May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Destinations, May 1998


One Week to Skipperhood
By Laurence Sheehan

If you're seasick, drink ginger beer. The more things you can throw overboard to keep a drowning man afloat, the better. There are two kinds of sailors: those who have gone aground, and those who will.

Pondering the day's lessons in the art of sailing, I sit alone on the deck of the Vixen under a darkening sky, listening to the melodious clatter of halyards and shrouds around me in the harbor. A week ago, I barely knew the difference between a port tack and a glass of port. But now my fellow Annapolis Sailing School students and I have successfully completed a rousing, five-hour passage from St. Croix to St. John, taking turns wrestling with the helm of our 50-foot Gulfstar training vessel. On a broad reach, nautically speaking, we were in a quartering to following sea of five- to seven-foot waves. Basically, we'd had serious whitecaps.

"That was a joy!" Rob cried, steering like a surfer down the largest waves. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy now working as a venture capitalist on Wall Street, Rob had a humbling edge in seaworthiness over the rest of us from day one. But he carried his superior learning with grace. Even when I crashed into him while snorkeling one morning, he showed forbearance, unlike the angelfish and squid that bolted at my unseemly gyrations and fled for Europe.

Winds remained so brisk during our crossing that we hoisted only the jib and mizzen, the smaller sails at the bow and stern of the boat. Had we raised the mainsail, "the Vixen would've been overpowered," Ingo Schlueter, our 27-year-old skipper, sailing instructor, cook, and calming presence told us. Built like a sturdy sea chest, with a goatee and a gravelly Popeye voice, Ingo had prepared us well for this crossing. After two days in the harbor of Christiansted, he'd moved us from a frisky 24-foot sloop to the Vixen, with its three sails, 85-horsepower engine, and three times as much deck space from which to fall overboard. Every day he'd made sure we got hands-on experience at every task on the Vixen, from rigging the boat to washing dishes. Ingo's vigilance had also ensured that none of us overcompensated for the touchy weather helm by turning the boat too far downwind. This would have caused a sudden jibe of the mizzen, with such dire consequences as snapped rigging and sharp knocks to our heads.

Now, safely anchored in Cruz Bay, our little group of sailors has dispersed. Ingo and Rob have tooled off in the dinghy toward St. John. Steve and Carol, a vigorous older couple hell-bent on mastering their newfound sport, have retired to their forward cabin. Studious, fortysomething Dave, a pilot for TWA, has holed up with various manuals and navigation guides in his cabin aft.

But I'm not quite ready to stretch out on my bunk and stare at a ceiling almost close enough to lick. I'm still outside when a warm rain begins to fall. Taking cover under the blue canvas bimini, I watch the pelicans and consider how, today, I learned perhaps too much about the rigors of serious sailing. In the final stage of the day's passage, Ingo let me take the helm. Cross-eyed, I stared at our compass, making sure it never ventured far from 358 degrees magnetic north to prevent the dreaded jibe. Ingo at my elbow, I led the Vixen safely past the ominous real estate called Two Brothers Rock, which reared up out of the surf like Cain and Abel.

Unfortunately, I misunderstood some crucial instructions about the engine, and after a couple of missteps with the throttle, I was kindly but insistently relieved of duty. Captain Ingo adroitly maneuvered our boat on into the crowded harbor, dropping anchor next to the purple-hulled sloop of a tattooed former topless dancer who lived on her boat with her dog.

I mention our neighbor because the Caribbean is filled with folks who might be described, not necessarily to their faces, as characters. It's also filled with tourists, and finding the one without being swamped by the other is increasingly difficult. So it occurs to me as I lie on deck that bareboat cruising, although difficult and pricey compared to, say, bus travel, is perhaps the only way to locate what's left of paradise in places like the Caribbean. Tiny islands are crowded, but the vast seas around them are not.

The rain continues to ping off the water around us, and I smile to myself. I may be Ingo's least promising student, but I have managed to skirt Two Brothers and to avoid the jibe. Best of all, I think with satisfaction, I now have Ingo's inimitable lessons to live by, my favorite being: When — as you will — you go aground, just be sure to get off the mud before your friends see you.

The Camp File
Annapolis Sailing School teaches not only in the Virgin Islands, but also in St. Petersburg, the Florida Keys, and Annapolis (natch). Two- to seven-day courses include chalk talk, sail handling, and in some instances, bareboating certification. Cost is $250-$2,025, with lodging and food included only during live-aboard cruises. 800-638-9192.

Alternative: Olympic Circle Sailing Club Sailing School, San Francisco. Sleep, eat, and breathe J-24 (that's a 24-foot sailboat, for you greenhorns) in San Francisco Bay. Among the skills imparted: negotiating currents, weathering high winds, and snagging the last square of Ghirardelli chocolate; $282-$563, including lunch and an optional berth on the boat. 800-223-2984.

Laurence Sheehan is the author of The Sporting Life.

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