"Slow down and think about it," my skipper, Brian Adams, repeats in a calm, firm voice as he stands in the cockpit of Rusty, a 22-foot Capri sailboat, and watches me through dark, tinted glasses. “Always have a plan when you’re sailing.”
It’s my first sailing lesson, but we are already halfway out into a large cove on Lake Murray called Hollow Creek, the boat propelled by a small outboard motor that is thrumming in my hands. We’re set to hoist the mainsail and begin moving under wind power alone, and this means my plan is to take the boat “in irons”—facing it directly into the wind—so we won’t have any resistance when we try to raise the canvas.
I ease the wooden tiller a few inches away, look up to the mast and see the weather vane is pointing directly forward, into the wind. The plan so far is good. Brian nods and scratches his beard, seemingly pleased.
My fellow crew member, Susan Benesh, boosts herself with one sandal-covered foot against the cockpit and raises the mainsail with the halyard. Her son, and my other crew member, John Benesh, tightens the Cunningham and takes out the luff in the sail. I push the tiller to the side, bearing the boat away to a broad reach, then move to cut the motor and hoist it up. Brian’s head swivels like an owl’s, monitoring every move.
“Wait, wait, wait,” he says. “You didn’t slow down and think about it enough, did you?”
Unsure of what I have done wrong, I turn to see him pointing to an orange-and-white buoy that indicates we are nearing shallow water.
“Now, if you go to turn around and bring the motor up, who is controlling the boat?” he asks.
The answer is obvious—no one. And someone, Brian has told us, must always be steering the boat.
Susan volunteers to take the tiller while I hit the kill switch and hoist the motor out of the water. The sail fills with the light breeze of a hot summer day, and Rusty eases smoothly across the lake’s surface. Without the loud sound of the motor, everything seems suddenly vivid and clear.
We can hear the waves sloshing at the hull and the soft thump of the wind as it hits the sails. We are, at last, sailing.
Nestled in the no-wake zone of Big Horse Creek near Southshore Marina, the office/classroom of Lanier Sailing Academy at Lake Murray is the perfect place for Brian Adams to greet his students with the firm handshake of a man who hoists ropes and sails for a living. Shortly after I arrive at 9 a.m. for my first Basic Keelboat Sailing 101 class, the skipper begins quizzing me and my two fellow students on the contents of the first three chapters of our textbook, the American Sailing Association’s (ASA) Sailing Made Easy.
Brian draws six sailboats on a whiteboard and asks us which point of sail each boat is on—then displays his patience by waiting a full minute for the first thing resembling an educated guess.
“There is absolutely no pressure this morning. I will be emphasizing the word ‘basic’ over and over,” he says in his diluted British accent, which seems quite fitting for a sailing instructor.
Indeed, everything about Brian Adams seems to fit with the notions of what a sailing instructor should look like— the white tennis shoes with the white tube socks, the white collared shirt tucked into the navy-blue shorts, the brown beard flecked with gray spots, the tan that would take years to scrub away.
He conducts his classes through a mixture of direct statements (“Always know the weather report when you come out sailing”), fill-in-the blank questions (“This part of the sail here is called a … ?”), witticisms (“Boats can move. Land can’t.”) and mental exercises (“If the wind is coming from this direction, and you want to go to this imaginary island, what point of sail should you use?”).
But despite appearances, Brian is not your typical sailor. He did not grow up sailing in fancy yacht clubs; he learned by taking this same introductory course at the LSA-San Francisco branch in 1992, when he was 28 and touring America by train. After a few years of self-described “booze-cruising” while working construction jobs in the Caribbean, Brian and his wife, Paula, who helps run the business, moved to Atlanta and joined the Passport Sailing Club at the LSA headquarters on Lake Lanier. Brian loved it so much that he volunteered as a dockhand and eventually decided to branch out on his own.
“Because I didn’t grow up sailing, I don’t necessarily think that sailors are a breed of their own,” he says. “I don’t think you have to be a hard-core sailor to enjoy sailing.”
“You can do it by what I call ‘sail-by-numbers’—by going through a checklist,” Brian continues. “What is poetical and mystical is when it all lines up, and the boat takes off, and it all feels right. Then you start relaxing, and you go through your checklist again, and before you know it, you’re going through your checklist without thinking about it, and then it becomes intuitive.”
Despite its stereotypical image as a leisurely sport, sailing is not inherently relaxing. There is too much to do on a sailboat to make it go in the direction you want it to go—much more than simply cranking the engine, pushing the throttle forward and turning the steering wheel.
“In sailing, you’re never in a hurry. If you want to be in a hurry, you can pay $70,000 for that,” Brian says, pointing at a cabin-cruiser as it motors past. “Sailing is not necessarily relaxing for beginners, but it can be one of the most relaxing things in the world once you get it.”
Throughout the first days of lessons, we work mostly on points of sail, tacking, jibing, docking and executing man-overboard drills.
“Sail toward the island,” Brian says. Or: “Sail toward that red-colored house.” Or: “Sail toward that observatory, count to 10, and then bear away.”
But as we begin sailing toward these reference markers, Brian will arbitrarily change his mind.
“Okay,” he says once we’ve lined up on the red-colored house. “Now I want to go back to the island.”
Thus, we never really get anywhere but instead continuously circle Hollow Creek, practicing basic maneuvers and learning the checklists by heart.
One of the most important maneuvers is tacking—an essential skill that involves turning the bow of the boat through the no-sail zone and trimming the sails to maintain a smooth forward momentum. I’m at the helm, with the tiller in hand, when Brian signals me to begin.
“Ready to tack?” I call out, and wait for John and Susan’s answer of “Ready!”
“Helm’s a-lee,” I reply, steering the tiller away from the wind. As soon as the boom of the mainsail crosses sides, I stand up, cross the tiller behind my back, and sit down on the other side of the boat—all without ever taking my eyes away from where we are headed.
For their part, Susan and John perform a ballet of their own, loosening the jib lines on one side of the boat and tightening them on the other, allowing the forward-most sail to move into position. But things don’t always go smoothly, and I am constantly amazed at how much Brian can observe that is wrong or out of place.
“You’ve got a rear-end cleat,” Brian shouts when one of us is sitting on a line, preventing it from moving.
“Your sail is trimmed in too tight,” he’ll say, correcting us. “Are your telltales happy? Are we really going in a straight line? Really? Well, look at the zigzag of your boat wake.”
The most frequent error, however, is the problem of rushing.
“Slow down and think about it. Have a plan first,” he repeats nearly a thousand times. And whenever we get comfortable for a moment, Brian will throw a new scenario into the mix—like when he tosses Sally overboard, surprising us all.
Sally makes a splash and we yell, “Crew overboard!” Then we toss her an imaginary throw cushion, keeping point on her as we bring the boat around in a figure-eight pattern to begin our rescue. Sally, fortunately, is not in any real danger. She is only a pair of old Clorox bottles knotted together with a rope—one empty, the other filled with lake rocks. But we proceed as if she were one of us, repeating the drill so many times that I begin to resent her clumsiness.
Indeed, there is a part of me that simply wants to let the wind take me down the lake (“to turn the air-conditioning on,” as they say) and not have to try a new tactic. I simply want to cruise.
“Sailors have different heads,” Brian tells me. “And they put them on at different times—different attitudes to sailing. You’ve got your racing head and your cruising head. And if you do what I do for a living, an instructing head.”
For the final sailing session of the course, I am paired up with Jonathan Welsh and Diana Ward, a married couple from Greenville, who want to learn how to sail so they can cruise the British Virgin Islands.
It is a day of storm clouds and threatening rain, but it is also the first day with any significant wind. Sensing our desire to wear our cruising heads, Brian lets us sail in one direction a little longer than normal between drills. In fact, we sail long enough and far enough for me to get caught up in a series of daydreams: extended island trips, sunset cruises— perhaps even living in a sailboat along the coast. But these daydreams only last so long. Soon enough, Sally is overboard again, and we scramble to complete our figure-eight and rescue her one more time.
Yet there is also that part of me — call it the competitive streak—that wants to wear the racing head.
“Anybody can get out there and sail a sailboat,” says Hootie Bushardt, the affable president of the Lake Murray Yacht Racing Association (LMYRA). “The question is: can you make it sail efficiently?”
So two days after I make a 94 on the written test and Brian signs off on my Keelboat Sailing 101 certification, Hootie sets me up with Roger Dougal, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of South Carolina, who agrees to let me crew on his boat for an evening LMYRA race.
When I arrive at the Columbia Sailing Club one Saturday evening in mid-July, Roger introduces me to his crew: his wife Jodi Petersen, Sydney McIver and Devin Shanks—all experienced sailors. The boat is called Tutakrnaut Too (a cryptic sailing/Hamlet reference: “to tack or not”), and it is a J/24, a world-class racing boat, intricately different from the Capri 22. For starters, it is two feet longer but has a smaller cockpit, only one jib sheet, and we will be using a spinnaker sail—something they didn’t cover in my basic course.
As we sail out to the start line, where the race officials are stationed aboard a pontoon boat, the crew acquaints me with the boat and my position on it. I will mainly be ballast—which means that I will help stabilize the boat by sitting on the windward side—but this requires me to quickly scoot and crawl across the cockpit whenever we tack, settling in on the other side of the boat with my feet dangling overboard.
As we circle the start area, switching between the spinnaker and the jib, Roger tells me that this will be a pursuit- start race, in which each boat will begin at a certain time based on its rating. As one of the faster boats, we will begin our race nearly eight minutes after the start horn.
“But we want to be going as fast as we can when we cross the start line,” he says. “So get ready.”
In the meantime, we scout the serious competition among the 13 boats on the water—two other J/24s and a San Juan 21. Roger and Devin plot out their course based on the wind, drawing imaginary lines with their fingers on the cockpit, as they decide when and where they want to have a certain sail position.
And then we are off, sailing as fast as we can towards the first marker buoy on the four-mile course. Even with the strong wind and relatively fast speeds, the race still requires chess-like strategy. We are constantly trying to find pockets of wind on the water, deciding when to tack, and judging our position in relation to the other boats.
When we do tack, Roger turns the boat, the jib sail snaps, the boom crosses the cockpit. I scramble, trying to stay out of the way, as Devin, Jodi and Sydney all perform their assigned tasks in a choreographed routine so quick that as we round the first mark and hoist the spinnaker for a downwind sail, we take a lead that we will never relinquish. The crew’s experience and discipline put us ahead for good.
So much so, in fact, that Roger cracks open a beer three minutes before the end of the race and lets me control the spinnaker as we cross the finish line.
Afterward, the sun is setting and the wind is dying down and the dark Lake Murray night is coming on, we sail back to the dock slowly with the spinnaker. Roger has taken off his racing head and put on his instructing head, showing me the finer points of handling the oversized sail, but I, for one, have put on the cruising head at last, enjoying our unhurried pace beneath the first stars.
A beginner’s guide to sailing lingo
Tack: To change course by turning the bow of the boat through the wind.
Jibe: To change course by turning the stern of the boat through the wind.
Jib: A triangular sail set forward of the mainmast.
Spinnaker: A large, lightweight, rounded sail used when sailing downwind.
Sheet: A line used to control the alignment of a sail relative to the boat and the wind.
No-sail zone: The zone in relation to the wind where the sails cannot generate power.
Broad reach: The point of sail at a 90-degree angle to the wind.
Joe Waters and the quest for the perfect sail.
Jan Jerigan and the need for speed.
Learning the ropes
Basic keelboat certification courses offered through the American Sailing Association (ASA) or U.S. Sailing cost between $500 and $600 and include three days of classroom instruction and practical sailing. For more information, contact these South Carolina sailing schools.
320 Big Water Road, Starr, SC 29864, (864) 226-3339
Charleston City Marina, 17 Lockwood Drive, Charleston, SC 29401, (843) 277-4236
Southshore Marina, 3072 Hwy 378, Leesville, SC 29070, (803) 317-9070,
24 Patriots Point Rd., Mount Pleasant, SC 29464,(843) 971-0700
Lake Murray Sailing Clubs
292 Shuler Road, Columbia, SC 29212, (803) 781-4518
Founded in 1957, the Columbia Sailing Club is the oldest and most established club on the lake and hosts the popular Outback Cup Regatta in the fall and the Easter Regatta in the spring.
Southshore Marina, 3072 Hwy. 378, Leesville, SC 29070, (803) 317-9070
The Happy Sails Club is a part of the Lanier Sailing Academy at Lake Murray and offers one of the best deals on the lake. For a one-time initiation fee of $750 ($500 for recent LSA graduates) and a monthly fee of $99, members can enjoy access to three sailboats, and participate in club activities.
235 Old Forge Road, Chapin, SC 29036, (803) 345-0073,
A private sailing club in Chapin, LMSC hosts clinics, classes, races and several regattas: The San Juan 21 North American Championship, the Flying Scot Master’s National Championship, the Mallory Cup Quarter Finals and the Flying Scot Carolinas District Championship.
LMYRA started as a group of sailors who wanted to promote good racing on Lake Murray. It has representatives from every yacht club and sponsors races in the spring, summer and fall.
Windward Point Yacht Club
164 Mystic Court, Irmo, SC 29212, (803) 781-2285
Windward Point Yacht Club has been around since 1985 and promotes itself as “a fleet of sailors who take sailing seriously, but not ourselves.” Like the other sailing clubs, it hosts clinics, classes, races, and cruising trips, but you are more likely to find events with titles such as the “Luau and Beer Can Race.”