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Are We Having Fun Yet?

Published on November 15th, 2018

by Elizabeth Eckert
The first time I stepped unsteadily onto a Y-Flyer sailboat was four years ago on Lake Allatoona, just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. It was five minutes before the warning gun of the first race of the Midwinter Championship. My then boyfriend (now-husband) Anthony said “these two lines control your jib, look at those tell-tales and trim.”

I nodded as though understanding what any of those words meant while thinking only of not falling off the boat. As we headed to the starting line, we tried a few practice tacks (or were they gybes?) for me to get the feel of it. I desperately tried to determine which side of the boat to throw my weight towards, and which rope to pull on.

Soon, boats whizzed past my head, and we were sailing in what I now know as a “jockeying” for position on the starting line. I closed my eyes as the boats got closer and closer, each more capable than the last of decapitating me in some small misjudgment or wrong turn.

Loud skippers yelled back and forth. One shouted “no room, no room!” and another in response, “you’re crazy, I could drive a semi through that hole!” It didn’t help that the wind was “blowing squirrels out of trees”, “blowing pit bulls off of chains,” and whatever other euphemisms mean it’s really, really windy.

Although I wasn’t brought up in a family that sails, I can imagine what that’s like. It’s hard not to compare sailing to music because music is what I know. I understood the language of music from infancy, just as Anthony and other seasoned and generational sailors speak their language so naturally.

My parents are both musicians, Anthony’s sailors. No one ever explained a gybe to him, like no one ever explained a major chord to me. It was understood naturally.

But there’s a certain burden that comes with doing what your parents do. There’s an automatic comparison of yourself to them – an innate psychological pressure that tells you “the better I do at this thing, the more they will love me.”

The rational, adult mind knows it’s not that simple, but the child inside each of us still seeks their approval. The longer I’ve been around sailboat racing, the more I see the psychology of it. And nowhere is it more apparent than the relationship between skipper and crew.

A great skipper must learn how to teach his or her crew. How to explain that “trim” sometimes means pull in and other times means let out. That saying an unknown word LOUDER and repeatedly doesn’t help someone understand what it means. Over the past few years, and with a bit of coaching from me, Anthony’s gotten exponentially better at this.

As the number of times I’ve crewed on Y-Flyers has grown, I’ve started to understand the vocabulary (in no small part thanks to “The Idiot’s Guide to Sailing”). I’ve learned how to balance the boat and how to put up and take down the whisker pole. These are fundamentals, and it’s only when you know the fundamentals does the fun really start.

Jump to the Midwinter Championship, two years later, which we now refer to as “our” Midwinters. It felt different from the start. I came into it knowing which line to pull when, how to luff the sail to hold our position at the starting line, and how to ease the jib around the weather mark before putting up the pole. As a beginner without that knowledge, I used to blame myself when we didn’t do well in a race. Everyone reassured me it wasn’t my fault (which is mostly true), but after we became more successful, I realized how important my job really is.

For example, in the last race of that regatta, we started horribly and rounded the first mark next to last. The sheer maneuvering Anthony showed on the upwind legs was amazing to see as we made up so much ground. But he played the middle of the course which is tricky. We had to tack over and over – only a short time between tacks, meaning my job was even more crucial. And if my improved skills allowed us to come out of each of these tacks even a second faster, those seconds added up. At the end of the race, there’s always someone whom you barely beat, or who barely beats you. Those seconds made the difference in a regatta we narrowly won.

Racing sailboats feels different now. We don’t always win (we don’t even usually win!), but I know it’s in us. I’m not perfect – sometimes I still go the high side when Anthony says low side. But I know what it’s like to have my name called for first place, and that’s something I want to experience over and over.

I know what it’s like to have the trophy on your bookshelf (we don’t have a mantle in our apartment, but I’ve seen the fire under Anthony to buy us a house with a proper mantle for displaying it)! I know what it’s like to see your name on that plate, and trace back the generations of your family on an old trophy.

So we keep sailing, keep improving, and keep trying to bring the trophy home again. Just like all the other sailors chasing the dream. And just like all the other sailors, I’m hooked.

To listen to “Shallow (Are We Having Fun Yet?)”…

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