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Columns in this section are arranged from oldest to newest to show my progress as a sailor, such as it is!
One wave at a time
There is nothing like crewing on a 19-foot racing sailboat in three-to-five foot swells to truly concentrate the mind.
Forget yoga or meditation. You have to be fully and immediately present while pulling in the jib and hanging desperately onto the lines so you don't flip backwards into the ocean. Lost your house to foreclosure? Just won the lottery? Believe me, you won't be thinking about either one of those things when seven other boats are coming at you and you're climbing up and surfing down large waves.
These were challenging conditions for me. It was the second day of the 2017 Wife-Husband Championship at Sandy Bay Yacht Club, Rockport, Massachusetts. Does the name of the event sound a little old-fashioned in this day and age? Possibly. But when I looked up the description of this type of regatta on the Flying Scot Sailing Association website, I read that the crew for each boat shall consist "solely of a helmsman and his/her spouse," and if everyone can get over the use of the term helmsman (helmsperson?), the race is fully inclusive. There was much joking about divorce attorneys waiting on the dock for incoming boats.
Several of the skippers in the regatta were women; however not on our boat-I'm the crew, and perfectly fine with that. My husband David has been sailing forever, and I'm a relative newcomer. I swore off sailing (and swore quite a bit at him) when he took me out in similar big-wave conditions years ago, and it frightened me so much I said I would never go out again.
Well, never is a long time, and I've gotten back into the boat, bit by bit, as the kids are generally not around to serve as crew anymore (I'm convinced that one reason sailors have children is to assure themselves of readily available crew for a few years). David also said he wouldn't yell, and he has pretty much kept that promise. I've only sailed in one other competition (a previous wife-husband regatta at Massapoag Yacht Club in Sharon, Mass.) but am starting to be more of a regular in the Sandy Bay weekend fleet races.
And familiarity is breeding a little bit of comfort, as I literally learn the ropes. Because that's what I do-I handle ropes, sorry lines--uncleating the jib from one side of the boat, then scrambling over to the other, pulling that line in and cleating it, filling the jib sail with wind as David sails the boat and deals with the mainsail. I also help to watch for about oncoming boats (often in hysterical fashion "WE'RE GOING TO CRASH!"). In addition, I steer during downwind legs when David handles the spinnaker, and hang off the rail--called hiking-- when instructed.
The wind wasn't screaming on this day, but it was gusty. The higher the wind, the more the boat heels over, and the more its sailors need to counterbalance by putting their combined weight as far as possible in the other direction. I didn't even look up as we left the mouth of the harbor, just concentrated on my lines as the boat began to roll and churn through the waves. My stomach was knotting but I couldn't look down forever. As we headed toward the start of the race I raised my head and realized there was only one option, and it wasn't crying like a baby. It was to help David sail the boat.
So I tried not to anticipate the waves but to look past them and pretend that they weren't there. There was only one tangled line, and though my heart was in my mouth, I drove the boat as David wrestled with our big skull and cross bones spinnaker.. As I noted before, there is nothing like a little terror to increase mindfulness.
Well, needless to say, I survived. We didn't win the race but we came in second in the Challenger division and I won my first sailing trophy. Our beautiful new sails from Ryan Malmgren of Mad Sails might have given us a boost as well-thank you, Ryan! We made some new friends and I thought for a brief moment that maybe a new boat would be kind of awesome (then slapped myself in the face before mentioning this to my husband). I used to wonder why we didn't have the kind of sailboat on which you just drank wine and looked at sunsets. But I think I'm pretty happy with our Flying Scot now, and Patriots-like, I'll just keep doing my job on it.
This article was originally published in the Newburyport Daily News and the Gloucester Times in August 2017. Photos by Beth Leahy
Marilyn and David on left, ???? on right
Taking to the waves together
Normally at this time of year, I take you on a bike ride. We've gone around the Rockport quarries, seen the world famous Paper House (awesome), and had transcendental iced coffee at the Common Crow. But let's do something different. Let's go sailing.
But I'm not talking about bobbing around the harbor or pleasure cruising. This is racing, and it's serious. There is no admiring of sunsets, opening of wicker picnic baskets or uncorking of wine bottles onboard. There is no comfy seating. There is no relaxing.
Wait, don't everybody leave!
OK, a couple of you are still here. Phew. You and I and the skipper are headed out to our sailboat, a 19-foot Flying Scot called Talk like a Pirate. We leave little Sandy Bay Yacht Club by launch and head out to our mooring. The sun is shining, the waves are sparkling, the ocean is sapphire blue.
The launch operator pulls up alongside our boat and we climb aboard. We pull off the boat cover and mount the rudder and tiller. We pull the jib out and fasten it to the shrouds (wires that hold up the mast) and untie the rolled mainsail. We hoist the main and the jib, and pull on our sailing gloves and life jackets. You and I will handle the jib (the smaller front sail) and the skipper steers the boat and works the main sail.
The skipper unclips us from the mooring and we're off
.Here's your quick sailing lesson: Number one, we're not in a motorboat. We don't just turn the key and go. A sailboat cannot sail directly into the wind. It can sail in a straight line downwind or with the wind from the side. When sailing upwind, sailboats tack, or turn, zigzagging back and forth to get where they want to go. The wind shifts constantly and we must continually make incremental changes to the lines that adjust the sails' shapes.
When the skipper says, "Ready about," we uncleat the jib sheet (rope) we are holding with a quick jerk. When he says,"Hard-a-lee," later we let that line go, scramble to the other side of the boat, and pull in and cleat the jib on that side. This all has to be done in a split second, sometimes in high wind and waves and often with boats bearing down on us from all sides.
We leave the harbor and are now out in Sandy Bay. I said that there was no relaxing, but while we sail out to the start of the race, we can admire the incredible view - granite pier, the breakwater, Straitsmouth Island lighthouse - the whole beautiful vista.
OK, that's enough sightseeing! The boats are milling around, jostling for position and we wait for the starting gun. Bang! We cross the starting line between the yellow inflatable mark and the committee boat in a tight pack. The boats are only feet away from each other and it's a high-pressure scramble as everyone heads for the other yellow mark barely visible across the bay.
A sailboat race isn't like an auto race. There is no track. Each boat can go in any direction and that is the challenge. Every skipper uses his or her experience to gauge the wind, the waves and the current to decide their course. Idle chitchat is strongly discouraged. Yelling has been known to occur. Language may be colorful. There is the occasional scream (from me) as we cross other boats with only inches to spare.
And now the wind picks up and the boat starts to heel. We lean way out over the side to balance her, far enough that we feel like we're going to fall over backward (Pro tip: Hang on to something). Now, we're flying like the gulls overhead as Pirate slices through the water. It's an incredible feeling.
When we round the mark, everything changes. This is the downwind leg and we take the tiller while the skipper hoists and handles the spinnaker, a large billowing sail that captures the wind on this slower portion of the race. Our spinnaker is a giant black and white Jolly Roger that I like to think strikes fear into the hearts of our competitors but probably doesn't.
And now we head back to the starting mark and do it all over again. Most of our races are two upwind/downwind legs and then a final upwind one. Sometimes, a single boat wins by a large margin and sometimes several boats duke it out until the end. When you're so far behind that no one can see you, it's called a "horizon job." When you're dead last, you finished DL - there is a more explicit version of this that I will leave to your imagination.
Finally, it's time to hang out and enjoy after-race snacks on the dock. We had a great race and finished respectably. Don't worry if everything seems to be pitching and rolling. That will pass. You've got your sea legs now.
Published by the Daily News of Newburyport and the Gloucester Times, August 2018. Photo by Beth Leahy
Getting comfy in
It's hard to overestimate the importance of a well-padded derriere.
Shocked face emoji.
No, I have not joined the Kardashian Klan. I'm talking about my new sailing shorts. It's been a long and torturous road to get there, but all's right with the nether regions now.
You have to understand just how hard the seating is on our little racing sailboat, and how long some of the races are. As I've written before, this isn't heading-off-into-the-sunset-with-a-bottle-of-wine sailing. This is bare-knuckled combat, with friends turning to mortal enemies against the picturesque backdrop of Sandy Bay in Rockport, Mass.
We sail a 19-foot boat called a Flying Scot, and there's no cushioning at all. In addition, one's, er, hind end is often hanging ("hiking") off the side of the boat (the "rail") and that's not exactly comfortable either.
I actually bought these same shorts, called Zhik Deckbeaters, a couple of years ago. I tried them on and thought they were too small. Then I doubled down on stupid by wearing them on the boat and realizing that if I actually wanted to breath I needed a larger size.
Now it was too late to send them back, so I gave them away (sadly) and tried wearing my biking shorts, which were helpful but not great.
Then I bought some padded shorts that were designed for people who were ultrathin because of illness. These somewhat freakish things were padded on all sides and wearing them felt, well, horrible. Plus, my husband made fun of me. Back to the biking shorts.
Then this year Covid happened and the world turned upside down. One of the positives of this time for me has been an increased willingness to say yes to things I might previously have said no to or put off--improving the landscaping in my yard, for instance, or buying a new piece of patio furniture. Our lives have been changed and limited in so many ways it's no wonder that we're all looking for comfort where we can find it.
So I re-ordered the shorts.
It's true that I spent about twice what I would have if I had only sent the first pair back and not bought the weird medical ones. That no longer mattered. It was time to admit defeat and get what I actually wanted and needed.
My new Deckbeaters are perfect. They're going to last for years. They're padded where they have to be, and grippy where they need to be. They keep me happy during the longest races and allow me to hike like crazy. We actually won a race for the first time in a couple years, and I fully credit the shorts.
Look at it this way. Every day we are told to buckle up and prepare for a rough ride. If that's true, then why shouldn't I be as comfortable as possible for the trip?
This article was originally published in the Daily News of Newburyport, Massachusetts, September 2020
IMPORTANT UPDATE: GUESS WHO WON MOST IMPROVED SAILOR IN OUR FLEET THIS YEAR? YEP, THAT WOULD BE ME. IS THERE NOTHING THESE SHORTS CAN'T DO??
Important update #2: The nice people at ZhikAustralia liked this article enough to feature me on their Facebook and Instagram feeds. Thank you Zhik! Now about that free trip to Australia...
Fear conquered in the waves
"Big wave big wave BIG WAVE!"
It was our second day of sailing in the Flying Scot North American Championships in Westport, Connecticut. I had been told that the worst problem with sailing in Long Island Sound during July is usually a lack of wind-instead we had stormy grey skies, 18 knot winds with gusts to 25, and 4-foot seas.
These conditions were unlike anything I had ever encountered. Heading straight into the waves, our 19-foot boat Talk like a Pirate rose and fell with stomach-churning slams. Going sideways to them heeled us over dangerously. In either direction bucketloads of water drenched us to the skin almost continuously.
Heading out of the harbor, things hadn't seemed so bad, but the minute we hit open water the real conditions became apparent. Any mistake could result in immediate capsize, a broken boom, collision with another boat, or one of us being flung out of the cockpit into the water.
"I don't know if I can do this!" I shouted to my husband David, gripping the jib and shroud lines like grim death.
"Try it! Just one race! You can do this!" he shouted back.
"Nooo," I moaned, sobbing slightly. Then I gave myself a mental shake. The truth was, I wasn't afraid. I trusted my skipper. And if I didn't do my job as crew to the absolute best of my ability, using everything I had learned over the last ten years of sailing, I would put us both in real danger. My husband needed me, I needed him, and together we could do this.
So I hung on, moving from one side of the boat to the other as we tacked, yelling back when the waves in front of looked like something out of The Perfect Storm. Sailboat races have both upwind and downwind sections, called legs, and while sailing upwind was absolutely savage, sailing downwind, while seeming less scary, was actually more dangerous. The waves can push the boat faster than the actual wind speed and cause the front, or bow, of the boat, to be pushed under the water, causing the rudder to come up and control to be lost.
"Get back, get back!" David shouted as we surfed down one enormous wave after another, and water cascaded over the front of the boat. I scrambled aft and the bow came back up. We finished the race and wave by wave, made it back to the harbor like a rocket ship, soaked, battered and for me at least, utterly exhilarated.
The two days of sailing that followed could not have been more different--nearly flat seas, and so little wind that most boats were towed in and out of the race course like baby ducks in a line. But these light wind conditions, which require the extreme patience that Skipper David has in abundance, favored our skills. We won second place out of more than 20 boats in our division on both days.
I'm a better sailor today than I was a week ago. I'm unlikely to see those extreme conditions again soon, but now I know I can handle them. Doing scary things is hard, but it's how we grow stronger, as sailors, and as people.
This article was originally published in the Daily News of Newburyport, July 2021
More fun things I learned
at the Flying Scot
-That you can eat a peanut butter sandwich with one hand and trim the jib (poorly) with the other, all while under starter's orders.
pic by Art Petrosemolo and Marilyn Archibald, 100% photoshopped
-That it's possible to eat breakfast at McDonald's for three days in a row and not die (for crews that need a little extra weight, I recommend the apple fritter AND the sweet roll, also either could be used ballast in a pinch)
-That time really does stand still when it takes you approximately 15 minutes to go 20 feet trying to cross the finish line in zero wind (pro-tip: blowing frantically at the sails doesn't really help, believe me, don't ask me how I know).
How it felt trying to cross the finish line on Wednesday, in random web images
-That sometimes it's necessary to spend time at a laundromat because you sailed in a cyclone and all the clothing that you need for the next day has been soaked with salt water repeatedly. I recommend Dirty Laundry in Norwalk, CT for its cool vibe and Facebook-friendly presence (of course I friended them! Why wouldn't I?).
-That wearing the camo shirt really does bring you luck and now you have to wear it for every race for the rest of your natural life, however long or short that may be and there is no alternative and no one can tell you otherwise, don't try, LALALALALA
-That when a lovely man named Chris Cookson who sails a boat called Foot Off brings you a beer after the last race, and it's approximately 10,000 degrees out and you're hotter than ever been in your life, it's the best beer you've ever drunk (even though you spill quite a bit on your already soaked camo shirt)
-That you can't wait for the next regatta because Flying Scot sailors really are the best.
photo by Art Petrosemolo, hearts by yours truly
Timing is everything:My five days at North U.
The watch is blue and black, the face comically large with a multitude of buttons and a huge digital read-out. It is my entire world now. There is nothing more important at this moment than this watch.
Nine other boats jostle for position as we head for the starting line. The waves are high and the wind is screaming. Coach Mark is rapping out instructions and commands to our four-person crew.
"TIME! I need the time!" He yells to me.
"20 SECONDS!" I shout back, my eyes glued to the watch face; my alpha, my omega, my everything. "15! 10!" I count down to zero, straining my throat. The starting horn blares. The boat turns, leaps forward and now we're racing. My crewmates get some chuckles out of my monomaniacal focus on the watch, but after messing up a few times at the beginning, I am determined to do at least this right.
We are at North U., a five-day seminar sponsored by North Sails in St. Thomas, USVI. The water is gorgeously aquamarine, the palm trees green and graceful, but our attention is less on those than on the many finer points of sailboat racing. There are ten coaches, and about 40 participants from all over the country, including an all-woman team from Boston Blind Sailing, which pairs blind and visually impaired sailors and guides.
All the boats are IC-24s (modified J24s for those who know sailing). Ours is named Desperado, which describes my state of mind at certain points. In addition to me and husband Archie, our team consists of Steve from Chicago and Mike from Connecticut, both gentlemen and very good sailors. Our coach is Mark Laura, a retired airline pilot, world-class sailing champion and former US Olympic team coach, whose accomplishments would take up all the space I have here and more. As on Survivor, this is our tribe, and we quickly have each other's backs.
The first few days are about practicing techniques and learning to work as a team. After that, it is all racing, all the time. We also have classroom lectures by the dryly humorous and super-knowledgeable Bill Gladstone, director of North U., at lunch and before dinner (it's possible there are some adult beverages consumed at this point).
Coach Mark is a passionate teacher. He is lavish with praise when we do something right and gentle but steely with corrections when we err. It matters to him that we learn and do well, and he wants us to win. Also this kind of sailing isn't child's play--ten 3000 lb-plus boats are sailing very fast in close proximity to one another. People can get hurt.
The weather adds to the challenge, with wind speeds increasing each day and plenty of tropical downpours. At one point, a brief but fierce squall hits the fleet with sideways-slanting rain and 30-knot winds. On another day, in gusty breezes and big waves, we broach--the boat goes sideways. I'm not much of a sailor compared to the good people, but it's a testament to how far I've come that I was not afraid during either of these moments. Wet maybe, but not afraid.
But on Sunday, the last day of the clinic, the wind is predicted to be consistently 18-20 knots, gusting higher. I tell Mark on Saturday at lunch that I'm not sure I can handle it. He says it's my decision, but I can tell that he's disappointed in me. Dang it, I'M disappointed in me. I decide right then that there is no way I'm going to let my team down, even if my most valuable contribution is yelling out the time.
I'm there on Sunday, and I realize I wouldn't have missed it for anything. We finish up the clinic in very respectable fashion, with a lot of good races and finishes, new friends, and more confidence than we know what to do with. Or maybe that's just me.
Turns out that most of the important points in sailboat racing --watch the sky, don't be late, break away from the pack, communicate with your team, drink lots of water, and don't be a marshmallow*--can be applied to life in general. We would all do well to keep them in mind as we navigate through our days. Meanwhile, my touchstone, my Hope Diamond, my love, my hate, my nemesis--my sailing watch--is sitting on the kitchen counter. I'm torn between never wanting to see it again or framing it and hanging it on my mantle.
What the heck, I think I'll go buy a frame.
*Marshmallow: (Sailing slang) A soft target or pushover, one who can be taken advantage of and will not defend their position; ideal to start next to in races. Some sailors say that if you can't SEE the marshmallow, you ARE the marshmallow.
This article was published in the Daily News of Newburyport, March 14, 2022
Back, left to right: Coach Mark, Mike, Archie.
Front: Marilyn, Steve (photo by Angela O'Donnell)
Finding my people at Sandy Bay
On Labor Day Monday I sat on a plastic chair inside the cozy confines of Sandy Bay Yacht Club in Rockport for the annual sailing awards ceremony. This event was usually held out on the dock, but the weather was wet for the first time all summer and most of us were inside. The space is a small one, with a stone fireplace and a tall wood-beamed ceiling. The walls are covered with burgees--colorful pennants from many other yacht clubs.
Normally being inside on a wet day would seem a little depressing but not today. I looked around me and wondered why this ceremony seemed so special and different and it hit me-fifty or sixty people were crowded together, elbow to elbow in a single room. I realized how much I had missed occasions like this, and how good it felt to be physically present with others.
Tiny little Sandy Bay has been our beacon of normalcy during Covid. My husband and I often said-only half kidding--that if the rest of the world had handled Covid the way SBYC did, we would have all been better off. The club could have cancelled all sailing and racing for two years but they found ways to make things happen, thanks to the hard work and cool heads of many dedicated board members, volunteers and staffers. Socials and official get-togethers were cancelled but we all got out on the water and what a joy that was, when so much else in life had simply vanished.
And now we were back together. I looked around the room and thought about my 30-plus years there. I mused about how many people I knew there, how welcoming everyone had always been to me, how welcoming there were to all newcomers. But I was practically a rookie-my husband, at nearly 70, had known some of these people his entire life. I remembered how just the day before my sailing competitors and I had joked about our advanced ages. We laughed about the fact that we were practically spring chickens compared to other sailors, past and present, still out on the water in their 80s and 90s. We all agreed that we would just keep doing what we were doing, and hopefully we would end up like those legends.
I thought about the many connections among the people sitting in that room, and it made me recall a National Institutes of Health study I had run across recently confirming that social connection is literally crucial to life.
Titled "Social Relationships and Mortality Risk-a Meta-Analytic Review," the authors state their findings plainly: "The quality and quantity of individual's social relationships has been linked not only to mental health but also to both morbidity and mortality...the magnitude of this effect is comparable with quitting smoking and exceeds many other well-known risk factors for mortality...Individuals do not exist in isolation" The authors go on to recommend that doctors and health professionals take the importance of social relationship factors as seriously as they do other risk factors such as diet and exercise.
Individuals do not exist in isolation, but we know this, don't we? We know this in our hearts, and always have. In "How to Navigate Life," her best-selling book about finding and creating purpose, Belle Liang Ph.D., (with her co-author Timothy Klein) frequently uses the phrase "your people," which she defines as "your kids, your parents, your significant others, your coworkers, your friends." She writes that "In a world that is both more connected and more isolating than ever, we're often tempted to do life on our own. Finding your people is finding those who share deep core values."
"Your people"-your circle of social connection, the ties that make a full tapestry of life. Can we live without "our people"? We can, but we lose so much of what makes life the joyful, challenging, messy and ultimately rich affair that it's supposed to be. It's certainly possible to live a stripped-down life with limited social interaction, but it's a sterile choice. It's also one that incurs its own risk factors, as the authors of the study regarding mortality cited above note.
The awards ceremony was nearly over. I was reaching for my jacket when I heard my name and snapped to attention. Steve Ouellette, race committee chair and the ceremony moderator, was speaking about my writing and how I had documented my improvement as a sailor over time. He named me as this year's winner of the Race Committee Chairman's award for outstanding crew.
My mouth fell open and tears sprang to my eyes as I accepted the trophy and hugged it to my chest. My cup was truly running over now.
May you all find your own kind of Sandy Bay, and may you find--and embrace--your people.
Belle Liang is a professor of counseling and educational psychology at Boston College and a licensed clinical psychologist. The authors of the Mortality Risk study are Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy Smith and J. Bradley Layton.