Wind’s Abaft the Beam, Pt.1

Impetuous. Reckless. Hasty.

That’s how my partner John and I ended up in Victoria, British Columbia in early June last year, purchasing a sailboat when our plans had been to spend the month backpacking in Kluane.

Instead, we spent June gripped with a fear that shed pounds off our frames quicker than any backpacking trip.

We ran frantically around chandleries while learning how to hoist the mainsail, re-bedding stanchions and practising our tacking and jibbing. This was impulse shopping at the extreme.

It was also a mental shift of epic proportions and an enormous learning curve. Living in the Yukon for more than 10 years, we were at ease in the backcountry hiking, paddling, skiing. We were confident. Capable.

But sailing?

It was hard to see beyond the basic fact that I’m terrified of the water and John can’t swim.

Oh, and yes—we didn’t really know how to sail.

I knew we would want to mind the big rocks. That little piece of knowledge and my enthusiasm were all I could offer.

John, at least, had done some sailing. Ten years ago mind you, but he approached our sailboat like someone getting back on a bicycle after a decade’s hiatus: you don’t forget.

For two years we discussed the idea of buying and living on a sailboat. We read books idealizing the lifestyle. Sailing friends told us to just go and do it; we’d learn to sail.

John inspecting the ground tackle

Even strangers waiting in the coffee shop line overhearing our conversations would meet my pleas of, “We should know how to sail before we buy a boat” with, “No you don’t, just go buy a boat,” reaffirming John’s ideas.

We searched websites selling sailboats, wrote tests for boat licences, studied sailing manuals and took VHF radio courses. We hatched a sensible plan to move to Vancouver Island in the fall, buy a boat and spend a winter preparing for a sailing the following summer.

But our impatience led us to take the plunge early and step out of our comfortable Yukon world. When we saw a Contessa for sale in Victoria, we drove some 2,000 kilometres, through a forest fire, past six black bears and almost hit a herd of stone sheep.

Four days later we pulled up, exhausted, to a sufficiently dodgy hotel in downtown Victoria.

By noon the next day, we owned a sailboat.

During those first few weeks on the boat we took on delirious personalities, alternating the giddy exclaims of, “We have a boat!” with the lip-quivering, “What have we just done?!”

This is no fancy yacht. Our 26-foot sloop, built in 1975, is only eight feet longer than our beloved prospector canoe. It has a 7-1/2 foot beam and less than 5’4″ headroom. We cursed like true sailors until we instinctively knew just how far forward we had to bend.

The door to the head (that’s toilet for the landlubbers) doesn’t close and it’s situated beside the bed.

Our wee boat brought a new level of intimacy to our relationship, even for us accustomed to long periods of living in a tent and sleeping in the back of a station wagon.

But what she lacks in space she makes up for in seaworthiness.

The Contessa 26 is respected among sailors. One Old Salt told us, “You have a great boat. It’s up to you not to make her look bad.”

We would certainly try, but that would be hard, given that we didn’t really know what we were doing.

For six weeks we had the modest goal of sailing around southern British Columbia, cove hopping.Short sails. Near to shore and close to help.

Once we gained our sea legs then we would sail further on to the northern Gulf Islands to visit the numerous provincial marine parks protecting sandy beaches, old-growth forest and eel-grass beds.

By September we hoped to have the skills to sail the 20 nautical miles across the Strait of Georgia to visit spectacular Desolation Sound Marine Park.

But first we had to learn the basics.

We chose our sailing days carefully, preferring winds of 10-15 knots, which would keep our coffee mugs upright in the cockpit and the boat on just the slightest lean.

Calm sailing days gave us the opportunity to play with our sails and learn how to trim the sheets to maximize speed.

We remained cautious in those first six weeks and all went smoothly and without humiliating upsets. Only one argument erupted when John decided he wanted to try sailing in a 25-knot wind.

I said I wasn’t ready for that.

He insisted.

I reminded him of The Bounty.

We didn’t go sailing that day.

But those days would come when unexpected high winds had us holding onto the lifelines and wishing we had spent more time practising man-overboard instead of seeing how close into the wind our boat would sail.

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