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Sailing 101: Capt. Claire passed with flying colors

What a difference eight years makes in the life of a 12-year-old — in this case my only grandchild, Claire, who will inherit my 1962 Sailmaster 22C, along with a trust fund targeted specifically for boat maintenance, after I give up sailing at age 100. (Oh, what a lucky little girl!)

The Tripper's granddaughter, Claire, not only got the hang of sailing, but she caught on to the vernacular, as well.

I had placed this important decision on hold after she flunked her first sailing evaluation — a simple nautical word test — at the age of 4. I had pointed out to her in a gentle, grandfatherly way that when I issued a yachting order she was to acknowledge it in a snappy manner by saying, “Aye, aye, sir!” I then asked whether she could repeat that reply. There was a long pause before she whined, “I don’t feel like saying that,” after which she went below and collapsed on a bunk, a victim of “water-sickness” on a hot day of dead calm.

Claire’s second test came this summer aboard Woodwind II, one of two 64-foot (LOD) sister schooners doing daily excursion sails out of the Annapolis City Dock. These well-maintained, family-owned headboats are noted for their turn of speed under full sail, not for motorsailing, and the chance of Claire getting “water-sick” was slim on such a big boat.

No sooner was she aboard than she inquired, “Is the bathroom downstairs?” Oh, no, no, no dear girl, that will never do. I instructed her that a marine bathroom is called a “head” and that downstairs is “down below.” I waited hopefully for “Aye, aye, sir!” but got nothing. Once we were under way all four sails went up in another dead calm, and when a crewmember called out for assistance to help raise the staysail I immediately volunteered Claire. She dashed forward from a seated position in the cockpit with her friend Olivia Lewis and went to the halyard. That put some big points on the new scoreboard.

In a decent breeze Woodwind easily covers the five miles across the Bay to Kent Island, to the twin Chesapeake Bay Bridge spans or to the historic Thomas Point Lighthouse. In this no-wind situation, however, Capt. Jen Kaye motored down the Severn River and past the U.S. Naval Academy to Mill Creek for a slow turnaround boat ride. Nearby was the original Woodwind — 20 years old and skippered by Jen’s father, Capt. Ken Kaye. If there had been wind they would have raced one another around the marks.

Claire asked whether she might have a turn at the wheel, and soon she was steering the boat under the Severn River bridge as her grandfather; mother, Betsy; father, Mark; and Uncle Scottie Sherwood looked on proudly. So far, so good, I thought, reminding myself that in August they would return to their Foreign Service post in Frankfurt, Germany.

Claire’s real test came a few days later aboard Erewhon. I was a bit concerned that we’d have too many people aboard, but the only guests were Claire and her father. Once she stowed a few things she looked around and asked, “Is there a head down below?” I nearly jumped for joy, singing, “I think she’s got it! I think she’s got it!” Belay that corny “aye-aye, sir” business, matey. I pointed out that the boat has a Porta-Potti and that I would seal her off in privacy down below if the need arose.

As we motored to the Spa Creek Drawbridge, I showed Claire the main halyard and raised the mainsail while waiting for the bridge to open (on the hour and half-hour). A breeze of 7 knots from the northwest awaited us. I asked Claire to prepare to roll out the furling jib. After explaining that sail-handling lines are called “sheets,” I forged ahead with her first test. Following my guidance, she popped the furling line from the jam cleat, made two clockwise wraps of the starboard jib sheet around the Lewmar cockpit winch and tugged to free the jib. She pulled in the sail — I handled the mainsheet — and the boat heeled gently to starboard as we sailed north with her father at the tiller.

New sailing words were coming in fast succession: roller-furler, jib sheet, mainsheet, jam cleat, halyard, tiller, wraps, starboard, port, bow, stern, harden up, cockpit, trimming, heeling, windward, leeward. As the wind shifted more to the north I pointed out the rising windward/port side and the lowering leeward/starboard side as we “hardened up” and used the sheet winch to crank in the jib. “So many names, so many things to do, but it’s still fun,” she mused later.

“Can I go up to the front?” she asked, as I kindly corrected her by saying, “forward.” She asked whether it was OK to hold on to the lifeline and the shrouds (more strange words!). I said, “sure.” Up on the foredeck she sat on the high side and planted her heels on the starboard toe rail to brace for the pull of gravity. Then, much to my surprise, she slid toward the sea and dropped her long legs over the side and into the warm water. Yes, yes indeed, she’s got it, thought Professor Higgins (more points).

Sailing under the William P. Lane Jr. Memorial Bay Bridges, with a center span vertical clearance of 182 feet, is always dramatic because the curve on the Western Shore is quite severe from down under. She took photographs with her pink digital camera and shouted at the vehicular traffic roaring overhead.

“We’ll go through for a mile, then turn around and have an easy reach” — another salty word — “back to Annapolis with a northerly wind more behind us than in front of us,” I explained. “Can I steer the boat then?” she asked. There came music to my ears and angels singing overhead. I eagerly turned over the helm to my granddaughter, who had come so far in sailing in two days and from so far away.

I pointed out a landmark and told her to steer for it. She did, garnering more points. Soon we were off Hackett Point and approaching a field of crab pot markers. “I remember you telling me about snagging a crab line once, and I don’t want to do that,” she said, asking me to take over. I told her she must remain at her station and go around them or I would be forced to note that in her test score.

She asked politely whether she could take a break and finish her turkey sandwich. “Will I be penalized if I do that?” she asked, giggling. I caught on immediately and was pleased to see her exhibiting a sardonic sense of humor matching that of her sometimes sarcastic “opah” (grandfather in German).

At the mouth of the Severn River we encountered the local pirate ship that carries small children (and doting parents) dressed as unsavory buccaneers armed with water cannons. We approached them at ramming speed, screaming the customary “Arrgghhhhhh!” We were repelled by torrents of water and fully soaked as we turned away in shame.

Killing time for a bridge opening, we paraded in peace down Ego Alley, a narrow turnaround basin between town docks. I told Claire that occasionally patrons sitting at outdoor tables will hold up “flash cards” that signal a boat rating from 1 to 10. But not this day, and in their absence I informed Claire that she had earned a 9.9 from me in her sailing score, minus the minuscule penalty for demonstrating apprehension over navigating through that field of crab pots.

Jack Sherwood is writer at large for Soundings.

October 2013 issue