kept separate. The zebras are together. The giraffe is …”

“There’s a giraffe?!” Neither of us had ever seen a giraffe. Our local zoo did not have them. Even the large zoo in the closest major city only had one, and it was mostly kept out of view.

Now, I had gone almost too far with the story. I had captivated him with details that begged to be shown off. I should have predicted what would come next.

“I want to see it! I want to go to the zoo in the basement of the Motel! Can you show me? Can we play with the animals?”

My friend raised his volume to a point where I almost shushed him. I was afraid his mom would come in. She was not the kind of mom you wanted to come in to tell you a second time to be quiet. Her stern voice always made me feel guilty before I could even process what I had done wrong. Thinking quickly, to avoid ruining my storytelling experiment, I countered his proposal with the end of my story.

“You can’t visit the zoo because the animals aren’t there anymore. There was a big flood in the basement …” I had heard of basements flooding, but I had never seen such an event. “Anyway, all the animals had to be moved out. Now there’s just a big empty room. No more animals. No more zoo.”

“Oh man.” Even in his disappointment, I could tell that his mind was still buzzing with the questions, the plausibility of this story.

As we both fell asleep that night, my friend probably dreaming of an underground zoo, I reveled in the satisfaction of a story well told. While I had walked close to the line, he had not once called me out and said I was telling a story. He believed my story, and this meant I had done a good job.

I firmly believed that a good story came from a captive audience, one which could give feedback about the believability of my stories. This kind of feedback only came from an audience which did not know if I was telling a story or not, I never told my listeners I was telling a story. That would take away the spark of imagination, the excitement of possibility, the line between believable and not.

The next week would show that the adults in our lives did not think this way. To his mom, I was a liar, spinning unbelievable tales and taking advantage of the goal-ability of her child. I was a liability. If I could tell this kind of a lie, what was next? I can only imagine the conversation which occurred between my mother and her.

Afterwards, at home, my mom asked, “Did you tell your friend that there used to be a zoo in the basement?”

“Yes, but it was a story.”

“He didn’t know it was a story. If people don’t know you are telling a story, it’s a lie.”

“But, if people know it’s a story, it’s not as fun to tell.”

This was not the last story I told. The next time my mother was much more firm, and I stopped telling fictional stories for good.

**As a note about this story. I do not remember the exact dialog or layout of my friend’s room. Some details may have been extracted from other memories or embellished to tell a better story. Please do not think this makes me a liar.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Pink Piano OR Accepting Gifts from Strangers

I often wondered where my street smarts came from. I grew up in a small town, where people did not lock their doors, a place where it was okay to leave keys in the ignition and the door of the vehicle wide open. (Yes, my father did just that.) 

I grew up in a time when children went door to door on Halloween asking strangers / neighbors for candy.

Everyone in my life was trusting, and nothing bad ever happened.

So, when I moved to a big city, how did I instinctively know not to make eye contact with a ranting stranger on the street, subway, or bus?

How did I know to buy purses with over the shoulder straps and ensure that all important zippers faced in?

How did I know that it’s best to just “look like you know where you are going” even if you are lost? 

Was I just born paranoid?


But as I started to reflect on stories of the motel from my childhood, I realized, most of my street smarts came from being raised in the manager’s apartment of a motel on the south end of a small town called Blackfoot, Idaho.

When I was in kindergarten, school only went for a half day. The other half of the day, I spent with my father or hanging out alone. I would help my dad clean rooms. I would walk around the parking lot and pick up cigarette butts, a penny a piece. I would wander around the back yard, inventing stories and going on adventures. I would watch my dad fix the pickup, van, or a sink. I would try to help him install a toilet in a room under renovation.

Not matter where we were around the motel, people would chat with my dad about their room or life or money situation. Everyone knew I was the manager’s daughter. If I was out in the parking lot without my dad, people would ask,

“Have you seen M___?” 

“Hey, is your dad around?”

My parents taught me very early, not to talk to strangers, not to engage. Being shy by nature, this was not a difficult thing for me to grasp. I got it. If you see a customer coming, avoid them at all costs, never answer the office door, and as I learned, one day, never take gifts from customers.

In the comfort of our home or in the backyard, no one bothered me, unless I walked past the back windows of their rooms.

One day, I was walking around the backyard, heading down the alley toward the “back back” yard, under the windows of a few of the rooms. Unexpectedly, a tenant, one of the weekly renters who was fairly new, called to me from his window.

Now, due to the nature of the arrangement, me, a small child, and the window rather far up, I did not feel like I was in any immediate danger. I knew I was breaking the rules, but it did not feel dangerous. This renter was a stranger, but we were separated by a large amount of space. He was just trying to make friendly conversation.

So, despite all warnings, this stranger was able to engage me in conversation. As I remember it, it was a fairly harmless conversation about what I was doing and if I liked music, and it ended with him handing me a little pink keyboard out the window of his room. I took the piano. Thanked him and went back inside to play with my new toy.

The problem came when my parents noticed this toy.

“Where did you get that?” My mom asked.

“The man in number 5 gave it to me.”


“I was just walking to the back, back yard, and he gave it to me through the window.”

I remember that my mother was furious. Perhaps she was embarrassed, but more than likely she was worried or scared. My mom, never fond of raising children around an ever-changing group of wayward travelers, had thoughts of child abduction or molestation.

“You cannot keep that. Do not take gifts from the people staying here. You should not trust them.”

I was confused and scared, as she lectured me about the danger I had put myself in. As at all times in my life when emotions reach a peak, I started crying. I just wanted to keep that pink piano. I had no idea that I had put myself in danger. The man did not seem scary, and there had been a wall between us. I did not think I had done anything wrong.

“And never talk to anyone from the backyard. Just ignore them or tell your dad.”

My parents gave the piano back. I have no idea what words were exchanged, but I do not remember ever being bothered by that tenant again.

I do remember being nervous about passing under those windows. I do remember hurrying because I did not want strangers watching. I do remember being scared of any interaction with a tenant. And when I was old enough that I started cleaning rooms, I remember I would always clean the rooms I knew people had left first. 

I never accepted a gift from a stranger at the motel again.

I also gained my first real taste of street smarts.