Sailing Lesson in Newport Harbor

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to learn to sail. There’s something romantically exhilarating about the thought of sailing to exotic destinations around the world. Relying on the elements and pure power of nature to push you to your destination. Leaving yourself vulnerable to moving as fast or as slow as the universe desires. (Not that we have a choice in the matter otherwise.) So when my husband asked me what I wanted as an anniversary gift, I told him I wanted sailing lessons.

We were advised to meet our instructor, George, at a small boat dock on Via Lido Sound on Lido Island, which was another surprising discovery all on its own. I had been to Balboa Island, though never realized there were many more smaller islands in Newport Beach connected by foot bridges in tucked away pockets. Residents on some of these islands have golf carts to take them over to their cars on the other side of the bridge.

As we waited for George, we observed some children with their parents putting together their small sailboats. One boy, Justin, who looked to be 8 years old, launched his own boat and sailed himself to the Lido Island Yacht Club for a competition. I was amazed at his expertise at such a young age. I could barely swim at that age and here he was sailing his own boat.

We had our first set of instructions while docked as George explained the parts of the boat.

“Port has four letters and so does Left,” he said. “So the left side of the boat is the Port and the right side of the boat is Starboard. Whoever has the tiller, Jeff on the Port and Jennifer on the Starboard side, is important to note. If the wind is coming from the Port, Jeff will have the tiller. If the wind is coming from Starboard, Jennifer will have the tiller. When you’re passing other sail boats, Starboard Tack always has the right of way. Motorized boats will give sailboats the right of way, since they have more ability to move around you. People on stand up paddle boards or kayaks will always have the right of way.”

As we pushed off and made our way out into the harbor, George pointed out the Jib (front) and Main Sail as well as his green and red strings tied to show the direction of the wind.

“When you’re Close Hauled, like we are now, you want to be 45 degrees to the wind,” he noted as he pointed the angle of the strings. “If you’re Loose Hauled, then it’s more like 60 degrees.” As he explained this, he changed the tension in the ropes on the main sail and jib.

Full Sail
Full wind in our sails.

The tiller steered the boat in the opposite direction we would push it.

“The letter B is for butt, when I say Bear Away, pull the tiller toward you,” George advised. “When I say Fall Off, push the tiller away from you. You don’t want the sail to Luff. Luffing is when it flaps like a flag in the wind so steer with the wind to keep your sails full.”

I took the tiller first. As we headed out into the harbor, we were Winward (toward the wind). Fairly soon thereafter, the wind changed directions and we were Leeward (away from the wind).

“You’ve just learned the first rule in sailing,” advised George. “The wind is always changing. Sometimes it’s strong, sometimes it’s soft, and the direction is always moving.”

Jenn Sailing
Learning to sail and having a blast!

No sooner had he said that, the wind died. As in no movement. We sat floating for a few minutes as George pointed at the ripples in the water and where we could see pockets of wind and pockets of stillness based on the surface of the water.

He then showed us how to Tack, which is a 90 degree turn. Whoever had the tiller (we’ll call Sailor #1) would say, “Prepare to Tack.” Sailor #2 would say, “Ready.” Sailor #1 would then Fall Off, which would shift the main sail over, while Sailor #2 would unhook the jib sail rope and give a lot of slack for Sailor #1 to haul in the jib sail close. Sailor #2 would then take the helm and man the tiller.

We practiced all of these as we tootled around the harbor visiting various islands I’d never heard of, some only with five houses, and heard stories of the Hollywood stars that owned some of the magnificent homes back in the day. We saw Roy Rogers old house and Gene Autry’s and John Wayne’s. George told us some terrible jokes that we couldn’t help but chuckle at. He also gave us a lot of his life background growing up in the area, his marriage and subsequent divorce, all the various jobs he’s held in his life that had brought him to this career choice. He was a kind gentleman, who looked to be in his early 70s, with skin leathered by years of the sun reflecting off the water.

Waiting for a wind while George paddled with the tiller.

The sun warmed our skin as well. The sky was clear, the temperature was a perfect 75 degrees, and it was a beautiful day for a sail. Too bad the wind didn’t really want to cooperate. We spent a lot of time just sitting and waiting for a breeze…so much so that what was supposed to be an hour and a half lesson became a more than three hour lesson. (In fact, we enjoyed a few rounds of singing the Gilligan’s Island theme song “A Three Hour Tour.”) All because of Rule #1. The good news is that we had a lot of practice with repetition at a slow pace. I prefer to learn that way.

Jeff & I
Jeff and I taking turns at the tiller.

The terms we had the toughest time with learning was Lift versus Header. A header is when you get hit by a headwind, which you don’t want and it usually veers you off course. A lift is what you want.

He started with a corny joke to explain this concept. “A lift, not an uber, is the opposite of a header.” From then on, every time he asked us what a lift was we responded with, “Not an uber.” It got to be so comical that the harder we tried not to think of Uber, the more that was the only answer that popped in our head when he quizzed us. It then became so ridiculous that we were always laughing as he would chide us about failing the lesson until we could learn the difference between a header and a lift.

George and Jeff
George using the tiller as a paddle to get us back to the dock.

The lack of wind caused us to fall far behind schedule, and George was very late for his next lesson, so he shifted the tiller back and forth to paddle us faster back to the dock. I joked that he needed some oars for us to paddle and he said, “That would be too embarrassing. Although I do have them in case of emergencies.”

As George got a workout, Jeff and I enjoyed the view. We noticed a few pockets of sailing lessons led by the local junior colleges. I made a mental note to research the cost of taking a more formal course. I would absolutely take another lesson if given the opportunity. I had a blast, and have a hunch that buying one of these smaller sailboats might not be too far-fetched of a goal.

You may see us sailing on weekends in the coming year!

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