23 August 2017

Gone with the wind

For a few short years, every Swiss was an expert. In the wake of Alinghi, the Swiss-owned (but mostly Kiwi-crewed) yacht racing to two consecutive victories in the America’sCup, the vernacular and technique of sailing became part of everyday conversation in the land-locked alpine republic.

The Swiss followed every tack of their boat, debated the merits of double-hull designs and whether the spinnaker or the jib ought to have been hoisted at any given moment. The media graciously offered background and strategy lessons, courtesy of telegenic experts from Down Under. And a good many wannabe skippers took to the lakes in pursuit of the odd breeze.

Inevitably, Alinghi’s moment of fame passed, and the enthusiasm for boating quickly ebbed away.

Not so in more maritime nations. Canada, with its national motto of a mari usque ad mari and the Bluenose on its 10cts coin, has a proud sailing tradition and sees the activity practiced regularly, both along its coasts and on the aptly-named Great Lakes. 

It was on one of these, Lake Ontario, where I was recently given the opportunity to set sail courtesy of a thoughtful birthday gift. Captain Andy welcomed us aboard his 34 foot boat (the metric system stays ashore) and we soon set course for the open water.

In the light breeze, our kind skipper explained us some of the basic dynamics of sailing, and it became clear that on the massive lake system at the heart of the American continent, varied conditions and significant distances mean that “freshwater captain” is no insult at all – this man knew his stuff.

The same cannot be said for yours truly, but nonetheless, I was soon asked to take the helm as Andy went below deck. With minimum instructions, a compass and a wind arrow, I found myself at the big wheel. Keeping the boat at the proper angle to the wind and getting used to the inherent inertia which met any steering inputs took a bit of time. But standing there with the sun in my face, the wind in my hair and but the sound of the water in my ears, also felt majestic – even more so given the stark contrast to the garish powerboats of Poker Run which had come to raid the port the previous evening.

As we came out from behind a sheltering island, the wind picked up speed and so did our vessel. With Captain Andy back in charge, we soon made a good 7 knots, the boat leaning into the wind and skimming across the lake at a seemingly precarious angle. I started humming the tune of Vangelis’ Conquest of Paradise, and for a brief moment, wondered how different it must have been when the wind was the only propellant for overseas travel.

Eventually, we found shelter in a protected bay, and while I relaxed on the top deck, my first best mate and the stewardess emerged from the galley beneath with a delicious champagne lunch. I was spoiled so much that our captain suggested I should have birthdays more often.

By the time we returned to port, we were a bit sunburned, but relaxed, with our spirits lifted and a new appreciation for a timeless mode of travel. This was definitely a past-time I could get used to, although preferably with a skipper included, for the work going on before, during and after such cruises seems considerable. 

No, Switzerland is not a nation of sailors. But Canada has more shoreline per capita than any other country. And this fresh-off-the-boat immigrant is keen to explore more of them. Ship ahoy!

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