A few years before buying the boat that would ultimately take me to Key West, I learned on the S/V Miss Lady, an old 19 foot sailboat I found at Weiss Lake. And so my love affair with sailing began…
Almost 10 years ago, some friends and I were hanging out at the lake over winter break when we discovered an old sailboat in the woods behind my folks cabin. Looking for an excuse to spend a month or two at the lake that summer, I managed to convince my parents to let me stay at the cabin long enough to restore the boat & learn how to sail.
Fast forward a few months, and my friend Andy and I began to free the boat from the rotten limbs, mulch & pine straw that had kept it buried for so many years. As we began working, the pieces just fell into place. We found the sails and rudder in the corner of a closet and Dad found the boat’s papers in an old filing cabinet. We learned that the boat was a Lightning design, built in 1971. By my best guess, it began collecting pine straw roughly the same year.
I picked up a book at Borders that had lots of diagrams and drawings and spent the better part of Spring semester trying to learn how to restore, and sail, a sailboat. So by the time Andy and I were ready to begin working, I knew plenty of the theory, but had no experience to back it up. This would have been quite apparent had you been there to witness the first time I put the boat in the water.
Andy & I had done as much as we could do on the boat & enjoyed the lake as much as we could before his career began & we had to go back to our real lives. I lined up a job at a sailing charter outfit on Lake Lanier, and Andy began employed life with the American Cancer Society. By July I had obtained the final pieces the boat required, and it was time to see if she would float.
So on the fam’s 4th of July trip to the lake, I decided that Dad & I would try to sail. At this point, I still hadn’t begun my job at Lanier yet, so my only knowledge of sailing had come from the newly worn pages of that book I was telling you about. I was still clueless, but certainly didn’t want Dad to know that.
The sail that goes at the front of the boat, the jib, was still a bit confusing to me, and the drawings in the book weren’t quite clear enough for me to figure out how to connect it to the boat yet, so we decided our first attempt would be under mainsail alone.
Lightning sailboats have a 200 lb steel centerboard that pivots down about 4 1/2 feet in the water when fully lowered. When raised, the boat can go in water as shallow as 5 inches. We didn’t know any of this at the time.
Truthfully, when mom towed us to the middle of the lake with the waverunner, I didn’t even realize the boat had a centerboard at all. No experience, remember. Thankfully I realized it before I raised the sail, and began searching for the proper method of lowering it into the water.
After much deliberation, it was determined that a small metal pin was holding the centerboard up, and we needed to somehow knock it out of its hole for the centerboard to drop. We flagged mom down in her waverunner and requested a few tools.
I now know that there was a pulley and winch mechanism that aided in raising and lowering the centerboard.
That would have been good to know then.
Once tools were acquired and Mom was safely back in her chair on the dock, we proceeded to knock out the pin holding up the centerboard. Unfortunately, we were successful. As soon as the pin was free, all 200 lbs of the steel blade pivoted on it’s hinge and dropped into the water in highly dramatic fashion.
The way the centerboard trunk is designed on a Lightning, when the centerboard is lowered, you can actually see water inside the trunk. It’s not a threat, however, since the walls of the trunk reach well above the waterline. Dad did not know this. To this day, I can still picture him, wearing his oversize life vest, screaming for Mom to get back on the waverunner and rescue him from the boat he thought was surely sinking.
It wasn’t, thankfully, and he eventually realized that we were going to be ok. After a few more minutes he gave me the all-clear to raise the mainsail. The next 2 hours were a blur. The fickle lake wind was extremely kind to us on this particular day, providing gusts when we needed to get moving and lulls when we were dangerously approaching a dock or heeling to the point of near-capsize.
Heeling, by the way, describes the state in which the sailboat leans exceptionally far to one side or the other, almost to the point that you’d feel safer jumping out of the boat and swimming back to the dock yourself. It’s also a term that was conspicuously left out of my how-to-sail book. I shall someday write the author to express my dissatisfaction regarding said omission. I digress.
There are few things on Earth more peaceful than a boat traveling under sail. The water splashing against the hull, the wind whistling through the rigging, the distinct lack of a noisy motor. It’s awe-inspiring to think that this was the primary method of long-distance travel until only very recently in our humanly existence.
After a while, we finally decided it was time to head back for dinner. I mean, we were practically the grown equivalent of a infant who discovered his legs and learned to walk all in the same day, for goodness sake.
One slight issue.
I don’t seem to recall a chapter in the book about how to stop, either. Boats don’t have breaks. And this particular sailboat had no motor, therefore no “reverse” gear to soften a dock approach. A bit of an oversight, but after the ups & downs we’d had so far that day, we knew we could figure it out somehow.
After sailing past the dock for the 4th time (much closer than the 2nd time, but not quite as close as the 3rd), we finally did figure it out. It was simple really…sail as far away from the dock as you can and drop the sails. Then, motion for your mother to get on the waverunner and tow you back in. Works every time.