Smooth? Sailing | HumorOutcasts

Smooth? Sailing

July 26, 2018

I don’t know who coined the expression “smooth sailing,” but I do know it wasn’t any sailor.

I’ve been sailing four times, all paid lessons off Hilton Head Island when I was in my teens. My family’s custom was to take a one-week beach vacation every summer, and my father liked to schedule some special activity to make the week memorable. It’s been about 45 years since I took the lessons, and I have to admit, I’ve never forgot.

On the first day of sailing school, I was told that I’d be going solo, which meant there’d be no instructor in the boat, only 5 other teenagers, a couple of whom had sailed a little before. I wondered since they were paying for lessons just as I was, why they’d be considered qualified teachers, and it seemed to me that going solo would be more appropriately scheduled for the end of the week, not on my very first day. Imagine if you signed up for, say, welding lessons and on your first day you were told you’d be using a powerful acetylene torch without an actual teacher present. “Here’s the torch. Here’s the metal. Have fun!” That’s how I felt.

I and the 5 other kids in our small sailboat were towed through a channel and then released into Calibogue Sound. Calibogue Sound? More like Calibogue Unsound. You see, as we sailed with the wind, we got closer and closer to leaving the sound and entering the open Atlantic Ocean. We tried to turn the boat around several times, but it didn’t work. The technical description for our failure was that the boat didn’t “jibe.” I’ll tell you what didn’t jibepaying money for a lesson and then being abandoned to die in the open sea. That’s what didn’t flippin’ jibe. Finally, one of the other teens remembered we had to pull up the center board to turn, so I survived to a second lesson.

The next day, there was an adult qualified sailing instructor in the boat, which gave me hope I’d have a less life-threatening experience this time. The teacher said that the breezy weather was ideal; we were in for a real treat. What I learned on this second day is that what’s meant by “ideal sailing” is the situation in which the boat is on its edge at about, I’d say, an 80 degree angle to the water such that it is just about to flip over. For an analogy, imagine you drove your car around a corner so fast that 2 tires lifted off the pavement and that observers then told you, “Now that is some ideal driving. Don’t you feel exhilarated? Don’t you feel free?” I felt free all right. Free to drown in Calibogue Sound. Free to be eaten by sharks. Free to swim back to shore, if I could make it, and hike my drenched self back to the rental house.

At first as we were careening through the sound, I was on the low side of the boat, which meant my head was only inches from dipping into the water. I thought I’d much prefer to be on the high sideuntil I actually was. On the high side, I was about 10 feet up in the air. We high-siders had to hook our feet and lean our bodies out as far as we could as human ballast. The higher we went, the more we had to stretch out and lean back. If we flipped, low-siders would enter the water first, but we high-siders had a lot farther to fall.

When I showed up for my fourth lesson, I was told that I’d be going (Oh, joy!) solo again. On this day we were not towed through the narrow channel between the marina and the sound even though the wind was blowing directly toward us, which meant we had to perform a technique known as tacking. “Tacking” essentially means zigzagging, which takes longer and requires a lot more work than sailing in a straight line. Tacking involves coordinated pulling of ropes (or “sheets” as sailors insanely call them) to move the jib sail so that it catches enough wind to pull the boat from the zig direction to the zag direction. If you don’t pull the ropes fast enough, you lose the wind, fail to have enough speed to turn or what’s called “come about,” and you end up stuck on the bank in the stinking mud for like the tenth time. The boat didn’t come about. And I’ll tell you what else didn’t come aboutany desire to ever again risk the muck-sticking, death-threatening fiasco that some people with sick senses of humor sadistically call “sailing.” That’s what by God didn’t come about.

My father had paid for me to have 5 lessons, but when the fifth day arrived, I let that little opportunity just sail on by.


My thanks to Wildacres Retreat, where this essay was written.

Bill Spencer

Bill Spencer's humor writing has been published by Funny Times, Narrative magazine, Reader's Digest, The Sun, The Inconsequential, Clever magazine, Defenestration, The Short Humour Site, Hobo Pancakes, and Nuthouse. He has also published scholarly articles on the novels of Cormac McCarthy and is co-author of an unproduced screenplay, "Angel Pays a Visit." He lives in a cabin in the mountains of North Carolina with his wife, artist-poet Carolyn Elkins.

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8 Responses to Smooth? Sailing

  1. Bill Y "The Legendary Legend" Ledden
    July 29, 2018 at 8:41 am

    Be thankful that you didn’t have the acetylene torch on the boat.

    • Bill Spencer
      July 29, 2018 at 8:58 am

      It was practically torch-er.

  2. July 27, 2018 at 5:21 pm

    Good one! You nailed that last line.

    • Bill Spencer
      July 27, 2018 at 8:24 pm

      Thank you, Roz.

  3. July 26, 2018 at 10:16 am

    I was at a diner on the dock yesterday that was next to a sailing school. They were teaching people what to do if they tip over–during Shark Week? I did take a lesson on a lake and that seemed a little calmer. This was so funny!

    • Bill Spencer
      July 26, 2018 at 11:06 am

      Tipping over is EXPECTED!

  4. John Spencer
    July 26, 2018 at 9:29 am

    Great writing and lots of details about the sailing school, Bill!
    I left my hearing aids at the rental house because I was convinced that I would be in the water in no time on a sinkable sail boat! My hearing aids would either be at the bottom of the ocean or water-damaged beyond repair! Great memories! 😂

    • Bill Spencer
      July 26, 2018 at 10:06 am

      Did you ever have to go solo, John?

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