What every sailor has the urge to do

Published on February 11th, 2014

by Matt Wierzbach, Program Director, Sailing Education Association of Sheboygan
Having spent the better part of the last week at the US Sailing Leadership Forum in San Diego, I have been thinking through why it is I have this unending drive to be on the water. While sailing schools and yacht clubs are rethinking why people join the sport, we attempt to find why we ourselves began and how we came to love it now, which is as difficult as any introspective exercise can ever be.

What follows is my attempt.

I began sailing, thanks to my mother putting me into the Sheboygan Youth Sailing Club at 10. My memory of that is so fogged by fifteen years of sailing that I have no idea if I was overly receptive of it at that time or not. More than likely, my mother simply made the decision and that was that; it wouldn’t have been the first time and it wasn’t the last.

All I can recall from my first years are a few moments of a short activity with a girl I had a crush with, getting hit harder by the boom than I ever have since, and getting to ride along on the local GL70 for a Wednesday night race.

My clearer memory of my sailing education begins to form around 14 years when I began to hate it.

I was the non-athletic sort of teenager; always average at most things – sailing included. It was also around that age that I had my first capsize that resulted in taking in a large amount of water into my lungs, to the point that the coach threw me into the powerboat as a precaution.

I suppose I was afraid after that, although as a teenager I was loath to admit such a thing. This was nearly the premature end of my sailing career; it was my mother who pushed me to try one more year, and I was promised that it could be my last.

Clearly it wasn’t. Writing this, working as a program director for a sailing-focused organization, and owning an old Pearson Triton, all point to some sort of life changing event at 16 years. Something changed. Somehow the switch got turned from land lubber to sailor. But what was it?

For me, the racing finally sparked my interest. I was not a good athlete in high school. My options for playing any of the team sports had long since passed, and sailing was the one thing I had been doing long enough to have built up some skill. Not to say that I suddenly began to win.

Locally, I could have some winning races against the other youth but I have yet to win a race, to this day, in our Lightning fleet. That doesn’t stop me from racing, although I do it less now. Racing gave me purpose, and my parents gave me a Lightning, but I still think there is something deeper that started then.

The US Sailing Leadership Forum had a number of speakers that referred to programs such as “adventure sailing” or “free sailing” but what I think those things really come down to, and racing as well, is exploration.

I think every sailor has the urge to explore. That word means more than just traveling to new places, although for the vast majority I think that is a key element. It can also be exploring oneself, which, even racing around a windward-leeward course in the same body of water you have sailed in for 10 years can be a way to explore your own limits.

I began to explore who I was racing, traveling to regattas, and while sailing longer and longer distances. I have gone to cities for regattas that I may never have gone to without sailing, and all of this was new and stimulating. Just like they tell runners to change their training routes, sailors should try to sail different locations; it keeps things new and exciting.

And what is exploration if not exciting?

Your brain goes into overdrive as you try to take in the new environment. Even when you are out of sight of land, you can check your charts and position and realize you are in a new place. Or perhaps the conditions are different than the last time you were there, or the crew, or the boat; something is always different than the last time. Sailing is never exactly the same one time to the next; there is always change!

So my idea, and I think it’s the general one out there, is explore!

Explore new things, new places, new races, and find new things. And to do more than just speak off my soapbox, I have a goal set for this summer season: I am going to take my boat and go cruising.

I have never gone cruising, but we will explore new ports that I have never been to, with crew that are as new to this as I. Will we make rookie mistakes? Undoubtedly, but like Columbus or, less controversially, Shackleton, isn’t the point of exploration to push your own boundaries as well?

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