Climbing the Sea

A story of adventure and triumph by a first-year sailing student.
Placeholder Contact Profile Michael Roessler
March 17, 2015

The bow rose and fell. At times the water hit against the fiberglass hull to make a low thud noise then frothed and hissed like soda bubbles as it dispersed in white foam around us.

The sun shone behind us as we sailed out of Port Madison toward Shilshole. It was another one of those days on the Sound when one could see both the Olympics to the West and the Cascades to the East. Clouds ringed the summer snow on the peaks of Mount Rainier and Mount Baker.

“Swing wide around Point Monroe, there’s a sand bar there, then prepare to come about,” said our captain. He deliberately pronounced Monroe with all the emphasis on the first syllable, like Magua calling Colonel Munro in Last of the Mohicans.

The crew of Mountaineers reacted instantly by taking up stations at the port and starboard winches, lines in hand and a winch handle at the ready. We paused, not to think, but to absorb with all our senses – like a top rope belayer just before taking up a climber’s weight. We could anticipate needs and dispatch them according to our training. We were a team.

“Helm’s a-lee!” I yelled and turned the boat’s wheel.

We released the working line and monitored the jib’s travel around the mast. I could hear the rapid, high pitched, metallic clicking of the winch gears spinning as my crew mate drew in the line. She reversed directions on the winch handle with perfect timing to shape the jib sail and to make taut the line. I adjusted the wheel to bring us up wind slightly to maximize our forward speed. 

Another crew mate watching from the starboard winch signaled for my attention. “There’s a large patch of seaweed and leaves off the bow,” he said. I had to squat low to peer under the jib to see the water directly in front of the bow. I threw the wheel to starboard just in time to clear a patch of unknown debris.

“That’s what we want” our captain said, looking right at me, “We want you to make decisions, to use what we have taught you. This is why you take the sailing class!” He put his hand up in the air and smacked it against mine.

Six weeks earlier, I had entered the Mountaineers sailing class with no previous experience. At the beginning, the sailing vocabulary had seemed like a foreign language to me. The course introduced me to sailing by starting in the classroom. We practiced tacking a boat as a team by using a working model with sails, lines, and winches – each of us learned every station under the tutelage of an experienced skipper. We could make mistakes safely as we learned and drilled.

We practiced at the dock, and grew in our awareness of what might be expected and required out on the water. Once the actual sailing began, we realized that we had a number of skippers available to choose from, each of whom donated their time and their boats to our learning. Some were skilled in reading the wind and the sails, others in nautical navigation, and yet others were patient and gracious teachers. Together, they formed a significant asset to our learning.

For me, personally, being a Mountaineer means a search for new and challenging outdoor experiences. It means a constant effort to learn new skills. Mountaineers share a visceral, almost physical, appreciation of our world that leads us into the outdoors. Now, I wanted to learn to extend this passion out onto the water – to open a door not just for myself, but also for my family.

The Mountaineers sailing course offered the opportunity to learn new sailing skills, practice them with a group of Mountaineers and experienced sailors, then apply them myself on my family’s boat as an increasingly competent skipper. Like the mountains during my youth, the sea switched suddenly from a border to a path for adventure, expression, and enjoyment. Befitting my role as a Mountaineer and a father, my own growth and acquired skills meant I could share and teach others to develop themselves.

Several of the skippers offered help beyond the course schedule.

“If you need something, call us,” they said. Most of them made suggestions for sailing destinations, secret crabbing hotspots, and island getaways.

“You’re one of us, now,” they said.

For some reason I felt something that made me shake from the inside. I think you call it gratitude.

Our captain smiled at all of us. He said, “Think you can sail exactly downwind?” He didn’t wait for an answer. He jumped forward and grabbed the sail. “We’re going to sail wing on wing,” he said.

We turned downwind and glided – a gentle way to sail. We opened food and began to eat as the setting sun shone through the peaks of the Cascades.

We were now a part of the wind. The wheel needed only slight attention to maintain course. My crew mates, some now friends, made a plate and passed it over the wheel to me.

Someone asked, “So what are you planning to do with your new sailing skills?”

Without hesitation, “I’m thinking about sailing my family up the Inside Passage,” I said with a smile.

Michael Roessler is a graduate of The Mountaineers Basic Sailing course, offered every spring. The course includes four lectures, an “on the dock” session and two “on the water” sails. Once graduated, you qualify for free Mountaineers sail activities. Classes start this year on March 30 in Seattle and April 6 in Tacoma. Click on the “learn” tab to sign up

For more information about the Seattle sailing group, visit mtnsailing.wordpress.com.

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