Summertime in the Belgrades
July 15 – 21
Learnin' To Sail
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by Rod Johnson
Remember when you were a kid going to the sea shore — or perhaps a friend's camp on the lake? Remember the great fun jumping off the dock with your best buds, seeing people water skiing, fishing, and perhaps seeing a sailboat in the cove or out on the horizon? At that age and during the 1950s, we paid little or no attention to the strange craft with the white cloth hung all over the rigging. Our fun was focused on water play and dreams were of riding in a fast boat.
A couple or three years later when back at the lake again, a neighbor or your older cousin came by with what you were told was a "Sunfish" sailboat. You and the other kids got a chance to ride in or on it. Back at the dock the comments were mixed from "That was kind of neat" to "Weird, we tipped over when the wind gusted."
As the years passed into adulthood and life may have become more than full, we also began to realize that some of life's mysteries still needed solving. For some of us it may have been what makes a plane fly, and for others it could have been how can a sailboat move forward into the wind. For the latter, some may have purchased an instructional manual on how to sail, or perhaps taken some beginner lessons. For others, and speaking for my wife Doris and me, we took what might be known as the "country bumpkin method," which was essentially to get a sailboat, put up the sails and figure it out based on what happens.
In or about 1987, we purchased an old 21-foot Luger sloop with a swing keel. Just to complicate the matter, the boat was moored on the Intracoastal Waterway in Boca Raton, Florida. The bottom was loaded with barnacles and the gulls and cormorants had been using it as a refuge for what might have been years.
After much ado, in April we hauled the boat to Maine behind an underpowered Mazda pickup, with no brakes on the trailer. This was after moving the axle on the trailer somewhat forward in my Aunt Lydia and Uncle Al's backyard in Boca. (They were my surrogate parents and very patient and understanding.) After some miracles during the drive up Interstate 95, the boat arrived in Belgrade.
Spring weather permitting, the project started. After a couple of months of scraping barnacles, bottom painting, buffing and waxing the topsides and hull, our dream boat was shaping up. Sometime in mid-June the perfect day came and we launched the newly named Boca Belle into Great Pond. We had scrounged up a "goodnnuff" 7.5 horsepower Force engine to act as a kicker when no wind was present, which actually is quite often.
The next sort-of perfect day finally arrived, and with light to moderate winds, Doris, son John, and I motored out into the cove. We had no clue how to sail. The first attempt was a complete failure, as we just raised the sails and all hell broke loose. The sails filled, we lost grip on the tiller (steering handle), the boat lurched in circles and the boom came across the boat and nearly hit us in the head. I yelled to drop the sails and both sails soon dropped onto the deck with us underneath. We effectively were inside a collapsed tent. Young John muttered something to the effect that as usual we had no idea what we were doing and he wanted off the boat.
As the summer wore on, we gained a little knowledge from our sailing adventures. One typical calamity was the first attempt to sail across the lake from Pine Beach in North Belgrade and into the Lakes village. Doris was game to join me and as I captained the vessel towards The White Ledges on the way to town. I explained to Doris that I would aim upwind of the ledges and sail right on by. Well, that didn't happen. The boat was mysteriously sailing somewhat sideways and ahead at the same time. We went directly into the ledges, and the swing keel rode up over a rock. The boat stopped and fell back with the keel hooked on a large boulder.
I told Doris not to worry and that I had read about "kedging off" when grounded. I began to get the anchor out of the locker to swim it out and set it. At that point she looked up from her book and said, "Why don't you just start the engine and move the boat ahead a little." I did so, the boat released itself from the rock, we blew off the ledges, reset the sails and went on our way. Who's to know!
As the years went by we got a fair handle on sailing on Great Pond and in Florida as well. Our last boat was a 41-foot Morgan sloop which gave us a winter home for 10 years and many chapters of sailing experiences.
For all that, here's a little advice if you intend to become a sailor: Murphy is always lurking, ready to strike and foil your plans. The wind is always on your nose, or at least it seems that way. What boats like to do best is sink, so never trust a boat that is unattended. Last but not least, an old sailing cruiser in the Bahamas informed us that the two most important items on a sailboat are a good engine and good anchor — and he was right.
Enjoy your sailing experiences, it is all worth the effort and we wouldn't trade ours for anything. Of course, when you are 70 years old you also get to tell stories like this. THE END
Author's Note: Doris and I now have a 15-foot sailboat on Great Pond. The big boats are gone and we live in a small condo in Dunedin, Florida during the winters — looking out at lots of sailboats!