Chuck Zauzig went sailing for the first time in his 30-year-old life a few weeks ago. With his wife at his side and a friend who claimed to be experienced at the tiller, Zauzig set sail from Alexandria's Belle Haven Marina in a 19-foot Flying Scot, caught a fair Potomac River breeze and promptly tipped over.
Everyone got dunked. But only Zauzig caught a fever.
"I figured if that was the worst thing that ever happened, it's okay," said the tall, dark-haired attorney. "Even with tipping over, it was a lot of fun."
Last week Zauzig returned to Belle Haven for more sailing. But this time he paid Grenville Dodge, an instructor at the Mariner Sailing School, to show him how. For a total of 10 hours, during four consecutive nights, Zauzig learned to rig sails, tack and jibe, and make tight, graceful turns to rescue floating life preservers.
He was also taught rules for watery right of way, a bit of yacht racing lore and the basics of a new language.
"Out here we don't say go around the right side," said Dodge after Zauzig had given just such a command. "We say to starboard."
Let the economy flounder and unemployment surge, as long as summer winds continue to blow, sailors will be lured to sea. Boat sales have never been higher. This year $9 billion will be spent on stinkpots (motor boats) and rag pickers (sailboats). And schools like Mariner will draw new recruits, enticed by the sight of bright sails against azure skies.
"We get all kinds of people here," said Dodge, who has been teaching at Mariner for two years. Not all students take to it naturally. Some lose interest when they discover how much there is to learn. Others lose their breath when they find themselves heeling at 30 degrees far, far from shore.
"I've had people so scared you can see their finger impressions on the tiller when they let go," said a laughing Dodge, who has a sailing instructor's tan and a belly chuckle that seems to start below the waterline. "But anybody who really tries will learn to sail in four lessons."
There are other places to learn sailing in the Washington area, but maybe none so close, that looks so far from downtown as Belle Haven. The marina, which is a few miles south of Old Town Alexandria beside the George Washington Parkway, is surrounded by Dykes Marsh, a lush, 28-acre bird sanctuary. And the Maryland shore, for the moment at least, is still overgrown and undeveloped.
The marina fits comfortably into that scene. It is clean, but hardly spit shined. And there are a comfortable number of kids and dogs with free run of the place, including Luke, who may be the world's only nonswimming Laborador retriever.
"Don't write that down," jokes Julie Stevens. "He belongs to George."
George is Julie's brother and a partner in the operation of the marina and its sailing school. He would like to see some improvements in the marina, including a blacktop cover on the now gravel road and a new seawall, but compared to the way it looked when he took over in 1976, he concedes the place is almost posh looking.
Four years ago, a visiting writer painted Belle Haven as home to "Some of the weirdest floating and used-to-be floating contraptions imaginable . . . battered old wooden cruisers, home-made trimarans two-thirds under water and dinky little sailing boats that have more freeboard than sail area." Stevens says the description was a fair one.
"It was routine for us to have a boat on the bottom and for nobody to know who it belonged to," said the 29-year-old who grew up in McLean. "We don't allow boats like that in here anymore."
Belle Haven is still a poor cousin to docks like the Gangplank when it comes to floating fashion. But that is part of its appeal to customers like George Johnston.
"This is a more natural-type marina. It doesn't have all the modern conveniences, but it has everything you need," said Johnston, who has been docking his 19-foot sailboat at Belle Haven for three years.
Belle Haven also has the sailing school where kids and adults learn to skipper sunfish, sailboards and Flying Scots.
"This is a release from my practice," said Zauzig, referring to his Prince William County criminal and personal injury law practice. Last week Zauzig spent his mornings watching the wind in the trees outside his office and the late afternoons evading the law to ride those winds on the water.
"It's great to have a student who knows what he's doing," said Zauzig's teacher. "He picked it up very fast."
"I feel comfortable enough now to handle a boat," said the graduate after his last class. "And I figure I have the rest of my life to practice."