Dan and I had taken a dinghy sailing course while living in the Bay area and really enjoyed it. It had been a couple of years and we wanted to expand on the knowledge that we had gained while we still remembered it. We looked around at local (ie, East Coast) marinas, but when Dan put the brilliant thought of “Seattle” and “sailing” into one sentence, the answer was obvious.
I contacted the Seattle Sailing Club at Shilshole and inquired about their classes and rates. Jennie took my information and our sailing history and was able to find something that worked perfectly for us. She even offered to extend the annual Boat Show discount to us – a greatly appreciated gesture that we gladly took her up on. It took some back and forth in getting the dates finalized, but we finally settled upon three days of sailing to cover the two courses, both given as private lessons.
We showed up to the marina early Monday morning for our first day on the water. The weather was perfect; I couldn’t have asked for anything better for our first day. We met our instructor, Howard Edson, who would take us through both the 101 and 103 keelboat courses. Howard was friendly and interested in our history and what we wanted to get out of the upcoming week. His sincerity was obvious, as well as his ease as instructor. After a brief refresher at the whiteboard, the three of us went out to the docks and checked out our boat for the day, a C&C 24.
Howard was very thorough in making sure that we knew what we were doing – and more importantly – why. We eventually brought the boat out of the marina and into the waters of Elliot Bay. Howard spent most of the day having Dan and I take turns putting the boat through its paces, explaining what to do and how our actions affect the outcome. He was very interested in how we learned and was thrilled when we asked him questions – especially the questions that no one had ever asked him before. Dan and I were probably the best kind of students: we wanted to be there and we wanted to do well. The three of us made a great team.
As the day wore on, the mountains showed themselves. To the west rose the Olympics, splendid in their snow-capped glory. To the north, the surprising sight of Mt Baker, a volcanic peak at the US/Canadian border almost 100 miles away. Eventually to the south, Washington’s famous Mt Rainier peak became distinguishable from the clouds around it. Mt Rainier is 65 miles from Seattle, but on a clear day is almost certain to be seen, whereas Mt Baker is much more rare. As the sun progressed across the sky, the Cascade range to the east also became clearer as the clouds shifted over them. It really was the perfect setting for our sailing lessons.
The wind worked in our favor for the entire day. The morning had a steady breeze, just enough to push out the sails as we tacked and jibbed, practiced ‘man overboard!’ drills and generally got comfortable with the boat and its handling. We had previously agreed to eat on the boat instead of going back to the marina, and it was right around noon that the wind died down. Howard showed us how to “Heave to!”, a nifty little maneuver that keeps the boat fairly well stationary, while we ate our lunches and reviewed some of the book information. And then, just as we were finishing up and debating on what to do with the calm seas, the wind picked up again and blew even harder than it had that morning. Our earlier drills were repeated, this time with a little more “gusto!” and we were able to finish the day with full sails.
The end of Monday brought a written test, as Howard had already passed us for our hands-on knowledge of 101. The test was multiple choice, so it was pretty easy, and Dan and I walked out of the club with our 101 certification in our pockets. We had a day “off” before returning Wednesday morning for the two-day 103 course.
Wednesday was another great day to be on the water. It was slightly warmer and the wind was consistent. Today’s plan was to sail across the bay, dock the boat, have a well-earned hamburger and then sail back. It would be a taste of what “cruising” can be like. Poor Howard – he kept referring to “cruising” with such favor, but all I could think of were the guys who sit next to their Harleys on Main St in Sturgis every August.
Our boat today was a much better boat than Monday’s, a J-80. The “J” series is an incredibly popular boat and is commonly used for racing. In fact, that was the reason we couldn’t take one out on Monday: they were all reserved for that evening’s race. We could feel the difference almost immediately, the J boat being much lighter and more responsive on the water. Our wind conditions were perfect for the day’s activities and we had a great “cruise” across the water. Lunch was simple and fast – while the J-80 is a racing boat, it still took us an hour and a half to get to lunch. Even so, we reached the maximum speed of the boat (7 knots) and Howard informed us that we were on the edge of moderate to heavy weather sailing. It was good to know that we could handle such conditions, even as new as we were.
We had reached the marina entrance with time to spare, so Howard threw a couple of conjoined fenders overboard and had us practice some “man overboard!” drills with the new boat. It was great practice and feeling the difference from the previous trials was interesting. With the wind up it was a little more challenging, but it felt good to get the additional practice under our belts.
Thursday was the most challenging day for me: we spent almost the entire day within the marina, practicing docking, mooring, catching cleats, not hitting other boats, steering forwards and backward using the motor – it took a lot of judgement, judgement that I still needed to hone. What I like was that Howard would provide guidance, but only minimally. He let us be in charge of our maneuvers, interrupting only when he felt that we could be doing something in a better way. Or about to hit something. We took lunch outside of the marina, heading up the channel towards the Ballard Locks where we practiced our anchoring skills in the soft mud. It was easy to verify that our anchor was solid as we sat there for half an hour, eating our sandwiches and watching the lock traffic go by.
Because it was a private lesson, Howard was able to finish up his syllabus with time to spare, so instead of “letting class out early”, he sent us back to the slips and had us practice slightly more difficult docking maneuvers, always pushing us to try a little harder. I confess that after one particularly difficult move (motoring the boat into a slip between two already docked boats, and then once we’d reached the point where we could raft to one of the boats, backing out of the slip, all without hitting anything), I was mentally done. Fortunately for me, Howard agreed that it was time to dock for the final time and take our written 103 test. Dan and I had passed the hands-on portion with flying colors and only the written test was left. We passed that as well, and are now certified to rent a 30′ sailboat anywhere in the world where the ASA is recognized.
It was a great experience and I am really glad that we were able to take private lessons with Howard. He is an excellent instructor, but more than that, he is a genuine and friendly person. The school itself is well-run, despite needing minor upkeep on a couple of the boats. But everyone was very friendly and seemed earnest in their efforts to make us feel welcome. Dan and I are now looking around the East Coast to see where we can continue our lessons and experiences.