Musings on the Tour, Sailing and Life

Chapter 7-  July 5, 2005

Sam Writing

Two days ago I did something I’ve waited 22 years to do.  I watched a stage of the Tour de France in person.  It was the opening stage and a time trial to boot.  For those not into the Tour de France a time trail is when each rider races against the clock.  Rather than a mass start where all 189 riders start together and the first man over the line wins, in a time trial everyone is staggered in one minute intervals.  This removes much of the strategy and all of the team work which is usually key to each stage and strips the riders down to two things – concentration and guts.  As the lactic acid builds in their muscles and they beg to shut down only the man who has conditioned himself through training to release this acid more slowly and the one who can gut it out at the end in-spite of the burn and fatigue is the one who will win. 

Lance Armstrong, placed second in the time-trial.  He later won the Tour for the seventh time.

To my mind cruising on a sailboat is a bit like the Tour de France.  Not the bit about lactic acid and guts, but other similarities.  First, a lot of long-term preparation goes into getting ready for the event.  Most, if not all of the cruisers we have met so far are retirees who have spent many years getting their boats ready and waiting for the day that they can cast off and sail without the time constraints of a job back home.  While we may appear to have short circuited this process by buying a boat and casting off within 6 weeks, in reality our preparation goes back a number of years as well… 


Sailing for me began with living on a sail boat for my last two years at UC Berkeley.  My brother Don was a half owner in “Lil Mermaid” and though I did more living and studying aboard her than I did actual sailing, it was then, through day trips with Don and family around the San Francisco Bay that the bug bit me.  For Debryn it began with a Royal Yachting Association (RYA) course in Greece shortly after we were married followed by a week of sailing in flotilla with a number of other boats around the Peloponnisos islands just Southwest of Athens.


We had such a great time sailing in Greece that several years later we went back with Deb’s brother Doug and our close friend James Andrews.  This time we sailed the Ionian islands and went to such places as Corfu, Ithaca (where the Apostle Paul went), Paxos, Kefallonia (We were there during the actual filming of The Captain’s Mandolin) and Lefkada.  Once again a great time was had by all and an agreement was made to get together with the same group every couple of years and sail in a different location.  In 2002 Doug wasn’t able to make it, so Jim’s brother Jonathan joined us in the British Virgin Islands (Caribbean) together with Jim’s new bride Yun Ping and Kaizen, our latest addition.


The Parade.


David Zebrieski won the time trial

and the yellow jersey. 

Bringing home the groceries in Herbautier.

In between these trips I would sail vicariously through various books about cruising and add a certificate or two to my credentials when I got the chance to take some courses.  However, it wasn’t until shortly after our Caribbean trip that Deb and I sat down and had a serious conversation about cruising ourselves.  I think she knew from all the reading I had done that it was something I would like to consider, but when we had the opportunity to purchase a nice 1988 53 foot yacht which had come up for sale in Long Beach, CA it became a very real possibility.  After some prolonged discussions we decided two things: Firstly, yes we would like to take the plunge and try cruising ourselves and secondly, now was not the time as Kai was still only 11 months old and just learning to walk with no sense of danger and a very real need to have terra firma to plant his feet on.


Although we didn’t go sailing at that time what did happen was I began to focus on cruising topics instead of just reading about sailing purely for pleasure.  We also attended a crash course on cruising given by one of the seasoned cruising couples known throughout the sailing community – John Neal and Amanda Swan.  Finally, three months ago when “Sarah Jane” a 2004 Swedish made 37ft Hallberg-Rassy with an excellent cruising reputation came on the market, we jumped.





Captain and crew.


Second, the event takes place in stages.  Like the Tour which last 22 days, cruising is an event in which each day is important to the result, but no one day can ensure the overall result.  Success must be built one stage at a time.  For the cruiser this means a number of things.  Before each trip Kai and I have a little ritual.  He gets a paper towel from his mom and brings me the flashlight.  Together we open the engine room and check the belts on both alternators. (We had a second larger 120amp alternator installed in England so we could charge our massive 400amp battery bank which drives all our household and navigation electronics when we’re not hooked up to dock power.)  Then we pull out the dipstick, wipe it off on his paper towel re-insert it and pull it out again to see what our oil level is.  He explained this to his mother as “we always check the oil two times”.  After the electricity and oil we check the coolant level in the heat exchanger using the flashlight to get a good look down the dark hole.  Finally, a quick look underneath the engine and around the propeller shaft and we close up and are ready for “Dad and Mom’s jobs”.


“Dad and Mom’s jobs” involve walking around the boat together, looking at which way the wind is blowing and identifying which of the lines (there are usually at least 5) can be removed without the boat being blown into the boat “next door”.  The key is to finally reduce the equation to two remaining lines so Deb can remove one and I the other at the last moment before engaging the already idling engine and motoring away gracefully.  Although this sounds terribly easy, in a strong wind it is usually just terrible.  I can honestly say that this is the most difficult thing we do.  Our boat weighs 11.5 tonnes (22,000 lbs).  My physics professor once described inertia as “resistance to a change in course”. When talking about people we don’t usually describe them as having a lot of inertia, but rather a “mind of their own”.  I think it is fair, therefore, to also describe Debryn Ruth in close quarters in a strong wind as having a “mind of her own”. 

To illustrate:  There are few things that will get my wife to leap out of bed when ensconced in a good book.  However, the sound of a propeller cavetating in reverse on a windy day is one of them.  The reason for this is docking and slipping (the reverse of docking)  a boat on a windy day give fair odds there will be a bit of drama in a busy marina.  Someone usually manages to come in too slow and be blown into another boat, or too fast and crash into the dock, or at too shallow an angle and scrape the side of their boat along the sharp corner of the pontoon or…. The possibilities for embarrassment and destruction are limitless.  Therefore, entries and exits by ones neighbors are always a chance for a bit of entertainment followed by smug analysis of what “we” would have done to prevent the fiasco “they” have just suffered.  Of course, there are days that “we” are “they” and the entertainment is on us.  Just yesterday we managed to hook our anchor in our neighbor’s stanchion and about rip it off on exiting in a F5 (about 25mph) beam wind.  The excitement brought heads out of almost every companionway like a Discovery Channel show on meercats in Africa.  The more people watch the bigger you know your boo boo has been and the greater their hopes that you will either sink your boat or someone elses right there in the marina so they can talk about “those” bozos and how “we” would have done it differently.  Interesting how shoes really do prefer a certain foot…

Les Sables D'Olonne.

Third, successful cruising does not necessarily go to the hare.  In the Tour there are often riders who are sent out by their team to pace the pack from the front.  These individuals look like they are in contention for the day’s win.  However, the amount of energy they expend by riding at the front and breaking the wind for the other riders almost ensures their ultimate fatigue and defeat. 


In our first 12 days of cruising we had Bryan the instructor with us.  We therefore felt obligated to take advantage of the opportunity to do as much sailing and cover as much ground as possible while he was on board to instruct.  This was a recipe for fatigue and had it continued much longer probably would have wiped us out.  Successful cruising must by definition be enjoyable cruising.  Enjoyable cruising means resting up in port long enough to actually have an interest in sailing again.  It also means waiting until the weather is right and not rushing off into peril just because you are trying to meet a deadline.  One thing that reading almost every book ever written by cruisers did for me was to convince me that only fools set a firm schedule when sailing.  Living by a tight schedule my whole working life left some pretty strong tendencies ingrained in this area.  One of these was to plan for tomorrow and the next day and the next day...  Cruising is very slowly and sometimes painfully removing this mindset. 


To illustrate:  We never planned to be in La Sables d’Olonne where I am writing this.  In fact, we never planned to be in Ile d’ Yeu where we were yesterday either.  The original plan was to sail from Ile de Noirmoutier where we saw the Tour directly to La Rochelle in one 76 mile (about 12hrs) hop.  However, we were quite tired after staying up late to watch fireworks and the after-race show.  Therefore, when the alarm clock went off at 7:00am the next morning the first thought in my mind was “have I gone cruising so I can haul my tired carcass out of bed only to put in a long and tiring day of sailing?”  These are the kinds of easy rhetorical questions I like to ask myself when I know that I will soon be back asleep. 



We left at noon and put in an easy and enjoyable 5hr sail to Ill Yeu.  The next morning we woke up and found the wind howling and rain pelting down on Debryn Ruth.  After a leasurly breakfast, a check of the weather at the Harbormaster’s office and a chat with some British neighbors three boats away while waiting for the rain to abate we determined that La Rochelle was still not an option as the seas would be rough and no fun to pound through at 7kts plus.  Therefore, we decided to cast off once again at lunchtime and put in a shorter sail to La Sables d’Olonne.  Although this was the day we clobbered our neighbor’s stanchion upon exit, the decision was still correct. (Unbelieveably, no damage was done.  Steel must be much more ductile that I thought as I saw the stanchion bend a long way before popping back into position…).  Both Deb and Kai were queasy much of the trip as the waves were indeed quite big and a longer trip would have incurred a big withdrawal from the “enjoyable” account.


So, in conclusion, same as the Tour, our own little trip through France continues.  We may not be fast and we certainly aren’t professionals, but nonetheless, it is nice, on this my 37th birthday to have done one more thing on my lifes’ wish list and be in the process of doing another.  God is good.  Life is good.

As I reread this entry it strikes me that not only was there a discussion of the wind, but the write-up itself had a fair bit of wind in it.  Apologies, to those who actually waded through it.  I’ll chalk it up to being written on my birthday and feeling particularly contemplative…

Town view of Les Sables D'Olonne.

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