Learn to sail in one weekend read the ad in The New York Times. "Instructors include national champions...no classroom theory...all courses take place aboard an actual sailboat." As I dialed the phone number given at the bottom of the ad I could almost feel a cool breeze and hear the lapping of the water. A few days later I received the brochure from the Sloane School of Sailing detailing the courses: Basic Sailing, Intermediate Sailing, Coastal Cruising, Advanced Coastal Cruising, Ocean Racing, Advanced Ocean Racing. Heady reading. Since my closest proximity to a sailboat had been a Late Show viewing of Mutiny on the Bounty, I concentrated on what the brochure had to say about Basic Sailing. "Aboard a high-performance catamaran, the student learns the basic fundamentals of sailing. He raises the mainsail, takes the tiller and learns to sail to windward and before the wind. He becomes familiar with the boat's response to the helm and learns how to 'come about' and 'jibe around.' " That's what goes on in the morning. In the afternoon, if student and boat are still afloat, he "is introduced to the sloop-rig aboard a 20' full keel boat. Under main and jib, he practices 'beating,' 'reaching,' and 'running free"; learns how to maneuver in and out of crowded areas and sails up to a dock or mooring. He sails a triangular course against a stop-watch—and, under the supervision of an instructor, corrects any deficiencies in techniques that are disclosed."
On the morning that I took my first lesson at Oyster Bay on Long Island, I did all those things—or the boat did. It "beat," "reached" and "ran free" without much help from me, while David Sloane, the director of the school, explained my deficiencies in technique, which were total. Aboard also was Jim Roberts, a bridge designer from Lexington, Ky., who seemed to understand immediately the difference between halyards, lines, shrouds and sheets. While he and the skipper discussed the merits of a genoa sail, I practiced making half hitches, double half hitches and bowlines (Mr. Sloane had pointed out early on that my mechanical aptitude left something to be desired). We were out on his Bristol, a 27-foot sloop, drifting aimlessly, for there was as yet little wind. "Some days," sighed our instructor, "nothing comes up but the sun." He is a stocky, weather-beaten man, who started his School of Sailing three summers ago when a venture in boat building failed. "You have to be pretty smart these days to lose $157,000 in six months." Buying one of his own boats (a racer/cruiser Sea Witch) he started giving lessons. Today his fleet includes two P-16s, one 17-foot Explorer, the 22-foot Sea Witch, the Bristol, a 30-foot Seawind ketch and one Alberg 35. Since 1964 he has taught close to 1,000 would-be sailors and received two applications this year from as far away as Saudi Arabia.
I gave up knots temporarily and transferred my ignorance to holding the tiller. Suddenly, what had been a dead stick in my hand became a living, resisting antagonist. The sails filled and the boat heeled sharply, skimming over the water.
"We're sailing!" yelled the bridge designer. I seemed to be hanging perpendicular to the water, staring into its green depths.
"Fall off there. You're luffing," shouted the skipper. Instinctively I pulled the tiller toward me, and the luffing stopped. "Nicely done," praised Skipper Sloane. I relaxed. A moment later the boat luffed and came about accidentally. When all was well again and we were back on what was referred to as a proper tack I got a lecture on the vagaries of the wind. "Always keep your eye on the wind sock." It occurred to me that on awakening that morning I had not known a wind sock from an Argyle. Now I learned that sailboating, like living, is full of contradictions. You know where you want to go, but you must tack first in this direction, then in that to get there.
"You're luffing again," said Mr. Sloane. He peered into the cockpit, where I had left a few incomplete half hitches, double half hitches and bowlines. "The floor of the cockpit should never look like a spaghetti factory," he said. I gave the tiller to Jim and meekly coiled the lines. At the tiller again an hour later, we tacked into Cold Spring Harbor for lunch, that is, I tacked, luffed, jibed, headed for the shallows, then straight into the wind. A man in a powerboat stared in fascination as we finally made it to the dock. "What's his problem?" I asked.
"That's the harbor cop," said Sloane. "He wonders what you think you're doing."
It was almost sunset when we returned to Oyster Bay. "Tomorrow is my day off," sighed Mr. Sloane, who sails across Long Island Sound some 20 times a month.
"What do you do on your day off?" I asked. He smiled, as though the absurdity had just struck him. "I go sailing," he said.
This largest and most complete school of sailing on the East Coast operates from two facilities: Greenwich, Conn. and Oyster Bay. The courses, given seven days a week, begin April 30 and end in mid-October, and are primarily for adults. Tuition begins at $39 (plus a $10 registration fee) for the basic and intermediate classes. Coastal Cruising and Ocean Racing for advanced students range in price from $47 to $84. For brochures and complete information write directly to the Sloane School of Sailing, Box 307, Bay Avenue, Oyster Bay, N.Y., 11771.
You haven't lived until you've luffed.