Ed and I were married in the fall of '76 and I still associate white clouds scudding across a blue sky and the kick of a brisk wind with falling in love. Columbus Day last year we had a romantic weekend at Annapolis and discovered another whole new world: The beauty and range of ships at the U.S. Sailboat Show at the City Dock conjured up dreams of "maybe, someday." We picked up literature on local sailing schools, and one clear Saturday morning in July we reported for a weekend of classes and sailing lessons:
8:30 a.m. -- I leave Ed inspecting the boats at the dock and go to my basic class. The other 18 beginners look as scared as I feel. There is one obvious couple; they reach across the space between their student chairs and hold hands. Joe, our instructor, a chemist by profession, is a seasoned captain. He is methodical and calm and patiently responds to questions, and I watch him draw arrows to indicate broad reach and beam reach and close haul. I have no idea what he is talking about.
9:30 -- "Sailing Primer" in pocket, we head for the dock as Ed's Intermediate Class moves into the room. He signals thumbs up and I smile weakly. At the dock, Captain Joe assigns 18 novices to three boats -- all 22-footers. He chooses me, the hand-holding couple and a young consultant from Chicago. Beginners' boats have no motors, so we spend 15 minutes preparing for the tow out of the channel. Joe commands us quietly, methodically reiterating the classroom instructions. The wind is gentle. I am happy with gentle. An hour later I am not so happy. The wind is nonexistent. The sails luff occasionally, stirring up hope, then hang still. The sun is high and intense. Only Joe wears a hat. None of us brought water. We have to wait until the scheduled two hours are up before they come to tow us in. The couple is not holding hands. She has shed her shirt and shorts and is stretched out in an electric orange bikini. The consultant has removed his shirt and wipes his face with it. The tow boat finally lassos us to the other beginners' boats and drags us in for lunch. As we dock, a soft breeze blows. The Intermediate Class motors past to catch the wind on Chesapeake Bay and Ed waves and mouths "Are you having fun?" at me. Smiling at his side in the cockpit is a beautiful blonde in a halter top who looks very confident.
12:45 -- We wolf down lunch to make the best of the surging wind. This time I have a hat and two bottles of mineral water. "A woman on another boat wants to experience different kinds of instructors," Joe tells us. "I need a volunteer to exchange places." Joe looks at me. I scuttle back up to the dock with my water and meet my new captain. He is all of 21, but he has been sailing since he was 4, so he is quite competent. He is also, I will learn, fun-loving and fearless. The other crew members are a couple in their early twenties who never sailed before. We head out into the wind. Captain Kid barks commands like an old salt: "Beware the boom! Fall off! Prepare to come about!" At the end of an hour, we each have had a turn manning the tiller, paying out the lines, and jibing. I am feeling good until I sight dark clouds moving in fast. Captain Kid assures us the marine radio said storms would hold off until late afternoon. "Anyhow," he says, "a little rain won't hurt. As long as there's no lightning." As he speaks, I see a zigzag flash across the pewter sky behind him. Within minutes the sky is black and heavy winds whip the sails, pitching us to starboard. Seeing the naked fear in my eyes, the captain throws me a life jacket. His eyes are bright with excitement when he cautions us to stay clear of metal as he scurries to the bow to lower the jib sail. The couple is grinning broadly, swiveling around not to miss any of the sights. A cold rain pelts us without warning and the temperature seems to drop 10 degrees in five minutes. The lightning is closer now, and the wind is howling so we can scarcely hear Captain Kid assure us that Joe certainly would have radioed for the tow boat to come and get us. He thrusts life jackets at the couple as he pulls one on. Hailstones the size of marbles bounce off the fiberglass stern and sting my arms and legs. Now everyone is grim, but we smile reassurances at each other with each rumble and crack. After 40 minutes, I spot the tow boat cutting through the waves and I begin to enjoy the thrill of the storm, knowing I am safe.
4:00 -- I drip on the deck outside the classroom and peer in at Ed taking the American Sailing Association qualifying test a day early. If I go to the car for my change of clothes, I will have nothing dry to wear when the storm subsides. If I sit in it, I will saturate the seats. So I wait and ponder the fact that Joe's radio battery had died before he could summon the tow, and the tow had gone to the aid of a ship in distress since we had not radioed a problem. I read my "Sailing Primer," which warns "anvil-shaped leaden clouds with copper linings" often appear unexpectedly on the Chesapeake Bay, and our captain had done all the right things to batten down the hatches and wait out the storm.
Sunday Morning -- The Intermediate Class heads right out into the Bay for a full day at the mast. The haltered blonde has made a male friend and Ed stands alone in the cockpit and throws me a kiss as they motor away. Before we board, I grab my backpack with hat, water, slicker, and sweat shirt. I tell Joe I want back on his boat. No problem. The Couple seems reluctant, but finally boards. The breeze is balmy, the sky a brilliant blue, and we spend two intense but exhilarating hours tacking and jibing and pointing for new destinations.
12:30 -- After lunch, we take a written classroom test on beginner's skills, then head to the dock. For two hours we skim rippling waters under vibrant skies, smoothly running through every move. We are a crew and even nature is working with us.
4:30 -- The Intermediate Group joins us in the classroom for presentation of certificates. I qualify for crew, Ed for captain. As we leave, the Consultant is scanning the bulletin board sale ads for sail boats. The Couple walks with us to the parking lot. They have decided to go for a motor boat, and they are once more holding hands. I know a sailboat is in our future. In August, Ed and I bought a used 23-foot O'Day and we spent our 14th wedding anniversary chasing the wind on the Chesapeake Bay.