The breeze came diagonally across Northwest Creek, a broad, brackish tributary near New Bern, N.C. Mentally I plotted a triangular course: Hug the left bank, tack across the creek, then head home downwind. If I knew anything about sailing -- and I didn't know much -- this The breeze came diagonally across Northwest Creek, a broad, brackish tributary near New Bern, N.C. Mentally I plotted a triangular course: Hug the left bank, tack across the creek, then head home downwind. If I knew anything about sailing -- and I didn't know much -- this ought to work. I pushed the nine-foot dinghy out from shore, lowered its centerboard and raised its sail.
Twenty minutes later, when I nudged the tiller left and the boat turned smartly right to begin the final leg -- just as I had envisioned! -- I was hooked. After years of watching and sometimes riding in boats, I finally had sailed without the help of a friend or a motor to get me to and from a dock. How simple it seemed. Why had I spent so many years intimidated by the puzzle of using the wind to move the boat the way I wanted?
My father had been a sailor, buying his own boat about the time I entered college. But I was too preoccupied with school, summer jobs, travel -- and then managing a family of my own -- to pay much attention. Now, though, my father was gone, and all that was left from his ocean-cruising catamaran was this nine-foot Dyer Dhow dinghy, in which I tacked uncertainly back and forth across the sluggish river from his old pier in North Carolina.
It wasn't much of an outing. But there was something about being in my dad's old boat that stirred my imagination, made me want to learn more, go farther and call myself a sailor. At midlife, I had settled into a career and suburban family lifestyle, so there wasn't much mystery anymore about which dreams I'd achieve and which ones would elude me. But here was a new endeavor that had little to do with getting ahead and grasping and gaining, and everything to do with wind and water and the ancient skills of navigation. Little things that I had ignored before now seemed so appealing: the musical clanging of sail lines against masts at night; the funky, fetid smell of tidal waters; the solitariness and distance from the hubbub of home, highways and deadlines. Now all I needed was a plan.
At 40, I had waited too long to devote the years of practice and reading it would take to make me an excellent sailor. So I would settle for being an adequate one, someone who could master the fundamentals, understand the mechanics and acquit himself respectably on a boat. Sailing in a dinghy, I realized, wouldn't do it. What I wanted was the feel and challenge of a larger boat, with a fixed keel and two or more sails. When a new job moved my family to Annapolis in 1995, I seized on a summer tradition observed in nautical towns nationwide -- Wednesday-night races -- as my chance to learn from an experienced hand.
And then fortune delivered me to Ed Nusbickel, a good soul with a 25-foot boat who tolerates greenhorns such as me when he sails on the Magothy River. Ed and his sailor friends and those Wednesday-night races would teach me a hundred new tips about sailing, and convince me there were hundreds yet to grasp. Along the way I discovered some other things: the awesome serenity of the river at dusk; the instant and easy camaraderie of a small group whose only connection is trying to make a boat function well; the deep satisfaction of harnessing puffs of wind to power a silent boat on quiet waters. Looking back, I suspect my father knew these things, too. But he couldn't bequeath them to his son as easily as he could a Dyer Dhow.
My father was a World War II Marine veteran of only 21 when he returned home to New Orleans and found a submerged sailboat in the shallows of Lake Pontchartrain. He paid the owner $25, hauled it out and cleaned it up, then went to the library for a book on how to sail. He sailed that salvaged boat until a 1947 hurricane swept it away.
I didn't hear this story until I was an adult. Only then did I learn that after the hurricane, my father had set aside his love of sailing for nearly three decades to raise a family, coach Little League baseball and football, fix up an old house and cars. He was a mechanical engineer, with mastery over motors, cylinders and all manner of tools and machines. When I was about 10, watching him tinker under a hood, he explained the workings of an internal combustion engine. How dazzling it seemed: the perfectly synchronized piston strokes, the exquisitely timed spark plugs, the furiously pumping valves. I walked away almost stunned by the beauty and power of it all. So that's what makes a car go!
Twenty years later, my father took a pencil and paper and diagramed something more remarkable -- the physics of sailing. It starts with a fundamental question: How can a boat, using wind power alone, sail partly against the wind as well as with it? We learned the basic answer, whether we remember it or not, in a high school physics lesson about Bernoulli's principle: As air or water moves faster against a surface, the pressure it exerts on that surface drops. Likewise, when it moves more slowly, it exerts greater pressure. My dad sketched the curve of a sail, viewed from above, like this: ( . The wind is coming at it as if from the top of this page. Air that strikes the outer surface of the sail -- the left side on this diagram -- travels a longer route than the air that travels across the inside of the sail. The air with the longer route must travel faster, so it applies less pressure on that side of the sail. On the other side of the sail, the opposite happens. The result is that this sail is pushed leftward -- and the boat is pushed with it -- even though the wind is coming from the top of the page.
I've carried that diagram around in my head for years. I used it to plot that triangular course on my first solo sail. And I summoned it when I began crewing on Ed's boat to overcome my lack of an experienced sailor's instinctive feel for the helm. Sailing veterans scan the waters for telltale ripples that signal a puff of wind is coming. They debate when to tack (change directions by turning into and through the wind) or jibe (a riskier turn in which the wind comes over the stern, not the bow); when to switch to a larger or smaller sail; and when to gamble on a course different from that taken by the other racers, in hopes of finding a better "wind line."
None of that came naturally to me.
If moving fast is your goal, don't sail. Maybe that truism is what blinded me to sailing's appeal for the first 40 years of my life, when things were moving fast. Indeed, sailing should have disappeared 200 years ago, when the invention of steam engines (and, later, gasoline engines) made it possible for paddle wheels and propellers to push boats across rivers, lakes and oceans with little regard to winds less than gale-force. People who made their living on water quickly switched to powerboats -- ocean liners and aircraft carriers, trawlers and tugs. But sailing, unlike horse-drawn buggies, didn't disappear.
It still lures thousands for the reason that my little excursion on Northwest Creek remains one of my most vivid moments. In a world of cell phones and fax modems, there's something deeply rewarding about mastering a skill whose basic elements would easily be recognized by a visitor from 1,000 years ago. It's not man against the elements so much as man with the elements, harnessing the breeze to make a vessel go where you want it to go, without the help or noise of an engine.
I have no quarrel with powerboaters. In fact, I own an old runabout myself, because my children like to water-ski and they also find sailboats too slow and boring. The psychologies of sailing and powerboating, however, differ profoundly. If getting there is the main objective, take a powerboat. For sailors, it's the going that matters: picking among the variables of wind, boat configurations and sailing strategies to go from A to B. Powerboating says nature be damned -- or at least ignored. You simply push the throttle and create enough power and racket to disregard whatever breeze there is. Wind and waves that get in the way will be overpowered, passed and forgotten. Sailors, however, constantly watch, listen, ask: Where is the wind? What is it doing? What will it do next? Sailors don't overcome nature; they come into sync with it.
My father the engineer knew plenty about power, from car engines to massive generators that run huge production lines. In fact, he had the wonderful title of "power supervisor" at a DuPont plant. He easily could have handled fast, loud boats. But sailing won him, for it appeals to that part of an engineer's soul that has nothing to do with hard steel and fuel efficiencies. Its essential quietude of breeze against fabric, wave against prow, has hardly changed since biblical times. This, I found in my little Dyer Dhow and the Wednesday-night races, is the Zen of sailing.
Ancient mariners sailed their boats as fast as possible in order to catch whales or deliver goods. But in today's motorized world, sailors must concoct modern reasons to push their boats as efficiently as they can. Otherwise their outings can become meaningless meanders, where any breeze and course will suffice because there's no finish line, no competition. For me, that's where the Wednesday-night racing came in.
Now in their 46th year, the Annapolis area's races draw scores of boats, divided roughly by size and fittings, to several locations on the Magothy, Severn and South rivers. Nusbickel, my sailing guru, who like my dad was an engineer, has been racing for years on his 1968 sloop Katharine. Like many skippers, he cobbles together what crew he can from friends and neighbors who manage to leave work in time to make the 5:30 pier departure.
One windy night, after I'd been sailing with Ed just a few times, I was the only one who showed up to help crew his boat. Since I knew almost nothing about manning the sails, he appointed me helmsman. My job was to steer the boat by pushing its tiller right to go left, and left to go right. Once well underway, the boat heeled, or leaned, so sharply to the right that I had to brace my right foot against the cockpit's side, essentially making a floor of what should have been a wall. Ed scampered nimbly from stern to the slanting foredeck, doing the jobs of three crew members.
"Yee-ha! Now we're sailing!" he exulted as the boat cut through impressive waves. At the helm, wet from spray, I teetered between ecstasy and terror. I had never even practiced "man overboard" drills, and I prayed Ed wouldn't lose his grip. With his encouragement I tried to find and hold that thin balance between heading too much into the wind and too much away from it, summoning the courage to hold the course even when we were heeling so perilously that part of the deck was covered by the Magothy's flying foam. The outing left me euphoric, full of confidence and hope.
The sailing gods humbled me soon enough.
A few weeks later, on a cloudy Saturday, I decided to take my dad's dinghy -- still the only sailboat I own -- out by myself for an hour's sail. The marine weather channel warned of possible storms later in the day, so I shrugged off my sense that the wind already was rising. It was early after all. As I sailed through increasingly choppy waves, a gust coupled with a powerboat's wake suddenly knocked my boat over. Hanging on in the rough water, I watched my paddle float one way while my hat and water bottle floated another. I knew my VHF radio had sunk straight to the bottom. A cold 20 minutes later a good Samaritan powerboater helped me right the boat and tow it to shore. There I gathered my belongings and wits, thankful that no one else had been aboard.
I had done everything wrong: Stubbornly sticking to the weather forecast instead of trusting my own eyes. Failing to secure the radio and other gear inside the boat. Neglecting to wear my life jacket (which I donned after going overboard, no easy feat). Raising the centerboard, which, had I kept it lowered, would have helped stabilize the boat. And failing to realize how strong the wind was and that I should have sailed at angles to it to lessen its force.
Chagrined and discouraged, I was glad my father hadn't been there to see me. I felt as if I were back at the beginning, no more knowledgeable than when I had taken his boat out on Northwest Creek. But Ed and some other sailing neighbors encouraged me to stick with it -- sailing is a work in progress, they told me. And a few weeks later, on a glorious, sun-drenched evening, I was back out with Ed. I took the helm again, tentatively. And nothing untoward happened. I felt relieved. On subsequent Wednesdays I handled several other duties such as trimming the mainsail or helping furl and unfurl the colorful spinnaker, used for downwind runs. And gradually, I felt my confidence returning, tempered now by humility, a sailor's worthy crew mate.
One night as we slowly motored home from a race, nursing beers and watching the river's pink and purple waters fade to gray, it came to me that once, a few years after college, my brother and I had raced with our father in a North Carolina regatta. My brother knew little more about sailing than I did, and our dad's heavy boat was ill-suited to the light breeze that day. We finished almost last, but it hardly mattered. Dad talked about sailing and the house he was building and the trips he was planning with our mother. Strong and robust in his late fifties, there was no way of knowing he had less than a decade to live. We, his two boys, laughed and listened, prompted him to tell familiar stories and teased him about his boat's pokiness. Sometimes, we just watched the river and the shoreline and the other boats, content to be on the water together.
Maybe that's where the seed was planted, that would germinate years later when I slowed down enough to catch a tidal breeze and wonder how I could use it to make a sailboat go first this way and then that. Maybe I had to become less of a son and more of a father before fully appreciating the waves and rhythms that rocked my dad's slow-moving boat that day -- before realizing that it's the going that matters, not the getting there.
Charles Babington covers the White House for The Post.