SAN FRANCISCO — Choppy seas. Winds at 18 knots. Darkening skies.
As I set out on my first sailing lesson on San Francisco Bay, another student offered me a tip.
"The first rule of sailing," he said as we boarded a 34-foot J-105 at the Berkeley Marina, "is to always look good."
Call me overly cautious, but in my book, the first rule of sailing is don't drown.
Granted, I know almost nothing about sailing, except that Christopher Cross had a great song on the subject back in 1980. I also know that the sail goes on the top of the boat and the keel goes in the water.
That's all I know. Compared to me, Gilligan is Sir Francis Drake.
That's why I was at the marina on a spring evening, taking an introductory course at the Olympic Circle Sailing Club, one of the nation's largest sailing schools, with a fleet of about 50 boats. I invited my nephew, Willie Martinez, along for two reasons. First, he's a good photographer, so he can document the lesson. Second, he's an athletic young guy who can drag his floundering uncle to shore if I should fall overboard.
Our captain was Anthony Sandberg, who has been sailing nearly 40 years and began the school in 1979, when the Berkeley Marina was a bayside landfill. He did stints in the Peace Corps, was a ski instructor and ran a manufacturing company. But he kept coming back to his first love, sailing.
We donned our yellow rain slickers and life jackets and climbed aboard. Although some sailing schools will certify a new sailor to handle a boat in three or four days of lessons, Sandberg said the conditions on San Francisco Bay are so extreme that he recommends up to 80 hours of lessons over 10 days. (In the U.S., two organizations set the standards for sailing certification: the U.S. Sailing Assn., the governing body for Olympic sailing, and the American Sailing Assn., which oversees about 300 smaller sailing schools. Olympic Circle is affiliated with the U.S. Sailing Assn.)
Olympic Circle reports that membership in its sailing school has shown a steady 10% increase every year for the last several years, even though overall participation in the sport has dropped by about 14% in the last several years, according to a survey by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Assn.
We motored out of the marina, raised the mainsail and caught a southern wind. "OK, now we're sailing," Sandberg said.
The waves, about 2 feet high, crashed over the bow, showering us with saltwater spray. Willie and I sat on deck with five other students, most with plenty of experience. One of the students let out the jib (a triangular foresail near the front of the boat) and we picked up speed. In the distance, we saw Alcatraz Island, Angel Island and the San Francisco skyline.
I sat next to Mary Tarczynski, who had been sailing for about four years. "Sailing is such a relaxing experience because you can't multitask or think of anything else," she said.
The consistent winds make San Francisco Bay one of the best places in the country to learn to sail, Sandberg said. But, as anybody who has ever been on a boat in the bay knows, the winds can be brutal, providing a challenge for aspiring sailors.
"Anywhere else, these winds would be called a storm," he says. "Here, they are standard."
I always considered sailing a sport for bluebloods who wear ascots and wristwatches that tell you the correct time in Prague. But it's really not that expensive, at least not at Olympic Circle. The two-hour introductory class is only $40 per person, and a three-hour course on seamanship, for example, is just $25. Once you are trained, you can charter a boat for as little as $155 a day.
After sailing for nearly an hour, we came about, a process that always frightened me. The mainsail flapped and swung around. I ducked to avoid getting cracked in the skull by the boom. The boat tilted precariously. That's when Sandberg instructed me to take the wheel.
I fought to keep my balance atop the heaving deck, grasping at lines to keep from falling overboard. The sea was menacing and wild. I looked at my nephew to see if he was prepared to rescue me should I fall in, but he was chatting with someone about paintball. So much for blood being thicker than water.
After nearly 40 years, Sandberg spots everything. "See the water getting dark," he said, pointing to a patch of deep blue sea in our path. "We are about to hit the wind in about nine seconds."
Then he began to count down from nine to zero. At zero, the sails filled with air and the boat took off, flying along the rough surface at about 8 knots.
Sailing, Sandberg told me, is mostly about feeling and instincts. Turn the boat, he instructed, until you can feel it catch the wind. I slowly swung the wheel to the right (starboard) and left (port) until I sensed the sail catching the full force of the wind.
Suddenly, I was sailing. Actually, a trained monkey could hold the wheel steady, which was all I was doing. But I did pick up a few tips and several sailing terms such as berth, tacking and jibing.