Starboard or Larboard

Learning to sail the hard way

And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then

Leonard Cohen

I thought of arriving at tropical islands, cocktails on deck, my hands on the wheel as the ship coursed through the ocean. What I didn’t think of was the terror, not of storms and rogue waves, but of learning something new.

I started a sailing class not long after returning to New Zealand after a year spent in Japan. It was there that I had all those day dreams, working as an English teacher in a shopping mall tuition centre, taking the subway home and every night looking out at the neons and pastel apartment towers beneath a completely starless sky. I thought of tramping, swimming in the ocean, things I couldn’t do there that were possible in New Zealand. I thought of sailing - something that I had never really done before, but was now obsessed with. Japan I decided was the only thing holding me back from my yachting career.

By the time I got back to New Zealand, got a job and a flat, my interest had waned. I couldn’t see the appeal anymore. Like a lot of people I have a problem with clubs and learning new things. But I thought guiltily of all that old obsession. I owed it to my past self I decided, and so I sent off an email, I deposited some money into the bank account of the local yachting club and early on a chilly Sunday morning I arrived at the clubrooms for my first lesson in sailing.

There’s no real need for sailing anymore. Not while the oil holds out. It is a pastime, recreation. Those boats are pleasure craft. And while people talk about storms and the adversity on long voyages, they don’t say much about just how difficult it is to operate a tiny boat on a windy day. The way the sail whips about, how you need to hold the tiller with one hand, holding the mainsheet rope with the other, being ready to trim the sail when the wind dies, to change position and swap hands all while ducking to avoid the conk of the swinging boom.

It was on a day like that I went out with one of the instructors, a man named Colin. We had all peered at the sea for awhile before he pronounced it safe for us to head out. And while the wind roared, the sail rustled violently, there was comfort in having Colin sitting there, giving instructions. ‘Hold it steady, that’s it.’ When another yacht approached us, he asked me to tell him which side they were on.

‘Port?’ I said.



‘Good one!’

I was doing so well that he decided I didn’t need his advice anymore. With him now silent in the back, we skidded against the rising wind. I tangled those ropes around my hands, and jerked the tiller this way and that. The boom swung back and forth, and the boat rocked sideways until a good six inches of water formed in the bottom. I was wearing a woolly hat, red with a pom pom, and in the middle of all that confusion it flopped off into that pooled water to swell up and float like a jellyfish. My hands were full. I was still trying to gain some control, although without knowing how. I pulled the sail in, then let it out, I turned port, then starboard in the hope that something would fix all this. Every so often my hat would float toward me, and while juggling the rope and tiller, I tried to grab at it, only for it to float away again and for the mainsheet to jerk out of my hands. Suddenly, there was a shout from the back. ‘Let go of the rope,’ Colin said.

I hesitated.

'Just let go,’ he said.

I did and the sail swayed to centre, the boat rocked only very little and otherwise we were still in the centre of all that wind.

‘Now get your hat.’

I reached into that water and fished my hat out. It was completely sodden, a cold rag of bright wool and I tucked it my lifejacket, the way an old lady stores a hanky in her bra.

‘Ok,’ Colin said, and following his instructions again, we headed for shore.

Things never really got any better than that. The course was for beginners, but sitting around for our pre sailing debrief, I came to see that everyone else had turned up with a bit of sailing under their belts already.

‘No experience,’ someone confessed. ‘Except for a bit of fun in Lasers over the years.’

The rest nodded and a few chuckled, but to me these things were as foreign to me as Japanese had been a year earlier. I went sailing with one of these so-called beginners: a Frenchman, who had also sailed some type of yacht, but ‘never in New Zealand.’ He was nice enough, but insisted on pushing the boat to go as fast as it could. The sail took on a rigid curl, the boat leaned onto one side, and we sat hanging over the edge, as it cut through the water at a horrifying clip.

'You can have a go,’ he said after half an hour or so of this, and he moved aside for me take mainsheet and tiller. Under my captaincy, we moved along sedately, flat on the water. And I handled that well, maybe I had learned something. But the Frenchman was unimpressed. He yawned. He looked at me disappointed as if to say, ‘is this all you’re going to do?’ and so I let the sail out. It picked up the wind, and we were off. The yacht started to rise up and the two of us shuffled to the edge until we were on an extreme tilt against the surface of the water, rushing along again. He was happy, and for the moment I was equal parts proud and terrified. The yacht began to tilt even more, we were almost vertical. I eased the tiller one way, but that only made it worse, I eased it another way and that was worse still, the sharp prow began to scoop water. This time I pulled the tiller back hard, and instead of rectifying it, we both watched the water stream in, the yacht still trying to power along. I had just a second to turn to the Frenchman. ‘I’m really sorry about this,’ I said. He looked back at me, horrified, as if I’d just revealed some terrible truth about myself, and the boat slammed over plunging us both into the sea.

I can still remember the murky green, our ropes and and sail hanging down. But before that, the punch in the guts that came with hitting the cold water, Wellington harbour in winter. My windbreaker and army surplus jersey were nothing against that cold. I popped up to the surface thanks to my lifejacket, and the Frenchman and I worked to overturn our yacht. I grabbed at the centerboard, only to find I didn’t have the strength to pull myself up on to the hull. I called for my crewmate, and there was nothing for it but for him to push me up by the buttocks. The final indignity.

I stuck out with remaining lessons, but once they came to end so did my sailing career. After a day at the office, squinting at a computer screen, I walked to my bus stop thinking about travel to exotic countries, tramping trips in the backcountry - anything but boats. And doing this one day, I saw someone waving, smiling. Were they looking at me? Surely not. It wasn’t anyone I recognised. They must have been looking to someone behind me. Admittedly I was overdue for glasses by then. Whoever it was, they gave up, and with their head lowered they got on to their bus. And I got onto my bus too, I dug out my book, and part way home I realised it was that Frenchman. He had mistaken me for a fellow sailor.