A novice sailor finds challenge, delight, and conquest on the waters of San Francisco Bay.
If I didn't know any better, I'd think that I was sailing the Mediterranean. The blue-green seawater sparkles, and impressive villas cling to the rocky, cypress-dotted hillside. White sailboats go by, with passengers aboard giving a slight wave to acknowledge us, their fellow seafarers, aboard a 31-foot Beneteau sailboat.
But my geographical reverie is suddenly interrupted. "Grab the winch handle," says Peter Leib, my sailing instructor, as he takes the helm. I quickly move to the furling lines, and then clumsily look around.
Prior to today, I had never stepped foot on a sailboat, ogling them from afar in marinas and envying the culture's carefree glamour. But now I've traded fantasy for reality and signed up for a two-day introduction with Club Nautique, a Sausalito-based sailing school that has shepherded novices for more than 35 years.
My base of operations: Sausalito’s elegant and recently redesigned Casa Madrona Hotel and Spa, a glorious waterfront mansion from 1885 that puts sea captain’s homes to shame and arranged my foray into proper seafaring with Club Nautique as part of its Learn to Sail package. (And which welcomed me back to shore with myriad pleasures, including a sumptuous Meyer Lemon Body Wrap treatment at the Spa at Casa Madrona.)
My first hour as a neo-sailor was my easiest: on dry land. A lifelong sailor, Leib explained how wind currents affect boat movements and taught me the vocabulary that defines the nautical world: keel and boom, jib and jibe, shroud and flog. This I can do, I thought. Some terms, some physics. I'll be sailing in no time.
But now, on the water, the terms jumble together in my head. Leib has to remind me what an outhaul is (one of the sail's furling lines, or ropes), but I shake off my embarrassment and get to work. Suddenly, there's a powerful, flapping noise: The mainsail catches the wind and fills with air. We begin to move, pushed forward by the wind I've caught. I stare, amazed.
The next morning, we practice docking and escape turns (quick movements meant to steer a sailboat out of trouble). While docking, I feel like a panicky teenager learning to parallel park an SUV, but I pull it off with Leib's coaching. As I motor the sailboat out of the marina and feel the helm in my hands, my confidence grows.
Out on the water, though, today's lesson is choppier. I get a taste for the moody currents that famously bedevil the San Francisco Bay. I discover what it's like to prop myself up at the helm of a sailboat that feels as though it's about to tip over. (I remind myself that it won't, because its weighted keel brings the boat upright if the mast dips too low.) Still, as I feel the ocean draw nearer, I'm on high alert with a mix of fright and thrill.
We return to the marina, and I attempt my last docking of the day. This time, Leib doesn't tell me when to turn the helm—it's a mini solo-sailing moment. I swing the boat wide, nervously aware of nearby vessels. Much to my surprise, the act feels familiar, and I dock the sailboat more smoothly than in the morning. It's a small but tangible triumph.
Like a sailor on shore leave, I wander the streets of Sausalito, and then return for a glass of wine on my balcony at Casa Madrona. I overlook the marina where I've spent the past two days and picture the faraway places my new skills might take me. This time the likelihood is real, and I make a mental promise to sign up for my sailing certification. I'm overtaken by that rare mix of inspiration and possibility, a life-altering elixir.
Learn To Sail packages at Casa Madrona start at $2,920 for two sailing lessons, a two-night stay, two spa treatments, picnic lunches, and one dinner; casamadrona.com.
Photo: Top: Courtesy of Club Nautique; Bottom: Casa Madrona Hotel and Spa