Sailing Boot Camp

To improve her sailing skills and nautical vocabulary, Leslie volunteered as crew during this past summer’s season of “Wet Wednesdays” sailboat races, a series organized by the Ventura Yacht Club.  Every Wednesday evening, around 5, the fleet of a little more than a dozen boats met just outside the Ventura marina to race around a course of buoys.  The course was determined by the race committee aboard the committee boat minutes before each start.  Where the committee boat anchored was where the race began.  In these races, when sailing downwind, the sailboats typically deployed a spinnaker, the great-big colorful cloud-like sails you see billowing in those overly-saturated photographs of sailboats sailing in a cluster.  Spinnaker sailing is something we won’t likely do aboard Kandu, but it’s great sailing experience.

Claudia, a new skipper with a new/used sailboat, a J-24, adopted Leslie.  Claudia was very tenacious and eager to win.  To expedite her learning, she sought and received guidance from more experienced J-24 skippers, who joined her on several of her races.  By proximity, Leslie received an excellent education.  As it would happen, within the first month, Claudia collided with another boat at the start of the race, an expensive error.  From the other boat, Leslie heard from the skipper’s mouth words uttered only by drill sergeants and prison guards.  He had just dropped (not a literal term) his boat back into the water after having it professionally painted, an expensive process.

A couple weeks later, during a Saturday practice trying new trimming skills, Leslie fell overboard.  Her expensive hydrostatic inflator technology malfunctioned, so her lifejacket didn’t inflate.  Fortunately, she held on to the genoa sheet she was trimming before she fell overboard thus not drifting far. Claudia immediately stopped the boat, and she and the remaining crew helped Leslie back on board.  The life vest, which doubles as a harness, came in handy as a harness because the crew was able to hold onto her by grabbing the back of it. Leslie returned the vest to learn that it had been recalled earlier.  The notice hadn’t reached us, but West Marine, the chandlery store from which we purchased the units, gave us a new vest to replace hers and one other to replace the one we had in stock that was also part of the recall.

About six weeks later, Leslie got the chance to try out her new lifejacket. Before the start of the last ‘Wet Wednesday’ race, Claudia arranged to practice jibing the spinnaker with Leslie as trimmer and added a very novice third crew member (fourth time to race on a boat) to perform as foredeck person (the one who stands on the deck in front of the mast and rigs and unrigs all of the headsails).  When a jibe goes awry, a spinnaker often tangles around the headstay (the front cable that holds the mast up in place), and that’s what happened . . . but this time, a bit closer than usual to the beach. Claudia’s radio pleas for assistance went unheeded until it was too late; Within Reach drifted into the surf and onto the beach.  Leslie jumped ship as the boat’s keel made contact with the sandy bottom, a wave knocking her off the hull side for good measure.  This time the vest worked well (but this time it would cost $70 to re-arm it), and from where she fell from the side of the boat, Leslie’s feet touched bottom.  Leslie was able to bob-walk safely to shore.  After agreeing to the terms offered, Vessel Assist later worked successfully to pull the boat from the beach ($250/foot, so $6000!).  The incident made the local paper, the Ventura Count Star.

Within Reached Beached Off Ventura Marina
‘Within Reach’ Beached Off Ventura Marina. Photo by Eric Rigney

That was Leslie’s last day aboard Within Reach, but not her last opportunity to fall overboard and auto-inflate her vest.  Yesterday, while leaving for the first time the slip from where Kandu is currently berthed, as she jumped aboard Kandu’s forward port quarter (closer to the bow on the left side of the boat) Leslie noticed the bow was dangerously approaching the concrete pylon.  In an effort to correct the boat’s trajectory, Leslie decided to jump back off Kandu back onto the dock to push the bow away.  Leslie didn’t realize that in that brief moment, Kandu had backed far enough away to where Leslie was no longer above the dock.  As she proceeded to jump back down, she fell directly into the cold grey seawater, weighed down by her clothing and equipment.  She instantly sank several feet before her life vest auto-inflated, as designed, and popped her up to the surface, face first.  Byce too had fallen in, but, with his light-weight life-vest, was able to readily get himself up on the dock.  Leslie doggie-paddled to the other side, where the dock was lower to the surface and Bryce could help her up.  The only injury sustained was a deep bruise to her right elbow and a little bruising to her ego.  Fortunately, Leslie was not otherwise harmed and we continued with our sailing plans for the day.

As Bryce and Trent watch, Leslie swims to the other dock before Bryce can assist her out.
As Bryce and Trent watch on, Leslie doggie-paddles to the lower dock where Bryce will walk around and assist her. Photo by Tom Rigney

Leslie’s boot camp has done much to build her confidence.  Within Reach won two races and earned second place overall in the first session.  Leslie’s practical experiences have taught her that she can survive very challenging circumstances.  And I’ve learned as well.  From now on, while near land, we’ll wear our standard static life-vests until we’re on longer passages.  For now, we’ll put the pricey life jackets away.  At $70 a pop (pun intended), Leslie’s boot camp was getting to be expensive.

Post Script:  It just dawned on me that our policy of requiring everyone aboard Kandu to wear a life jacket paid off enormously Saturday.  Wearing all her gear, without a life-jacket, Saturday’s circumstance may not have been so casually dramatic.  Leslie sank so quickly, she didn’t have time to react before she fully understood that she was underwater, sinking.  She said she didn’t know whether she would have had the presence of mind to have manually pulled the rip cord as quickly is it inflated on its own, or what she would have done had the vest not performed as engineered.  With the auto-inflate feature built into the vest she was wearing, Leslie was at the surface before she had completely realized what had happened.  Leslie’s dip could have been a tragic one were it not for our strict policy of wearing life jackets; either static or self-inflating.  Were Leslie wearing a static life jacket, as we will in the future when near shore, she probably would not have bounced up through the surface as quickly, but she would have been swimming okay, instead of sinking like a rock.  Bryce was dressed for swimming, so he easily swam to the dock and got himself out.  But Leslie was not.  To swim, a person either needs the resistance of bare skin against the water (try swimming with water socks and gloves on, you get no grab on the water) or be sporting a pair of swim fins.  Leslie had neither.  I was at the helm of a 15-ton sailboat, with 6 novice passengers aboard, backing toward many other boats.  Had Leslie not worn the life vest and sank to the bottom (it was a very high tide that morning, so 20 feet), what could I have done and would I have thought to do it?  I was fully dressed too.  I would have had to strip down, grab our Spare Air mini SCUBA tank from under our top companion way step, and dive after her, leaving the boat adrift, hoping the others would steer her out of harms way from docks and other boats.  As I write this, I now know I need to leave a set of flippers with our Spare Air, along with the mask and snorkel and dive knife we currently have strapped to it. I’m thankful that we are so stubborn about wearing life jackets aboard Kandu.  It was a fundamental lesson taught to us as part of our Coast Guard Auxilary Safe Boating training.  This experience strengthens our resolve.  Thanks to the Coast Guard Auxiliary, to Mustang life-vest engineers and manufacturing, to Leslie’s experience aboard Within Reach and for West Marine’s swapping the faulty jacket, and to Leslie for wearing it (she had re-adjusted her vest’s straps less than an hour before her plunge, insuring her vest was snug to her chest); our family took the unplanned event in stride and enjoyed a lovely sail on what transformed to a beautifully clear day, sailing over calm seas in a light breeze along the picturesque Ventura coastline.

My 80 yr-old dad sailing with us after Leslie's plunge
My 80 yr-old dad sailing with us after Leslie’s plunge, his vest a little too loosely fitted. Photo by Tom Rigney

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