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Some sailing myths need to be busted

2023 April 1

Since sailors are now flying, sail trimmers are now biking and cloud computers are now navigating, it seems appropriate to separate today’s sailing myths from reality. Surprise, everything I’ve listed so far is fact, not myth. But here’s the truth about what I think are six of the top sailing myths.

1. Sailing is not serene. 

Many variables influence the sailing experience: fickle wind, waves and temperature, location and companions. Together, the probability of finding serenity in sailing is somewhere between finding a four-of-a-kind and a straight flush in your poker hand. You have to play a lot of poker. The fact is that sailing is what it is, when it is. If you’re looking for something predictably tranquil, grab your headphones and cue up some new-age music. If you’re ready for anything, then cast off. It’ll be serene about 1% of the time.

2. Sailboats are not “pulled” and “pushed.” 

Most new sailors will read that there are two modes in sailing. When a boat is sailing upwind, the sails are said to be pulling. When sailing downwind, the boat and sails are said to be pushed. Upon memorizing these modes to pass the test and receive their sailing certification, students will learn that neither mode is true, and they must unlearn what was taught in order to progress. It’s like practicing pidgin English to model Mary Oliver’s poetry. In truth, upwind sailing works when lift from wind meets resistance from water and the boat is pinched into motion. Good downwind sailing works in exactly the same way.

3. Slower is not safer. 

The myth that slow is safe has us unfurling only a jib and leaving the mainsail under cover when hosting guests. The idea is that less heel and speed will be less intimidating. But if one sail could serve as well as two, we would all have cat rigs. Every sloop sails better when powered with its designed sail area. The phrases “velocity prediction” and “target speed” don’t indicate a faster and therefore more dangerous experience. Instead, they indicate the speed at which the boat will be the most maneuverable, most responsive and the sailing most enjoyable.

Meanwhile, the risks of slow are many: loss of steerage, excess chafing, endless boredom, flies, rapid seasickness and a dismal first impression.

In sailing, faster is safer. And safer is more fun. Targets are exactly that: the speed we should go.

4. Big sails don’t require big men. 

This myth has started to slowly unravel but persists in some circles. We only need to see winches, blocks and tackle as the mechanical advantage that a big man needs to cover for his own inadequacies, to declare, instead, that the winches, blocks and tackle can just as easily be properly sized for small people. This is a design problem posing as a prerequisite.

5. Sailing is not the same as yachting. 

“Yacht” clubs are places where the owners of boats gather for yachting. Despite the desire of many yacht club members (including me) to keep costs low to increase access, these are often indulgent places of private parties and DJs. Indeed, the smooth, sticky style of 1990s music called yacht rock is so-named in the pejorative, for the creepy white slacks and rum-soaked karaoke wafting from behind locked gates. (My go-to is Toto’s song “Rosanna.”) 

Meanwhile, sailing is among the oldest, most influential human inventions. It is how we learned to make maps, discovered new places and people, how we began to trade, why we invented currency, learned to value shared resources, and how we made use of the stars. Today, sailing teaches resilience, builds confidence and is a platform for healing and collaboration. Sailing is on par with song and dance as a fundamental cultural development and maker of meaning.

Need I say more about why sailing is not yachting?

6. Sailing is not a lifestyle.

The word lifestyle was invented to sell you things that sellers say will make you feel good. Yes, someone has to buy a boat to start the fun, so in that respect, sailing fits the “lifestyle” billing. But I’ve learned over the years that the boat is not the object of our desire. Yes, it should be adequate to its duty and its sailor’s safety, but a sailboat is simply infrastructure for social good. Sailing is the idea that people might be willing to coordinate calendars to be together in a small space to make joy through shared experience. It’s an investment in time and friendship, not things. That is bigger than lifestyle. 

I call it my lifeline.