My friend took Fast Track at Cal Sailing a decade or more ago and still raves about it and Cal Sailing. So when I decided I wanted to learn to sail, I joined Cal Sailing in August of 2022. But when I decided I REALLY wanted to learn to sail, I joined Fast Track in June of 2023. It's the best thing I've done for myself since I moved back to California two years ago.
To be honest, I was really daunted by the class. I had taken a few classes at Cal Sailing, a similar class at Cal Adventures more than 20 years ago, sailed maybe 10 times on a keelboat in the last year, and a sprinkling of other sails, but I always seemed to go back to step one. Port or starboard? How do I shift my weight and hold the tiller at the same time? What is a vang? Pull in the what?? sigh.
In April 2023 I decided I would try to make it happen. I already missed the first (May) Fast Track but I hoped I could join the June one. I volunteered as a lessons coordinator and started to meet more people at the club. I signed up to volunteer at the May Fast Track (as a cook/cleaner) and liked the vibe. I read and reread the dinghy manual. I passed the online test. I watched the rigging video, coerced John B into giving a rigging lesson during a Thursday lesson, and watched the video again. I was getting close, but I still hadn't sailed much.
About two to three weeks before the June Fast Track I got the email: you are in if you can get the prereqs done. I signed up for the rigging test and got a few private lessons. The week before the class I was still hesitant, but I met the two Fast Track coordinators for June - Tim and Lucian - and they were so encouraging, I decided I didn't want to let another year go by and a chance to sail with nice people leading the way without taking this opportunity. I cleared my work schedule and jumped in.
I was super scared on Day 1, but I had two of the friendliest people at Cal Sailing teach me my first day (Dorian and Mike - thanks!). I felt like I was drinking from a firehose, but I loved it. We docked, and I remembered how to get the boats in safely from the dock and all the derigging and which made me feel more competent. Then I turned the corner to a total FEAST! What???!!! Not only do you get 3 hours of free sailing lessons, but you also get fabulous dinners for FREE. What is this place? And how did I get so lucky to stumble into it?? I kept going.
Over the next four days, I had 4 different instructors and went out with different students. Each day I learned something, each day I laughed, each day I felt cared for. Most days I capsized, and every day I loved it. At the end of Day 3, as always, the organizers asked me how it was going. "I feel like I'm making a little progress on everything but not major progress on anything". Lucian said something about not everyone needing to take the test to be a junior this week. I laughed (Junior test? No way, I didn't even think I would take the novice test). I wanted to learn a lot about sailing, try to get my junior rating this year so that I could sail in the keelboats, and decide (unlikely) if I liked sailing dinghies. I realized that night that I was having fun and I was starting to enjoy sailing the dinghies.
At dinner on night 3, I told the other student on my boat, Gina, that before class started, I wondered how I would manage to fit in exercise this week working all day and then sailing all night. But after day 2, I only wondered when I would get a nap in! Sailing is energetic, tiring, and fun! I was already exhausted on Day 3. We laughed together; she told me she took a nap every day!
On Thursday I got paired with Isabel, a student who said she was a "1 in every category" (i.e. a novice in everything), and Nicole, an instructor who seemed really serious. I thought to myself, oh boy, we are going to swim a lot today and we are probably going to disappoint the instructor a lot. Turns out I was partly right - we swam - but only because I capsized us when trying new things - and all of us still smiled and laughed the whole time. Isabel was also either lying or she was one of the quickest learners at Cal Sailing!
Nicole is a US Sailing-certified sailing instructor and a 20-year piano instructor, and it showed. She was one of the best instructors I've ever had at anything. She taught both of us to the ability we were at. She started the day really basic, showing us how to move in the boat, even simply where to put our feet when tacking and jibing, and that made a huge difference in balancing and moving quickly and efficiently. She watched me and gave me pointed advice - "you're dumping too much of the main". I fixed it. "Try trusting us more and wait a bit"...I did. "Don't move until the boat flattens". We did. She also pushed me to try new things at a pace that was right for me, e.g. let's do small circles. When I tried and flipped the boat immediately, her composure didn't change, instead, she moved us into the novice area to try again. She didn't use sailing terms when it was clear one of us didn't yet know them - left or right or port or starboard...she said them like we were all captains and terminology wouldn't get in the way if we weren't there yet. I found myself smiling, heeling over more and more, and gaining confidence. I felt like I had control of the boat. We lost Isabel on a capsize, and I captained a real crew overboard, easily and confidently stopping the boat next to her so she could hop back on. I brought in the boat four times to where it kissed the dock. Instructors mockingly joked that I was coming in too fast, as I stopped centimeters before the dock. I felt part of something. I couldn't stop smiling. I watched Isabel do some perfect casting off and docking and wondered if she was just a natural or if Nicole was really that good. I think it was both.
When we came in Nicole told me, Tim, and Lucian that I should take the test on Friday. I laughed. But when I showed up Friday, Lucian said this to me: if your instructor thinks you are ready, you are ready. Take the test. If you fail, your tester will tell you what you need to practice, and you can spend the rest of today or the next lessons practicing that. Plus you get to sail with a senior. Reluctantly I said yes.
The test didn't go perfectly, but I did feel in control of the boat. A few things happened that were unpredictable, but I managed to heave to or slow the boat till we could sort them out. When Nicho, my tester, asked me to do a capsize recovery, I realized how hard it was to intentionally capsize (it's like trying to fall while climbing - our instincts take over and we can’t do it!). So when I started to heel the boat over to capsize and Nicho jumped in, and I didn’t capsize, suddenly I had a real, live, senior sailor overboard! I wondered to myself if my tester was nervous - new students he didn't know well were at the helm, sailing away from him. But I knew I could do it - just go get him. I did the COB maneuver in what felt like textbook style and stopped the boat next to him. He hopped in and said, "Wow, nice job. That was perfect". I think that might be the reason I passed the test. But it also remains a moment that brings me joy each time I remember it. That was the first time that I ever felt like a skipper.
When we came in Nicho asked me how it went. I knew I made mistakes, but he told me this: “What we want is for you to take the boats out and bring them and your crew back safely. You proved to me that you could do that. You were in control of the boat the whole time”. When I thought about the test that day, and even just sailing the day before, I agreed. I could sail.
I went back out with another student to test that night and just enjoyed being on the water. Lucian saw me when we docked and asked how it went. All smiles all around. Dorian, my instructor from day one asked how my day was, and I told him I passed the test - he gave me a great big hug. Tim gave me a high five. That night I connected with a few women in the class, and we exchanged phone numbers to sail again soon. Gina met me in Mountain View at a work event the next day. After 2 years in the Bay Area, I not only learned how to sail, but I found community.
That night when I closed my eyes, the room was swaying, I had sea legs. I dreamed of sailing, of struggling, and of people helping me out. I can't wait to get back on the water and continue my journey. If you get the chance to join Cal Sailing, do it! If you get the chance to take a Fast Track - do it! If you can volunteer at the club - do it! You won't regret any of it.
-Christie, new Skipper June 2023
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