How I Became Invincible
It started sometime in 1998. Todd and I drove by a field in some Podunk town in Vermont on the southeast shore of Lake Champlain. “Isn’t it great?” he asked. It was a crappy looking sailboat on a trailer in the middle of a field. “I’m going to buy it off of the Boy Scouts. It’s gonna need some work.” All I could think was “Are you kidding me?” He wasn’t kidding. He had the look. The daydreamy look in his eye. I saw a boat on the verge of falling apart, and he saw adventure and sunsets on the aft deck. I saw a mountain of work, he saw entertaining our friends on the water.
Since then we’ve gone sailing just about every summer. And I have learned bits and pieces of it from Todd, every year upping my game in tiny little increments. I took lessons back in 1999 when I used to work in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I used to walk by the Charles River Boathouse, which was right across the Charles River from where I worked. I learned basics like point of sail and what you’re supposed to do with the sails when the wind is hitting different sides of the boat. I learned some terminology. At that school I only learned how to sail with just a main sail, there was a separate class for the jib that sounded so out of reach to me at the time. I went out on boats on the Charles exactly twice—once completely on my own with just a main sail. On that sail I managed to bomb around in the designated area of the river. Then I took the main sail off and stowed it back into its bag and stuffed it onto its shelf in the boat house. The second time was with a group of a few people on a larger boat. We each got a turn at the tiller and we bombed around a bit quicker.
I have owned a total of 4 sailboats starting with that first one we bought off of the Boy Scout Council for $600. That one was 26 feet long and filled with wasp nests and was our first boat restoration. I painted the inside a sunny yellow and emerald green. There were 4 narrow bunks, a toilet that was under the forward bunks. The shower was a solar shower which was a bag that was foil lined that would warm in the sun. Well, let’s just say it was less cold. We sailed all over Lake Champlain on that boat, and I learned to move well away from “Are you kidding me?” to “This is freaking awesome.”
Since then I spent my summers learning bits and pieces of sailing boats and how their systems worked. The second boat we bought and then sold on eBay, if you can imagine. The third boat we bought was kind of falling apart (it was staged very well it didn’t look like it was falling apart) and we learned the extent of the disrepair in the first summer or two after we bought it. We spent 17 years restoring that boat little by little. Sure we left things undone and went sailing; so that every single year it improved.
Then we ended up buying our current boat, a 41’ sailing catamaran. While Todd steps onto a boat and seems to know exactly what to do and when, I seem to flail around. He’s usually the one at the wheel while I am doing things like tying dock lines, putting things away, etc. When I am at the wheel I could steer, but I never really felt like I had the confidence to run the boat by myself. When we first bought Rising Tide, it was in Fort Lauderdale and we had to sail it up from there to get it home to Rhode Island. But before we did that Todd hired a captain named Captain Jaye to spend a day onboard giving us a lesson. She taught us how to work with the two engines on a catamaran. You can steer very well in tight areas just using the engines, and not the wheel at all. She taught us all about how to steer using the engines, how to anchor the boat, how to hover in place when waiting for things like drawbridges to open. I learned a lot from her in that one day, so much that later on Todd would ask me where I’d learned to do something I would simply reply “Jaye taught me.”
This year I decidedto up my game. For years I’d looked into all women onboard sailing instruction. And I always thought it would be so cool to go off for a week and learn on my own. The thing that kept me from doing it was the guilt I’d felt for spending several thousands of dollars just on myself. With money like that we could go somewhere great together. Then I decided that I needed to do it. I was sick of not really feeling like I knew what the hell I was doing at the helm of our boat. Maybe I knew what I was doing but didn’t have the courage to actually do it? I am not sure.
I hopped a plane on December 2 and headed to St. Petersburg, FL to go to Offshore Sailing School. When I initially signed up for my class I was told that there was one other woman signed up for the catamaran class. While they didn’t formally offer a women’s only catamaran class, I could sign up for that one and in effect create one. And because there were only 3 total staterooms for the teacher and the two students, it would be a semi-private class for the price of a regular class. I still hemmed and hawed. And then I jumped. I squeezed my eyes shut and clicked the sign up button. I put in my credit card number. I got a box of text books shipped to me. The class I signed up for would give me 4 certifications in one week: ASA 101 Basic Sailing, ASA 103 Basic Cruising, ASA 104 Bareboat Cruising and ASA 114 Catamaran Cruising.
I dove into my text books. I took notes. I made flash cards. Then before I knew it I was on my plane to Tampa. I had learned a few weeks before that the other student on the boat was not to be another woman. It was actually a woman who had purchased the class for her husband. I was disappointed, as I had envisioned me and some other woman cheering each other on. Todd and I talked about whether I should try to get into another class. The thing was they couldn’t guarantee that I’d end up in another class with a woman. They don’t offer a catamaran class for women only. It was luck of the draw.
Now, I know this sounds super sexist of me. But here’s what you have to understand--sports like sailing and scuba are kind of male dominated. I used to see it all the time when I used to own a scuba shop. The men had a tendency to swoop in and set up the gear for the women. I see it all the time when I shop in West Marine. When I am in there buying oil for our annual oil change I will often get the lecture, from a male salesperson, about how I need to be sure I am putting the right kind of oil in my engines. I never see them lecturing other men about that. So, I wanted a class with another female student because I wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to get run over by some dude. Todd and I discussed whether I should try to change my class. I decided I would stay the course and see what happens with this dude. And Todd said to me, “Don’t let this guy run over you. You paid just as much as he did and you deserve to have as much of a chance as he does to get your hands on the wheel and to learn.”
The first two days were in the classroom and on a 26’ training boat. I met my classmate, Bob, on the Friday night and then in the classroom we were met by two men from Toronto who were going to do the monohull class while Bob and I were on a catamaran. We met our instructor, Cheyenne, and attended a lecture for a few hours on the first morning. Then we went across the street to the docks and stepped aboard a 26’ Colgate. (Yes, THAT Colgate. The guy who opened the school is the grandson of the guy who started the Colgate toothpaste company. And he has insanely white teeth in every picture.)
This is the Colgate 26 under sail.
This is me at the helm with my teacher, Cheyenne.
So it was me and three dudes learning on this boat. And Cheyenne had it all figured out and he told us to rotate our positions every so often so we all got equal chances to try everything. I steered the boat out of the marina and into the harbor. We learned to raise the sails, we learned to tack the boat (which is turning it across the wind) and we all took turns in each position while Cheyenne explained the purpose of every single line and quizzed us on the theory we’d learned so far. We all cooperated with each other, no egos involved, everyone wanted to learn and everyone wanted to cheer on everyone else.
After two days of classroom and Colgate we separated from the Canadians. Bob and I boarded our catamaran, a 2020 45 foot Leopard. It even smelled new. I was given the master stateroom on the starboard side of the boat, while Bob and Cheyenne took the staterooms on the port side. We also had an instructor in training named Andrew who slept in the crew bunk.
This is the 2020 Leopard 45.
“You have great engine control,” Cheyenne told me as I maneuvered the boat out of the tight marina. I wanted to say “Thanks, I learned it from Jaye.” I took us all the way out just steering the engines.
The direction we were heading was directly into the wind, so putting up the sails would have been pointless. Cheyenne instructed me and Bob to each take 30 minutes at the wheel and take turns. We ended up keeping to that schedule for the remainder of the week—it was nice to get frequent breaks when the bright sun tired out my eyes, even with my sunglasses on.
We anchored in Manatee River that night. Cheyenne cooked, we swapped stories and quoted Captain Ron.
The next day Cheyenne taught us how to navigate using only paper charts. We learned about magnetic north and true north, and how magnetic north changes depending on where in the world you are. The difference between magnetic north and true north has a big impact on how you figure out the direction in which you want to travel. So we had to use everything we’d learned and chart a course to Venice, Florida. We pulled up the anchor and headed back out into the Gulf of Mexico. All the while we charted on the map our progress and took our half hour stints at the wheel.
We sailed just past Venice and Cheyenne taught us how to raise the main sail, unfurl the jib, and how to tack the sails. The wind had picked up to a peak of 19 knots, and Bob and I did the tacking procedure together. Then I asked Cheyenne, “So, how do I do this myself?”
“Well, you’d just do it the same way, but you just do it yourself. There are steps to follow, and you just follow the steps one at a time.”
“OK, I’m gonna try it.”
And I did it. On my own. And all I need to remember is that I just need to be calm and go through the steps. I need to lay out my plan and then do my plan. I tacked over and over, excessively and obsessively. It was probably pretty annoying to Cheyenne, Andrew and Bob to do it so much. But I was there to learn and learn how to do it well. Bob did a few tries, and then we headed in to Venice.
We had to pass a barrier island, and the Intracoastal Waterway is between the barrier island and mainland Florida. There are drawbridges on the barrier island that are too low for the mast of a sailboat. So I had to hail the drawbridge operator on the radio to ask them to open the bridge.
“Venice drawbridge. Venice drawbridge. This is Making Connections requesting a bridge opening.” It was incredibly difficult to not say “This is Rising Tide” which is the name of my catamaran back home. Bob took us through the bridge once it opened. Then it was my turn at the wheel and I took us to the dock.
Docking is incredibly stressful. At least to me it is incredibly stressful. Here I am steering something that moves toward something that doesn’t move. Here I am driving something that is worth more than my house into a fixed object. But it’s not only the fear of crashing the boat. It’s the fear of setting back womankind too. I have steered my dinghy into docks a zillion times. Of course when nobody is there I have steered it in perfectly. Of course when some dude is standing there watching I bump into at least three things and look like an idiot. And every time I see the judgement on his face, the expression says “Of course, woman driver.” Every single time. Cheyenne stood by me and asked me which engine to use to maneuver this way or that. It is amazing how well you can turn with pushing one throttle handle into reverse and the other into forward. And then when approaching the dock you do it in tiny little bursts to just give a little momentum at a time.
I very slowly and very gently brought the boat into the dock. Bob tied the lines while Cheyenne quizzed us on which dock lines control which way the boat moves. And dammit I failed every single time when he asked me which engine I should use to pull the stern in when which ever spring line was tied. Every single time. I even got it wrong on the exam. I definitely need to study up on that more before the spring.
The next morning we practiced tight maneuvers and docking over and over again. Bob did a few turns, I did a few turns, and on it went. We spun the catamaran around in the narrow channel and headed back to the dock, tied up, untied, spun it around, headed out to the channel, spun it around, went back to the dock. We felt the current and the wind.
Cheyenne said that when he used to get nervous about docking these catamarans he’d sing to himself “I’m walking on sunshine….. whoa oh….” So I started doing that too. It sort of reminds me of that movie Taxi with Jimmy Kimmel and Queen Latifah, where Jimmy Kimmel is trying to drive and he is terrible at it. So he starts singing Natalie Cole to calm him down. I may have to remember this trick.
We finished our docking practice and went out the way we came past the drawbridge, and further north to Longboat Key. We waited for another bridge and then we anchored for the night.
In the morning we did some light lecture and then I got to steer us north up the Intracoastal Waterway. There were two drawbridges that we had to wait for. Cheyenne suggested that we just do loops as we waited. I wanted to practice my hovering skills that Captain Jaye taught me back when we bought Rising Tide. So I kept a sign on a post to my right and tried to keep it in the same place as the current wanted to move me this way and that. I managed to get it down pretty well and stayed close to one place when Cheyenne suggested I turn around and try to hover facing the other way. I kind of managed it. The current was going the other way and I struggled with it more. Then the bridge opened and I went through it. Immediately after this bridge was another one, and I navigated us through that one as well.
We took turns following the navigation markers until the Intracoastal Waterway opened up to the Gulf again. Then we picked up on the navigation markers in the Gulf that guided us back into St. Petersburg. By this point it was Thursday. We had been on the boat since Monday. While we were on the water Andrew had mentioned that as part of our lesson Bob and I would be taking the boat out on our own as our final exam. I joked with him that this was a pass or fail exam, really. But the really odd thing was that I wasn’t nervous about it at all.
I had taken Rising Tide only once on my own. I moved it from Bristol to East Greenwich two summers ago. It was just me and Phin, and I did it under power the whole way. There wasn’t any wind, but I doubt I would have even attempted to put up the sails on my own anyway. I was simply too intimidated. But this time I felt ready to do it. As I posted about it on Facebook “This class is all about proving things to myself. Welcome to the proving grounds, population: ME.”
But first we had to take our exams. In this class I was going to get four certifications, and I had to take three exams for a total of 226 questions. Bob and I were allowed to discuss the questions but not to give each other the answers. We weren’t allowed to look in our books either. It was Thursday after we’d just spent every day since Saturday learning. We were both incredibly fried to the point where my eyes were barely pointing in the same direction. But I sat down to do the exams for Basic Keelboat, Basic Cruising and Bareboat Chartering. I got through them pretty quickly and I hoped it didn’t mean that I didn’t just impulsively answer everything wrong. I tried to be methodical and think every question through, I just seemed to get through them quickly. We went out for Mexican and drank margaritas to celebrate our exams. In the morning Cheyenne would see us off.
Before we set off in the morning Cheyenne told us how we did on our exams. My scores were 98 on Basic Keelboat, 98 on Basic Cruising, and a 92 on Bareboat Cruising but Cheyenne corrected it to 100 because I didn’t get any of the practical or safety questions wrong.
Every morning Bob and I checked each engine. He did the port one and I did the starboard one. We used the acronym WOBBLE for water, oil, battery, belt, leaks and exhaust. For water I checked the strainer for the water intake to make sure it hadn’t gotten clogged. Then I checked the oil, then the battery terminals for corrosion, the belt for tension, and then I looked under the engine for any drips of oil and stuff. Once the engine was started I’d check the exhaust to make sure that water was coughing out of the exhaust pipe which means it’s taking in water to cool the engine. We got the holding tank pumped out, and then Bob steered us off the dock and out of the marina and back into the channel.
Our first assignment was to anchor by Egmont Key, take the dinghy ashore and walk around. This is where I made some mistakes. The thing with anchoring is that you need to have enough depth under the boat so that the boat doesn’t hit the bottom. You also need enough room around the boat so that it can swing around as the tide and current change. Typically you’d anchor into the wind, but if the current is stronger than the wind then you’d pick the dominant force and put the nose into that.
Cheyenne marked a spot to anchor on the map. I didn’t realize that he was telling us to go to that exact spot. So I picked a spot just north of that area. Edgmont Key is a pretty small island with a lighthouse on it, so I thought I’d get us closer to the light house. I was at the wheel and Bob was up on the foredeck dealing with the anchor. I attempted to anchor in this spot three times. I looked at the contour of the ground and figured out where to drop the anchor. But the thing I struggled with was current vs. wind. I thought I was facing the correct way, but the current was pulling me in another direction. I ended up getting this boat dangerously close to the shallow parts of the water.
The boat suddenly felt sluggish beneath me. I leaned over to get a glimpse off the starboard side and saw a cloud of sand. I hit the bottom with the keel of the boat. I gunned the engines and the boat slowly responded. I turned the wheel hard over to get away from the sand and pushed the engines even harder. My heart was racing, my throat felt tight. I was about to run this boat aground in the first few hours after being entrusted with it. Thankfully the boat worked itself free, I pulled the throttle levels to a more respectable level and calmed myself down.
“Maybe we should just go for the exact spot that Cheyenne put onto the map,” I suggested. “Maybe he was really telling us to anchor in exactly that spot.”
“Why not?” Bob asked, and returned to the foredeck.
The spot that Cheyenne marked on the map really wasn’t far away at all. Bob dropped the anchor, I pulled the engines hard into reverse and we watched the anchor chain stretch tightly in front of the boat. I sat on the foredeck staring at the landmarks on the island I used as reference points to determine whether we were dragging. I sat there for a good five minutes and didn’t feel like the boat was moving at all. Then I went back to the helm and watched the numbers on the GPS to see if they would change drastically, a sure sign that the boat wasn’t anchored and was actually moving. They didn’t change by very much—of course they’d change a little bit as the boat sways on the anchor. A boat at anchor won’t just sit in the same exact spot; it will move a bit with the wind and the current.
“OK, I think we’re good,” I called out to Bob. “Wanna go ashore?” But there was a nagging feeling that we weren’t really good. I wondered if this is the anxiety that Todd feels when he sets the anchor on Rising Tide, or on Sabine and on every boat we’d ever had. Would we be standing on shore and watch our boat drift past us and away to the Caribbean? It really was a sickening feeling leaving that boat at anchor. I lowered the dinghy and then hopped into it and released it from the davit system. Then I started the engine and invited Bob to join me.
Bob is in his 70s, and not as sure footed as I am as a spry 48 year old. The current was pulling the dinghy back from the boat and I was trying to hold it steady enough for him to get in. But he didn’t get in. Instead he went splash. I put the engine in to neutral and suggested that Bob swim for the other pontoon of the boat where he could access the swim ladder. I pushed away from him to give him space to swim there with squashing him, then I stood and was able to reach the latch on the swim ladder so I could lower it for him. He climbed out of the water, shook himself off, “Let’s try this again,” he laughed.
We motored ashore and pulled the dinghy up onto the sand and out of the water. The concern is always that the tide will rise and float the dinghy away, so we had to pull it up the beach far enough so that wouldn’t happen. We walked the path to the light house in minutes and found some turtles sunning themselves along the way. We took a selfie and sent it to Cheyenne as proof of our landing on Edgmont Key.
We pushed the dinghy back into the water and got in, I steered us back to the boat and we secured the dinghy to the davits and raised it up. “OK, time to get the bathing suits on, we need to take an intended dip to complete this mission.” We jumped in the water, the current was very strong. We stayed close to the boat, then we swam under the bridge of the catamaran and held on to the anchor chain, letting the current drift our bodies.
“OK, it is December, the sun will be setting before we know it. We have to get to our night anchor spot,” I said and we climbed out of the water and changed back into our clothes. We examined the map and determined how to get to the next spot that Cheyenne marked for anchoring at night.
“This time,” I laughed, “We are going to anchor on exactly the spot that he marked.”
We made our way back up the channel and under the Skyway Bridge. A large container ship honked its horn at us and I steered the boat just out of te channel to let him pass. We took our half hour rotations at the wheel, watching for the marker numbers where we’d make the turn to the night time anchoring spot at Maximo Point.
We arrived at the anchorage just before sunset. I was at the wheel again and Bob on the anchor windlass. This time anchoring went a lot better. I got it on the first try. I put the engines into reverse to make sure we were stuck. Then we set about to make dinner, then I took my catamaran exam.
We looked at the charts to see how far it would be to get back to St. Pete, and figured out what time we’d need to set out. We decided to set out early just in case we ran in to any trouble. As I started the engines the port one wouldn’t start. I fretted over it for a few minutes wondering what to do. In hindsight I know I should have checked this first but I called Cheyenne because it’s not my boat and what if something was broken. When Bob and I first got aboard we inspected everything, and I pointed out the shut off switch on the diesel engine. When Bob checked the port engine that morning he must have nudged the switch to the off position. Cheyenne told us to look at that and sure enough it was off. Bob switched it back on and away we went.
We got back to the marina and I steered us in using just the throttles on the engines. I had to back the boat into the slip, which is not an easy maneuver. I mumbled “Walking on Sunshine” under my breath to calm myself down. He watched me at the wheel second guessing which motor to put into which direction. “You had it right the first time. Relax, trust your instincts.” I definitely need more practice docking so that it just feels like when I parallel park my car—which was also stressful to me when I had learned it.
I got the boat backed in, we tied all the dock lines, and then I set about packing up my suitcase. Because Bob’s phone was broken he was unable to call himself an Uber to get to the airport so we planned to share one. It was around 10 in the morning and we’d had to vacate the boat by noon. I had a feeling that Cheyenne had a lot of work to do after we got off the boat. So I got us to the airport obnoxiously early. My flight wasn’t until around 4, Bob’s wasn’t until 6. We were in different terminals too. So I took it as a chance to just sit and reflect on my week, eat a leisurely and unsatisfying lunch at Panda Express, Christmas shop in the duty free, etc. I tried to see if I could get onto an earlier flight, however everything was booked up. But mostly I just sat around feeling like a complete badass at what I had accomplished in that week. And I can’t wait to strut my stuff in the summer.
But the glory was short lived. The day after I got home my terrible dogs got into my backpack.
BJ Knapp is the author of Beside the Music, available for purchase here. Please sign up for the Backstage with BJ Knapp mailing list to get updates on events, signings, dog pictures and so much more.
added on 01.13.23