By Jeffrey James Higgins
Published January 25, 2019
The sailboat’s white hull reflected the sun—the bleached fiberglass glowing atop the murky waters of the Potomac River—offering the ancient promise of escape, relaxation, and adventure. Behind me, the Washington Monument towered over the heart of western civilization and the venue of my responsibilities, yet the currents before me flowed downriver to the Chesapeake Bay, to sensations of water and wind, to the unknown. This sailboat would deliver me to nature and remind me of the fragility of life and what it means to be human.
Thus began my first sailing lesson in almost forty years.
Last year, I retired after twenty-five years of law enforcement and more than a decade investigating narco-terrorism around the world. It was a career where I wrestled a suicide bomber, battled terrorists, and was targeted with rockets, bullets, and hatred. I had returned to my roots as a writer, but the pressures of deadlines and rejection brought their own stress. Most jobs don’t involve life and death decisions, but all carry the tensions of modern life leaving everyone in need of a respite.
The sailing school in Alexandria, Virginia provided a basic sailing course where adults were certified in one weekend. Certifications by either the American Sailing Association or US Sailing allowed students to rent sailboats at most marinas across the country, providing sailors a chance to revert to a pre-modern time when maritime exploration was powered by the wind. Students learned on Flying Scots—nineteen-foot sailboats with a main mast, jib sail, and room for four inside a small cockpit.
I traveled in a motorized skiff with my fellow student—Ali—and our instructor—Peter—to our sailboat moored just offshore. A minute later, I grabbed the Flying Scot’s wire forestay with one hand and stepped onto the bow, causing the boat to dip under my weight. The fiberglass deck was firm, but the hull bobbed in water and my world balanced between solid and liquid matter. I shuffled aft, stepped into the cockpit, and felt the river lapping the deck below my feet.
Sailing was a world of water and wind.
Ali and I unfurled the mainsail and pulled the foot of the sail along the boom. We tightened the tension with the outhaul and then ran the luff edge of the sail up the mast, pulling the halyard until the sail head reached the top. We hanked the smaller jib sail to the forestay with small brass clips then cleated the lines to keep them in place. The stays, shrouds, sheets, and halyards were all part of the rigging. Just saying “rigging” made me feel nautical. The arcane sailing jargon came back to me like the lost language of childhood and I hoped I would remember the basic physics and techniques as well. Sailing required equal parts art and science to capture the wind and convert it to power.
It was fifty-seven degrees and sunny, with a four mile-per-hour wind blowing out of the Southeast. Wind speed and direction suddenly became critical after having gone unnoticed for most of my life. Ali took control of the tiller and we fell off the wind forty-five degrees onto a starboard tack, an angle known as “close hauled.” Our speed increased immediately beneath the taught sails and we headed downriver, not fast, but under sail nonetheless. I felt an instant connection to my ancestors—Viking and Phoenician mariners—who once rode the winds around the world.
Sailing was tradition.
Soon it was my turn to switch with Ali and take the helm. I tacked back and forth, guiding the tiller with my right hand and pulling the sheet to trim the mainsail with my left. There is a perfect angle in sailing, where the sails aren’t too loose to luff or overly taught, and constant attention is required to maintain it—a process of pleasurable, tactile sensations and soulful joy. The wind picked up and our boat heeled over as it accelerated. We came about, jibing away from the wind into a broad reach, then ran with the sails all the way out. The sun warmed me, damp air cooled my face, and my stress melted away. Sailing was work and leisure, relaxation and danger, concentration and detachment. It was meditation through concentration.
Sailing was happiness.
The shore grew in my vision as we approached the marina, our sails full of wind and our hull seamlessly cutting through the water. We passed a channel marker named “Bob” (sailors have unique humor) and our Peter took the tiller, expertly steering us around moored boats. We came about, pointing the bow into the wind to cut our speed, and glided up to the wooden dock. We dropped the sails and I felt like a child putting my toys away before bedtime. I stepped onto the dock and the firmness of land snapped me out of my reverie, but I was halfway to my certification.
The next morning was cloudy and cool, with northwest winds gusting over thirty miles-per-hour. I checked the nautical forecast and saw a small craft advisory, but a message from the marina said the lesson was still planned. I needed to practice man-overboard and docking drills to complete my certification, so I went. At the marina I stood onshore and watched whitecaps flickering on the crests of waves. At least sunburn wouldn’t be a problem.
Ali and I had a new instructor, Scott, who joked the boat was named after him (more nautical humor) He drilled us on the parts of the boat: batten, daggerboard, leech, backstay, gooseneck, boom vang—the new jargon seemed unending. Learning to sail was to adopt a foreign language and a nautical culture peppered with rules for etiquette and survival. We hauled up a smaller mainsail than we used the previous day to reduce the power of the wind. The canvas flapped angrily in the swirling air currents, yanking the boom back and forth, like the boat wanted us to get off.
Scott guided us out through the marina then gave the tiller to Ali. We executed quick up and back movements aiming for channel markers and moorings, but the wind changed direction repeatedly—northeast, then northwest, then west, and back to north. We could see the gusts coming across the water, scrambling the surface as they approached then violently pushing our sails and heeling the boat. I gave Ali a look that said we were crazy to be out here.
Sailing was excitement.
“Which sail would you use if he came out here by yourself on a day like today?” Scott asked.
“I wouldn’t go out on the water on a day like today,” I said.
After forty-five minutes of fighting the elements, I saw the other boats with instructors and students heading back to the dock. They were having a tough time making it back against thirty-three mile-per-hour gusts and I watched one of the boats seek refuge beside a slip near the dock.
“This is nuts,” I said.
Scott agreed and took the helm to navigate back to the dock. He tacked back and forth, narrowly missing boats in the marina, battling to get us to safety. The wind changed direction and Scott aborted our approach to the dock. We came about, moving away from the wind, but a moored sailboat was in our path and Scott turned into a beam reach to avoid it. A strong gust blew across our port side and filled our mainsail. Our boat heeled radically to starboard at an unrecoverable angle and I looked down at the water.
“Oh, shit,” Scott said.
Our Flying Scott rolled over past ninety degrees and I stood up, grabbed the gunwale with left hand, and watched the sails splash into the river. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ali and Scott flying through the air and into the brown water. My momentum carried me forward and I stepped onto the sail, soaking my feet, but I kept hold of the gunwale and pulled myself back into the boat. Ali and our instructor splashed in the frigid water behind me. I tossed life preservers to them and waited for help from the dock. This man-overboard drill was more realistic than I’d anticipated.
Within minutes, a marina employee plucked them from the water and together, we righted the Flying Scot and were towed back to the dock. Cold and shivering, we called it a day and decided to reschedule the last session of our certification.
Sailing was unpredictable.
I returned the following week to finish my docking drills with George, the Marina owner. It was a beautiful, seventy-five degree morning, with nine to twelve mile-per-hour winds blowing out of the South—the perfect conditions for a sail. Two high school students joined me for the lesson and we took turns practicing approaches to a floating dock, timing our tacks and luffing at the last minute to cut our speed. Our instructor hopped off onto the dock and we each made our first solo runs, sailing without instruction.
When we finished, I took the helm again and sailed back to the marina to dock the boat—the hardest part of a sail. I navigated through the moored boats, turned to avoid shore, and sailed a close reach to within ten yards of the dock. I turned radically to starboard and faced the wind, putting the boat into irons. The sails luffed, decreasing our speed, and we coasted to the dock. It wasn’t perfect, but I did it. I was officially a sailor.
I disembarked and walked toward the office, back to the land of mortgage payments, alarm clocks, and commitments. I stopped for a moment and looked out at the water, so close to the city, but another world—one of pleasure, risk, and self-determination. I turned away and headed back to my daily routine and the stress of modern life—at least until my next sail.