A taste of the salt, Anne French

How to Sail a Boat
Matt Vance
Awa Press, $26.00,
ISBN 9781877551857

“We were about five hundred miles off the coast of California … .” That’s how Mid’s best stories start. I haven’t seen him for years now, but I still remember one particular story: how he woke up as the yacht was rolling, with the cabin top bowed under the weight of the water, inches from his face. The helmsman had fallen asleep.

All sailors have stories. That’s one of the things that enchanted me about sailing, right from the start. And it seems to have delighted Matt Vance as well, since although this book doesn’t give you very much information about how to sail a boat – in the sense of what to do – there are plenty of anecdotes about buying, owning and sailing boats. Vance has an amusing way with words, and the kind of salty wit you would expect:

Among the ten percent of boats that do sail there are subspecies. Most notable are the boats of the tinkerers. The tinkerers don’t enjoy sailing but enjoy boats .… ‘you could eat your dinner off that’ is an expression you will often hear of their handiwork …. As is their nature, tinkerers love to build boats and will spend a casual 20 years getting the details right.


Still, there is a bit – just a bit – on how to sail a boat. Vance’s advice is to buy yourself a dinghy, learn to sail it, and capsize it until you can get it back up and sailing again without getting wet: “A small sailing dinghy will dish out punishment for bad decisions swiftly, often and cheaply, which is exactly what you need to whip the landlubber out of you and beat boat handling into you.”

Excellent advice, but it doesn’t take a whole book to tell. So the rest is anecdote: racing stories; cruising stories; a synopsis of the best book on sailing ever written by a New Zealander, Johnny Wray’s South Sea Vagabonds; a précis of the amazing career of Bernard Moitessier, but precious little on technical matters. No mention of Bernoulli’s theorem, though that may not be surprising; and not much on sail trimming either.

Is that a problem? I guess it all depends on your expectations. The other titles in the series more or less deliver on the promise of their titles. In No 9, Harry Ricketts tells us how to “catch a cricket match” rather than how to play cricket. In No 3, Nick Bollinger tells us how to listen to pop music, and also how to be a teenager listening to pop music. Both books memorably evoke the experience of watching and of listening. Mention cricket, and an image of Ricketts’s kids moving off the sidelines to take the field comes irresistibly to mind. Mention pop music, and I recall what the transgressive sound of Lou Reed did to Bollinger’s teenage brain, but not what key “Walk on the Wild Side” is written in. Should we expect a book called “how to sail a boat” to provide more detail on the how? I think so, never mind how engaging the anecdotage is. It’s nice to find out how he met his wife (“I could see delight spreading across her face as the first gentle puffs of wind heeled Siward and sent a soft hiss out in the wake behind”) but it doesn’t explain, for instance, why the boat should heel and what causes the sound of the wake to change with the strength of the breeze.

Surprisingly, there is little on seamanship. Seamanship is a quality of judgement, and it is long and costly in the winning. Seamanship is built on mistakes that teach you, better than any book ever could, never to do it like that ever again.

Here is an example. I was in Turkey last month, sailing in a beautiful cruising ground off the south-west coast (along the Datça peninsula, if you know Turkey; bottom left-hand corner of the Turkey rectangle if you don’t). We left Bozburun in a half-gale from the south-east as the Beaufort scale terms it (known in Wellington as a nice day for racing), under an overcast sky, with less than five miles’ visibility.  I had done my nav, so we had way-points on the chart, in the chart plotter, and in my hand-held GPS, and they were the same points. From a navigational point of view, the only issues to consider were avoiding the reef off the end of Cape Apostoli, and staying on the Turkish side of the border with Greece. We reached down the bay from Bozburun, and ran up the coast; and once we had made our last turn around the headland we were on the wind. (Bumpy, wet, noisy.) And the wind was building steadily through the 30s (still a nice day for racing in Wellington, but a cancelled race in Auckland).

My crew wanted to go to Paradise Bay – partly, I think, because of its name. But Paradise Bay was dead upwind. Tacking in would be laborious, wet, and slow in the 10m Jeanneau, and the cruising guide gave no indication of how sheltered the bay would be in a strong SSE gale. It could very well be untenable. I’ve done my fair share of being anchored in a windy anchorage – Pelorus Sound, anyone? – so I love shelter.

Paradise Bay looked like a dumb idea to me. Suddenly I remembered the last time I foolishly acceded to the request of my crew. Not saying no meant we were out in the Hauraki Gulf during Cyclone Wilma. The cyclone had built up big swells, and working the boat around the point without taking one over the back was tricky. I promised myself that day I would never again please the crew against my better judgement.

Fast forward to Turkey. There was a brief mutinous silence, then a nod. We went to Selimiye instead, and got the last place on the village pontoon. Selimiye is well sheltered from the sou’easter and is also very beautiful. The wind eventually began to ease, the sun came out; the people were friendly; and Paradise Bay was never mentioned again.

The wind, we learned later, is called the gul. It comes from Africa and brings dust from the Sahara.

Some other things not covered in How to Sail a Boat. That sailing is “a great sport for tidy people”, as John Muirhead memorably put it. Also, on another occasion, “for pedants”.

But everything else is here: stories, insights, characters, lovely pungent language, the glamour of the sea; how once you get a taste of the salt you keep coming back. Hilarious nights in the anchorage; hard work; fear and fun and the allure of the distant horizon. Anyone for sailing in Turkey at the end of September?


Anne French is a poet and cruises in the Hauraki Gulf on Sir Christopher, her Townson 32.


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