Summers in Plymouth:Learning to Sail the Hard Way

This is a short story I posted last year. It happened during the summer, so it fits with my Summers in Plymouth Series. If you haven’t read it, I hope you enjoy it!

It was time I learned to sail. At least that was what I’d been told by my father. He’d purchased an old wooden Turnabout, which lay with its bottom up on the lawn by the barn, mainmast, boom and sail stowed away. This doughty, barely ten foot sailing dinghy was what the kids at the yacht club liked to race on Saturdays. I wasn’t sure I wanted to get into sailing at all, let alone race, and those kids were a whole different group from the ones I hung around with at the pool every summer. Racing to me met hitting the water with a flat, belly-smacking dive, and powering myself to the other end, then making a turn and powering back. That required practice, and my summer days were already pretty full.

“You’ll enjoy it,” Dad insisted and promptly enrolled me in the land classes to prepare for sailing. In the meantime, he handed me sandpaper and told me to take all the paint off the turnabout. It was hard work, and I managed to remove a lot of skin and a fingernail along with the paint. It didn’t help to hear “Sand with the grain, sand with the grain” every time Dad checked on me. By the time I’d finished to Dad’s satisfaction, a whole weekend had been consumed. Later that week, he caulked the boat, and the next evening we repainted it together, red again. I really wanted blue.

At supper the following Saturday evening, Dad said, “Your classes begin Monday at nine. Mom will drop you off at the yacht club and pick you up at noon.”

“But Dad, do I have to? You know we have a big meet next Saturday. I need to be working on my intervals.”

“Nonsense. It won’t matter if you miss morning practice. It’s not the Olympics. There’s still the afternoon and you’re the fastest kid in your age group already.”

As Mom ladled chop suey into my bowl, her latest attempt at creating international cuisine, she remarked, “Your Dad and I really enjoyed the Coast Guard course we took last year, and we thought since we live on the water, you should be more familiar with boats.“ My brother Jay stuck his tongue out, then made a face as he tried the chop suey.

Yeah right, I thought. It’s just because Dad and the Commodore have become big buddies and Mom helps run the Yacht Club dinners. I’m going to look like a jerk, as usual. “How long is the course?” I asked.

“Three mornings.”

“But Mom….”

“Then you go out in the boat for a one-on-one class, and if you get the hang of it, you’ll be sailing by Friday. Won’t that be wonderful!” my Dad exclaimed.

The Plymouth Yacht Club - it's still there. It was a lumberyard barn but become the yacht club in 1928.
The Plymouth Yacht Club – it’s still there. It was a lumberyard barn but become the yacht club in 1928.

The next morning, I trudged up the gravel drive to the two story, weather-worn yacht club, pushed myself through the front door, and found a group of kids hanging around at one end of the dining room, where a chalk board had been set up. Hey, they’re all younger than me. Isn’t this just peachy? I sat as far away from the group as I could and still hear what was going on.

The instructor showed up and moved to the chalk board. I noticed that he was one of the tall, good-looking young men I’d seen hanging around during the yacht club dinners, chatting, drinking Coke and lazily watching girls. He was bronzed by the sun from sailing and had windblown, wavy hair. I cringed. Just what I need. A Greek God to teach me sailing. In the last year, I’d shot up three inches and was gawky and clumsy. It didn’t help that at twelve, I was now taller than all the boys at my school and was called Miss Encyclopedia because I got good grades. I need to be swimming, I fumed. In the swimming pool, I’m someone. My teammates like me. There are even some younger kids who look up to me. Why am I here?

The Greek God, whose name was Kevin, assembled the children around him.

“Hey you, aren’t you in this class?” he asked me.

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Well, you need to come closer and join the group. You need to be able see the board and take notes. I’ll be giving you a test at the end of the course and you have to pass it if you want to sail out of this club.”

Oh joy, so nice to be singled out. I reluctantly moved to a chair at the end of the third row. A kid who looked like a kindergartener smirked at me as I sat down, picking the notebook and pencil up from the chair.

During the next several hours, with breaks in between, Kevin covered a variety of topics. He started by teaching us to read a depth chart of the harbor. I was interested to see where the channels ran, how deep they were, and the shallow areas that were revealed as mud flaps (my brother’s interpretation of mud flats) at low tide. Then we progressed to the various parts of a sail boat, and Kevin showed us the different kinds of sailboats we would likely see in Plymouth harbor and explained their differences: a sloop, a ketch and a yawl, which looked a lot like a ketch (I could not for the life of me figure out the difference.) I found myself thinking, Darn, this stuff is interesting. And Kevin is sooo good-looking.

I was itching to ask about the sails when Kevin said, “Okay, I think we will end for today. “Don’t forget to bring your notebook tomorrow. I’m going to teach you about sails.” I raced out the front door to the waiting station wagon.

“How was your class?” my mother asked.

“Kinda boring. The guy teaching is sort of okay,” I replied, not wanting to let Mom know I liked the class and the instructor.

“I understand he won some regional races last year.”

In what? A bathtub? I thought. Okay, that’s not true. He’s really cool. And he’s cute. “So maybe he really does know something,” I said instead, pushing my glasses up on my nose.

Having missed the morning’s swim practice, I was chewed out by my coach that afternoon; he didn’t seem to care that my parents had made me go to the sailing classes. As a result, I was bordering on angry the next day, which overrode my interest in sails. I slammed through the club door, stormed to the end of the third row of chairs in the dining room and flopped myself down. Kevin was already there. “Is there something wrong, Noelle?” he asked solicitously.

Good grief, he’s asking me a question! I could feel myself turning pink all the way up to my hairline. “No, I just thought I was late.”

“Okay,” Kevin replied amiably and turned back to drawing on the chalk board. Once the rest of the class straggled in, he began, “Today we are going to learn about sails.” For the next two hours, Kevin went over mainsails, jibs, mizzensails, top sails, and a whole lot more, along with the various ways in which the sails could be rigged for the different types of boats. I particularly liked the gaff-rigged boats that have sails with a spar at the top and the tall ships – three-masted, with five tiers of square sails. Now those were sailing ships! I’d seen them coming into Boston Harbor one Fourth of July. What I wouldn’t give to be on one of those!

Before I knew it, class was over and I headed to the front door a little less rapidly and noisily than I’d entered.

“So how was class today?” Mom asked me when I got into the car.

“Actually kinda neat. We learned all about sails. Even the big, square-rigged kind we saw in Boston last year.”

“So you are enjoying it?”

“I guess so. Do you have my suit? Can you drop me off at the club?”

“Sure, and there’s a bag with a sandwich in it, along with your suit and towel in the back seat. Corned beef salad, your favorite.” I’d never been able to tell her mother that corned beef wasn’t my favorite, especially loaded with boiled egg, celery and mayonnaise. Heavy food always slowed my times. So I only ate half the sandwich, but even so, my times dropped. And my coach ragged on me again.

At dinner that night, which included my most loathed vegetable, boiled spinach, Dad told me I could help him bring the turnabout down to the dock and launch it that evening. “We’ll need to step the mast and the boom, and rig the sail, once it’s in the water. I’ve paid for a mooring line and buoy about 100 yards away from the dock, so we can tow the boat out with one of the dinghies. I’ll show you how to grab the mooring line and tie her down. You’ll just have to remember the buoy number.”

All of this sounded like Latin. Step the mast, rig the sail, mooring line? How do you do that? Kevin hadn’t said anything about this.

The last day of class, I was early again, thinking about the public dressing down I knew I’d get that afternoon. Kevin looked at me questioningly when I slid into my seat and tried to look busy. “Is there something wrong?”

“No, just looking forward to learning about wind,” I countered. How could I possibly tell him what’s bothering me? Or let him know how interested I am in the class after being such a creep the first day? Besides, he was so good-looking, I wanted to crawl under the chair.

I remember taking copious notes that morning, learning about the position of the wind with regard to the bow or stern of a sailboat, and how that would determine whether the sail was pulled in, called a reach, or let out as far as it could go in a what was call a run. I learned you had to tack, or change direction, by turning into the wind. If you tacked by turning away from the wind, you jibed, and this might lead to flipping the boat. Finally, Kevin discussed the various ropes or lines on the boat: the halyard, which raises the sail; the sheet, which trims the sail; and the shrouds or stays, which hold the mast. I wrote down all of this in fine detail, with drawings, and was exhausted by the end of the class.

“Test tomorrow,” Kevin reminded us as we left.


Well, I passed the written test with flying colors and showed up with great trepidation on the dock Friday morning. Her mother had insisted that I pull my hair back in a pony tail, to keep it out of my face, and it was already coming loose in ragged strands. I’d dressed in my favorite tee shirt and a clean pair of shorts and adjusted my glasses more snugly on my nose for the umpteenth time, as I got out of the car. Kevin was already there on the dock, looking as dashing as ever and talking to an older girl while he waited, the tender to a bobbing dinghy in his hand. There was a pretty stiff off shore breeze that day, and the moored turnabouts were bouncing around.

“Hi, Noelle, ready to go?” he asked me with a blinding smile. The girl next to him giggled, whispered in his ear and looked at me with something resembling pity.

“As ready as I’ll ever be.” Bitch. Yeah, I knew that word.

Kevin pulled the dinghy over and I climbed clumsily into the bow. Kevin threw me the line, jumped neatly in, and took the oars. “Do you know which turnabout is yours?”

“I think the buoy number is 45. It’s the red one over there.”

Kevin plied the oars with practiced ease and snagged the buoy line. He pulled the turnabout over to the side of the dinghy and said “Pop over.” I stood up and flopped gracelessly into the turnabout, leaving the dinghy rocking dangerously. “Hey!” yelled Kevin. “Be careful, you almost tumped me!”

I freaked. “S,s,sorry.”

“Grab the tender and tie it to the buoy line.”

I took the dinghy’s tender and did as I was instructed. Kevin got lightly into the turnabout and patiently took me through setting the rudder and attaching the tiller, dropping the centerboard, unfurling the sail from around the boom, and raising the sail with the halyard. He then kept the boat turned into the wind while he had me release the line to the buoy, then pushed the tiller to starboard and pulled on the main sheet to pull in the sail. He reminded me that when he said “Ready about. Hard alee!” I was to duck, because the boom and the sail would snap from one side to the other. Then we were off.

Over the next 20 minutes, Kevin went over what he had taught the class about reaches and run and coming about into the wind. Finally, he handed me the tiller. “Your turn. Take over.”

Oh good grief, this is going to be a disaster. Actually, as we continued along on the same tack, I began to enjoy the wind and the water and managed to keep the small boat on a straight line, learning to adjust the sail for more speed. All too soon we were running out of room at the southern end of the harbor, and Kevin told me to come about. Which way do I push the tiller? Right, no that’s starboard. Or maybe left, that’s port. What do I do with the sheet? Do I let go or just loosen my tension? I pushed the tiller to port and the boat swung away from the wind and started to heel over.

“Hey!” yelled Kevin. “Wrong way. You’re jibing.Turn into the wind.” He grabbed the tiller and pulled it toward him hard, swinging the boat back into the wind and yelling “Ready about. Hard alee!” Just in time, I remembered to duck. “Let’s try this again, Noelle.”

Again I took the tiller, and fairly quickly Kevin told me to come about. Once again I hesitated and pushed the tiller the wrong way. This time, the little boat very nearly capsized, I lost her hold on the sheet, and the sail swung wide. Kevin was less than polite when he grabbed the tiller and got control of the sail. He explained once again that you had to push the tiller in the opposite direction from the way you wanted to turn, but his words dripped with irritation. I was so embarrassed, they hardly registered. Again, he handed me the tiller.

I am a clumsy, awkward idiotic, I remember thinking, and I started to cry. I can’t do this, I can’t do this, I want to go home.

“Come about,” said Kevin, and once again I pushed the tiller in the wrong direction. This time Kevin grabbed the tiller, shoved me aside and yelled “What’s wrong with you? Are your ears plugged? What part of push the tiller in the opposite direction don’t you get? You are the dumbest little bitch I’ve ever been forced to teach. They don’t pay me enough for this! We’re heading in. There’s no point in trying to teach you anything.”

I moved forward and made myself as small as possible. Tears flowed unchecked. After an eon, Kevin came about smartly alongside the dock and said curtly “Get out!” which I did, but not without almost falling into the water between the boat and the dock. I ran up the path to the club and continued on the gravel drive to the front, instead of going inside.

My mother wasn’t there, since the lesson had ended more than 30 minutes early. I slid in the front door of the club, fished a coin from my pocket and called home on the pay phone inside the door. “Hi Mom. I’m done, come get me,” I blubbered into the phone.

“What’s wrong?” asked Mom.

“Just come get me,” I wailed.

On the way home, Mom managed to piece together what had happened, in between my sobs and shudders. I knew Mom was doing her very best to comfort her, but Kevin’s words still rang in my ears as I drowned in self-loathing. I went directly to my bedroom, where I sobbed for another half hour before falling into an exhausted sleep. Mom woke me at noon with a bologna sandwich and a glass of milk and reminded me I had to be at the club for swim practice in 30 minutes. What if they know about it at the swim club? What if someone told someone on the team? I don’t think I can do this.

“Come on, eat something and I will drive you down,” Mom said solicitously. This was a real gift because I always had to walk.

“I can’t, Mom. What if they know?”

“They are not going to know, dear, and besides, what happened was not your fault. Kevin was totally out of bounds to talk to you like that. Your father and I will talk to the Commodore about how you were treated. ”

“Do you have to, Mom?”

“Yes, this isn’t something we can just ignore. You were mistreated.”

Oh joy. How to make yourself popular. I reluctantly put on my suit, pulled my clothes on over it, grabbed a towel and headed downstairs while munching on the sandwich. Surprisingly, my times that afternoon were my best yet; I took out my humiliation and anger churning up and down the pool. I also did well in the meet the next day: three firsts and the praise of my coach and teammates helped soothe the sting even more.

I refused to go to the yacht club the following week, and gratefully, Dad didn’t press me. But the thought of my failure nagged me like a spider bite, and I resolved I would learn to sail, my way. Ten days after the fiasco, I asked Mom to drive me to the yacht club. It was a Tuesday afternoon, which I knew from being there for class was a quiet day at the club. I would just have to risk the wrath of my swim coach again. I had donned my swim suit, just in case, and put shorts and a shirt on over it.

“Are you taking another lesson, Noelle? Is there another instructor?”

“Yes, Mom, I do have a different instructor. It’ll be okay.” Not exactly the truth, but not a lie either.

“Call me when you are done, dear, and I’ll come get you.”

“Okay, Mom. I hope I’ll be done about five.”

I could tell my Mom wasn’t buying it, but she dropped me off without further comment. I walked down the gravel path alongside the club. No way was I going into the building. Kevin might be there, laughing about me with his friends or maybe angry because I knew from my Dad Kevin had been reprimanded.

The afternoon was sparkling, with bright sunshine and a frisky wind, enough to snap the yacht club flag and its rope on the pole in front of the clubhouse, making a crisp, metallic sound. When I got to the dock, I pulled one of the dinghies in close, grabbed a pair of oars from the dock, got in and rowed myself to the turnabout. I attached the dinghy to the buoy line and climbed carefully into the turnabout, bringing the oars with me, just in case I had to row the boat back. I mentally went through Kevin’s instructions from my disastrous sail, trying to erase the bad parts. Then I set the rudder, attached the tiller, released the buoy line, dropped the centerboard, raised the sail and took the mainsheet and the tiller. I pushed on the tiller in the opposite direction from where I wanted to go, turning into the wind, and ducked when the boom snapped over.

The rest of the afternoon, I practiced what I’d learned in class – tacks and reaches and runs. It wasn’t perfect. I spilled wind from my sail when I forgot to pull in the sheet; the sail would flap and the turnabout would slow to crawl. At one point, I forgot again and turned away from the wind, very, very nearly flipping the boat, but rescued it just as it heeled so far over that water started to slop in. Gradually I started to feel comfortable managing the sail and steering at the same time, remembering which way to push the tiller. By the end of the afternoon, I dared take my little boat farther out into the harbor, following the channels marked with red buoys.

That afternoon, I also discovered the absolute freedom of moving with only the wind in the sail, the comfort of water slapping on the hull, and the sounds of the harbor and the seagulls. Most of all, I was proud of myself for doing it. I could sail, and as Frank Sinatra used to sing, I did it my way. Without any help from a good-looking sailor.



4 thoughts on “Summers in Plymouth:Learning to Sail the Hard Way”

  1. Good for you! A lovely little tale of triumph over adversity. I cannot tell you how delighted I was to learn that you managed to do it all by yourself by the end 🙂

    1. I surprised even myself! Once I am comfortable with some skill, I am fearless. I have a boat now and need to spend more time on it – it’s very frisky and larger than my turnabout, and I need more practice working with it,

  2. Noelle, what a wonderful story! I was totally captivated… dare I say ‘immersed’??? Is this true? I am so in awe of you… I would never have had the nerve to go out to sea like that by myself. But sometimes the only way to learn is by doing. Well done!

    1. I’d had a good teacher, even if he was a s–thead personally. Plus my little sailboat was sturdy and rarely tipped over – very forgiving for the novice.

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