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March 25, 2008

Learning to Sail

By Gary Chandler

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I recently spent a week in Mazatlán, Mexico, with my wife's extended family, for whom no gathering is complete without a marathon session of dominoes. I have zero talent for the game, and my status as Game Night Loser has remained unchanged after three years of courtship and four years of marriage. (Even my wife hates to be paired with me.) So I was cautiously pleased this year when a cousin announced he'd brought a new board game for us to try. "Blokus" turned out to be Tetris-meets-Chinese Checkers, two games I spent countless hours playing as a kid. Suddenly, I was a powerhouse, winning seven straight games, most by a landslide. They copied my moves, ganged up on me, even forced me to change colors, to no avail. I was The Champ.

A few days later, still glowing from victory, I arranged for a Hobie Cat lesson from a rental shop on the beach. Hobie Cats are small catamaran-style sailboats, around 14 to 16 feet long, with one or two sails, and capacity for up to four passengers. My guide/instructor was Julio, a Barcelona transplant with droopy eyes and a bowl haircut. His first lesson was to draw arrows in the sand to explain sailing theory: one arrow was the wind direction, a second, perpendicular to the first, was our preferred trajectory, and various oblique lines and loops indicated upwind and downwind headings and turns. Brushing sand from our knees, we lugged the Cat into the low breakers—it was surprisingly heavy—and climbed aboard. Julio gave the main sail rope a sharp yank and we zipped nimbly across the bay.

Sailing is a little like Blokus, believe it or not: You zig and zag toward your target, rather than going straight at it. A knack for spatial thinking definitely comes in handy. Mazatlán turns out to be an excellent place to learn, with mellow morning breezes for novices, and snappy afternoon wind for experts. Several large offshore islands serve as reference points, and have pretty beaches as reward for successful navigation. I was certainly no Hobie Cat expert after a 90-minute lesson, but I did manage to grasp the basics: opening and closing the sail to adjust speed and power; using the rudder to maintain direction; and tacking back and forth to get from point A to point B (without getting conked in the head by the boom in the process). I did nearly sever the lines of a boatful of fishermen and came a bit too close for comfort to a huge booze cruise, but made it back in one piece, thanks to Julio. I had an awesome time, and with a few more lessons on my next beach trip, I may be ready to go solo.

Learning a new sport or hobby is a great way jazz up your beach vacation. You don't have to be especially young or athletic to enjoy many water sports, nor be able to spend tons of time or money to have fun and learn the basics. Hobie Cats are one option, others include scuba diving, kayaking, boogie boarding, windsurfing, surfing, kiteboarding, even bird-watching and horseback riding. In the meantime, Blokus anyone?

Photo: Sailboat in Tobago (Corbis)

Has Gary "The Champ" inspired you to get off your beach towel? Check out his new article on, "Bodies in Motion", with advice about getting active by the ocean.

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Related Topics: Beach Vacation · Sailing


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