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Weekend Escape: Santa Barbara

She Samples Sailing at the Seashore : A couple of lessons pull her out of a fog

August 04, 1996|SHARON BOORSTIN | Boorstin is a Los Angeles freelance writer

SANTA BARBARA — With fantasies of billowing white sails against blue sky, my daughter, Julia, and I left sunny L.A. behind one recent Saturday, and drove up to Santa Barbara to learn how to sail. True, we could have learned a lot closer to home, in Marina del Rey, but a friend who'd taken sailing lessons there discouraged me with tales of sail- and powerboat-gridlock.

In uncrowded Santa Barbara waters, I learned, Julia and I could take a private basic-sailing course at the Santa Barbara Sailing Center ($159 for one person, $99 for each additional family member) with eight hours of lessons spread over two days. For an additional $60, we could spend the night in between on one of their 40 charter sailboats. It seemed like an ideal combination: learning to sail and a weekend in our favorite beach town. Until we arrived in Santa Barbara--where the fog was so thick we could barely see the water and there was so little wind, the marina's nautical flags drooped like wet socks on a clothesline.

Our sailing instructor, however, had a contagious optimism. Ryan Clark, a junior at UC Santa Barbara, with the clean-cut good looks of a younger Tom Cruise, has been sailing since he was 4 years old. Ryan assured us that we'd have good sailing before we were through. And, as we stepped aboard our 21-foot-long sloop, he allayed my anxiety that we would capsize the boat.

To prepare for our sailing lessons, we had studied an instruction manual and watched a video, but I had found the sailing and boat terms as foreign as . . . well . . . a foreign language. The first thing Ryan explained was that there are no "ropes" on a boat--they're "lines" or "sheets." Trying to remember the differences among a "clew," "halyard," "leech," "spreader" and "hank," I helped Julia and Ryan rig the boat and cast off. A light breeze filled our "jib" (front) sail, and Ryan taught us the basics of "coming about" (turning the sailboat while going into the wind) in the marina harbor. The pea-soup fog made it difficult to see more than 30 feet in front of us. The only good news: Except for a few men fishing from inner tubes and kids racing 8-foot-long Sabot sailboats near shore, we had the harbor all to ourselves.

*

Several "tacks" (turns) later, the fog lifted enough so that we could safely go beyond the breakwater. With little wind, we were barely moving, and Ryan said he knew we found this frustrating. I was thinking boring. Ryan reviewed the points of sail and the rules of the road, and encouraged us to appreciate the quiet Zen-like solitude. Frankly, bobbing in one spot on the waves was making me seasick. I didn't complain when the wind died altogether, the fog moved back in, and Ryan ended our lesson ahead of schedule to paddle our boat back to its berth.

Julia and I decided to make the most of the remainder of the afternoon. We walked along the beach a half a mile and turned up State Street, Santa Barbara's main drag. Once known for its seedy transient hotels and thrift shops, lower State Street is in the process of being yuppified, its Spanish-tile-roofed buildings spruced up and colorfully landscaped with bougainvillea and jacaranda trees. We browsed in shops, then ducked into a movie, emerging at 5 o'clock to see that the fog had vanished. We strolled back toward the beach, past bars where jazz bands entertained customers enjoying a beer on a gloriously sunny afternoon.

Using a key-card the Sailing Center had given me, Julia and I entered the marina docks area and stashed our sleeping bags aboard our boat-for-the-night. A 26-foot Cape Dory sailboat usually chartered for cruises to the Channel Islands, the Whisper smelled vaguely of marine fuel but was otherwise comfortable enough for two. We opened the portholes to air out the cabin and set off for a walk along the breakwater.

On a spit of sand where we had seen fishermen casting their lines earlier, a fellow in a waiter's tux was setting up a white linen-covered table with gold-plated flatware, fine china and a bottle of champagne. He told us he was doing it for a friend who was going to propose marriage to his girlfriend over a sunset dinner here.

Our own dinner was a more casual affair: fresh peel-your-own shrimp, a bounteous seafood salad and zesty cioppino on the outdoor balcony of Brophy Brothers' Clam Bar & Restaurant. Judging from the number of boat-related conversations, I'd say Brophy's attracts more sailors than tourists. After a walk to touristy Stearns' Wharf for ice cream, Julia and I settled in for the night on the Whisper.

At 3 a.m., I awoke to the moan of a distant foghorn, and found our boat shrouded in fog-tinged greenish-yellow by the marina lights. As I peered into the murk, a spectral figure emerged, a stately heron strutting along the dock like a supermodel in slow-motion on a runway.

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