A landlubber recounts his all-hands-on-deck Mountaineers sailing course

Cruising around 7 knots, we turned past sea lions barking on the breakwater, a rock barrier that guards Seattle’s Shilshole Bay Marina from the waters of Puget Sound. Five of us were aboard Rhythm, a Cal 44 sailboat skippered by instructor Bill Ashby. After three weeks of classroom training with The Mountaineers, we were out to test our mettle as sailors.

Lights from Ray’s Boathouse shimmered on the water, growing smaller in our wake; soon, the sea lions were hardly audible. Ashby cut the power to Rhythm’s diesel motor and smiled at me.

“Alright, Corbin,” said Ashby, our volunteer sailing instructor, “want to help me hoist the main sail?”

I jumped from my seat, practically saluting, and followed Ashby forward, toward the front of the boat, the bow. He demonstrated how to grip the line and thrust downward with your whole body to make the main sail rise.

When my teacher handed me the line, I was surprised how much I struggled. But after a few disjointed tugs, the massive white canvas inched skyward and locked into place.

The Rhythm caught a breeze. The canvas luffed a bit, then pulled tight. We were sailing.

Joining the crew

Puget Sound is a sailor’s paradise. Our region features dozens of marinas and marine parks, plus 2,500 miles of nature-filled shoreline. You can go sailing in the waters around Seattle, while the adventurous can make a weekend trip to the San Juan Islands in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. For the truly daring, there’s the 500-mile run through the Inside Passage to Alaska.

My goals were more modest: I wanted to hit the water and learn the fundamentals.

As an Army veteran, a backpacker and a landlubber, sailing had longed piqued my interest, but it seemed inaccessible. What’s with all the knots? How does the wind push something that large? Where would I even begin?  

When my wife Jenna got me a camera as a birthday gift, my horizons widened. I started photographing orcas and gray whales passing by Edmonds, Mukilteo and Langley, and snapping shots of sailboats as they wandered into my viewfinder.

Internet searches led me to The Mountaineers. Founded in 1906 as an alpine climbing club, the well-known Seattle nonprofit offers a host of courses and activities for outdoors enthusiasts. For a $75 annual fee, you can try snowshoeing, rock climbing, practical astronomy and sailing.

The Mountaineers have seven branches around Washington, headquartered by their Seattle Program Center at Magnuson Park. Their teaching force is voluntary: For the sailing program, that meant learning from real skippers using their own boats.

“One of the things that we try and teach in the class is there’s a difference between being crew and being a passenger,” said Sara Schroeder, Seattle Mountaineers sailing committee chair. “You have to decide what you want to be. If you want to be a passenger, go rent a boat and go for a boat ride on somebody’s boat and just enjoy the water. But if you want to be crew, that’s what we’re trying to teach.”

For my $210 course fee, I received three separate three-hour blocks of classroom instruction at the Seattle Program Center over the course of a month. Students also get a length of rope to practice tying knots and a copy of “Basic Keelboat: The National Standard for Quality Sailing Instruction.”

Skippers taught safety fundamentals, basic marine terminology and the science of sailing. We got hands-on instruction with winches and clamps, and by the end of the course, I knew the difference between a beam reach and a close haul, referring to point of sail, the sailboat’s direction of travel relative. Leeward versus windward sailing. A square knot and a bowline.

After the classroom portion, we received on-the-dock instruction to get familiar with the different parts of a sailboat and their functions. Then it was time to sail.

Tacking on the Sound

With the Rhythm’s main sail fluttering in the breeze on that spring day, our crew began preparing the jib: the smaller, triangular-shaped sail attached near the bow. Once the jib was in place, we tried to tack toward a less windy spot, off Bainbridge Island near Port Madison.

Aside from spotting marine life or enjoying time on the water with friends, tacking is probably the most fun part of sailing. It’s the teamwork-involved process of turning toward and then through the wind to change the direction by which it hits the sails. Racers — there were many on that clear April evening — tack constantly, moving to and fro to maximize speed, almost like slalom skiing down the mountain.

With a student skipper steering at the sailboat’s helm, I grabbed the starboard winch, on Rhythm’s right side, while another student took the port winch on the left.

“Prepare to tack!” yelled our skipper. “Ready!” we replied.

The skipper rolled the wheel and Rhythm’s bow drifted toward Bainbridge. The boom pole holding the main sail lurched overhead; I furiously pulled the rope on my side. The jib came around and pulled taut, and after a few clockwise spins to tighten with my winch, we were tacking toward our destination.

Beaming, our crew held a steady, breezy clip toward the main channel. It hadn’t been the prettiest maneuver, but we had passed the first “test.”  

“To see those lightbulbs go on is really cool,” said Schroeder, the committee chair. “To see somebody finally relax into it instead of being afraid of it, that just takes practice.

“The thing about sailing is that it’s not going to come to you,” she said. “You have to go to it. And that’s the one thing we’re trying to teach people is if you want more, there really is some effort that is involved.”

It was twilight when we steered Rhythm back toward the marina. We’d been out on the water for three hours, dodging cargo ships and the fast-moving Victoria Clipper. At the helm, I tacked toward the West Point Lighthouse at Discovery Park.

Eventually, Ashby grabbed the wheel and restarted the motor. We folded the main sail back to the boom, fastened it, then tied the fenders onto the rail. Minutes later, Rhythm was resting secure in her slip.

Walking back toward my car on dry land, a single thought repeated in my head as my sea legs acclimated to solid earth: “I can’t wait to do that again.”

The Mountaineers Seattle Program Center

7700 Sand Point Way N.E., Seattle; 206-521-6001; $75 annual fee plus $210 course fee for basic sailing crew course; see mountaineers.org for a full course catalog.

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