In a previous post (Learning to Gybe), I wrote about learning to sail in my father’s Norwegian dinghy. I had mentioned learning to sail in the mountains.
I’ve been reflecting on the two different aspects, being in the mountains, and being on the water.
My early years were spent car-camping. There may have been backpackers but we had never seen one. To be sure, there were various Cub and Boy Scout excursions, but these were rather tame and large group affairs, generally at lower elevations or Yosemite.
My father liked going way back and up high. He was king of the logging roads, and there wasn’t a forest service road that he hadn’t been on at least twice. The brown road dust was inches thick in our vehicle’s wheel wells.
Car camping in those days was not a lightweight expedition. In some ways the old black& white movies of being on safari in Africa reminded me of how we set up our camp. Big heavy wooden tables, chairs, food cupboards, ice chest, water cooler. We always needed a big station wagon and later a full size pickup to carry everything.
It would be fair to say that we did not suffer the wild. Packing and unpacking took hours with lots of clever jigsaw organizing. Adding a folding chair and a new two burner camp stove meant a complete switch of what went where. I believe my father saw this as a satisfying challenge.
It was a major shock to go on the road hitchhiking, particularly when my partner and I were going to “camp” most of the time. My experience in the woods was vast and deep, but I had lots of backup, and comfortable furniture. I was used to a kitchen, bedrooms, a fireside room, even a bath room.
Carrying everything with you didn’t allow for that.
I had seen a drawing of a Confederate soldier that was on the road, marching from one battle to another. He carried everything necessary, a bedroll, a canteen, a food sack, an oiled rain sheet, and then his weapons. For some reason, I chose to mimic his pack.
I rolled my sleeping bag, lashed a canvas bag underneath, filled the bag with rice and beans, a couple of extra t-shirts, tied an army canteen (with cup) to the side and I was done. All I had to do was attach a sling to carry it over my shoulder.
What was I thinking?
The US Army was using back rucksacks using two straps for at least a hundred years, but I was choosing to base my technique on how a defeated rebel soldier carried his gear. I suppose I thought, he was poor and made due, so should I.
Well, I can tell you that carrying all that crap on a single shoulder was painful, and possibly disfiguring. When I stopped to rest, laid my pack aside, I tended to walk in an arc, dragging one hand nearly to my knees while the opposite shoulder was tucked under my ear.
The very next year I bought an aluminum pack frame with two padded shoulder straps. A far better way to travel in the mountains or on the road. I still tied everything to the frame, but it was a start. The ripstop pack, the little pouches, various storage compartments came later, finally I could carry 60 pounds without complaint. 60 pounds was about standard for three months hiking and traveling.
With my house on my back I found that I was not limited to my Dad’s dusty roads. I went higher and deeper. And my experience on the trail was deeper still.
For the next ten years I was a man of the mountains, making my pack lighter in order to carry more food and water, keeping me on the mountain longer before having to come down. I hiked through Yellowstone, much of the Pacific Crest trail (Northern California), the Cascades in Washington, Three Sisters in Oregon, Black Rock Desert in Nevada, Moab in Utah and the coastal ranges in N. California. I was clearly comfortable in the woods.
Then one day a friend of mine took me out on the Bay in his 22 ft Santana sailboat.
Suddenly I was flooded with past experiences.
At the peak of our car-camping experience, my oldest brother shipped a dinghy sailboat by rail from Virginia where he was stationed. He thought my father would like to fish from a dinghy. I remember going to the train station to pick it up. I don’t remember how it was strapped in the rail car, but I remember that my father could pick it up by himself, and he strapped it to the back of our pickup. It fit perfectly, almost like a camper top. The curved bottom, the shiny strips of varnished mahogany, the rounded bow hanging over the tailgate made a perfect picture of fun and adventure.
The real beauty was that the addition of the boat did not change the structure of the packed pickup, we simply covered everything with the boat. We were now empowered with a vehicle that traveled on water.worked
My father then worked out all the logging roads that included lakes, and that next summer we revisited some of our favorite spots. Mountain lakes can be natural, but very often they are reservoirs, man-made lakes with a dam. The dam could be earthen or more conventional concrete. Often the dam would create a lake that was similar to an out stretched palm. The dam was at the wrist, and each finger was like an inlet of the lake. The wind would travel down the valleys or inlets, heading to the dam.
A sailboat on the lake would sail downwind on the little finger, sail across the wrist, then tack into the wind up the thumb. You could always turn around and repeat the experience. Those were the best lakes.
The long, single valley lake, provided a long series of zigzag tacks against the wind, then if you’re smart, you spin about, and sailed home with the wind, when you were tired.
I spent hours sailing on both types. I sailing with wind, with a soft breeze, and I even sailed with no wind (pumping the boom by hand). We were camped at a lake high in the Sierras, it might have been Frenchman’s reservoir, it was long, fairly wide, and I had set off in the late morning.
There was a steady breeze against me so I set a course that included dozens of long tacks that took me close to both sides of the lake while I made progress forward. The end of this lake appear to be a solid rock wall with jagged peaks carrying pockets of snow. It was Alpine and beautiful.
I was just deciding that I had gone far enough when I saw the first cloud peek over the ridge, and the cloud was dark. Almost immediately the wind came. It was a wind that came so quick, that the water of the lake couldn’t adjust. The wind just ripped off the tops of the normal waves for that afternoon. I would say the wind speed easily doubled if not tripled in the first five minutes. The thunder cloud was now rising fast, extending high above the peaks, but not yet moving towards them.
I had turned the boat around and extended the boom as far out as possible. The angle of the wind was coming from the rear but slightly from the right. I could tell that I had a good chance of sailing straight into camp. Of course I had gone so far that I could barely make out the beach that I had left from. I was in the middle of the lake, the wind in my sails, and the waves had been flattened into mist. I was off like a shot.
About halfway home the waves were finally conforming to the wind and creating whitecaps that curled their way to the shore. They made a hissing sound as they broke over the top and spilled down the face of wave. By now I was moving almost as fast as the wind, so for a few minutes I was surfing on each wave.
I had read where in the deep ocean, sailboats would actually loose wind in the trench, only to be ripped apart on the crest. The waves were not that big, my sail was constantly in the wind. The boat was wallowing a little, and I began to fear that it would suddenly go sideways. I had to be very sharp on the tiller to keep a straight line.
I had the ability to “shorten” sail by reducing the sail area. In big boats you simply turn a winch and the sail tucks into the boom or the mast, like a window shade. On this dinghy I had to manually reef the sail by tying up the bottom two feet of the sail. Holding the tiller and tucking nylon under pressure was one of the more difficult things I’ve done. The shortened sail controlled the wallowing of the boat so it was safer, but it did nothing about the speed. If anything it seemed that I was going faster with more control.
Speed in a boat is measured in knots and there are physical laws that determine how fast the boat may go. It is a factor of the length and the displacement of the boat. A boat sitting in the water cannot exceed this factor, there is a limit to the overall speed. You can note this when you notice that the wind is much faster than the boat. It hits the back of your head, curls around your ears, and then takes locks of your hair to beat your eyeballs.
However, if your boat gets out of the water, raises up, and surfs, it is possible to sail as fast as the wind, and the experience on the boat is somewhat like being in the eye of a hurricane. It is weirdly still, no wind before or in back. Others sounds are magnified, the stress of the lines, the creak of the mast, and the forever hissing of the breaking waves.
I was getting closer to the camp and beach, so now I must have a plan to stop this ride. In a big boat you simply turn into the wind, drop anchor, set the anchor, then drop sails. Haha, what anchor? If I tried to turn into the wind I would turtle, and the boat would beat me to the bottom of the lake, after the broken mast had impaled me.
What I decided to do was to drop the sail, pull up the centerboard that was acting as my keel, then simply plow up upon the soft sand. It was a gradual beach, not too steep, I thought it was a good plan. Except I wasn’t certain that I could slowly drop the sail, keeping the nylon in the boat. Plan B was to cut the halyard that was holding the sail up. I might have a flopping mess but the yardarm of my Gunther rig might make it okay. I came into the beach with one hand holding the knife, one hand holding the tiller, and one hand ready to pull up the centerboard. Obviously not enough hands.
I hit the surf, I dropped the sail (no knife), and I pulled the centerboard sharply and perfectly. Milliseconds later, I heard a grinding drag and then almost a pop. The rudder had hit the beach and was forced upwards, exploding the pintles out of the gudgeons. The rudder and tiller fell neatly into the boat and I was about three yards up on the dry beach.
It was then that I noticed that I had attracted quite a crowd. My family and all the nearby campers had come down to the beach to see how I was planning to end my journey. It would have been perfect, except for the pintles and gudgeons.
I had forgotten how much I knew about sailing. The mountains had captured me in their heights and mists. But the waves had also measured my spirit, and in time we moved up to a twenty foot boat, then a thirty foot boat, and finally a forty-one foot boat. It was a good exchange for the time and my family, the skills of mountain and sail were similar and different.
The boats are now all gone, and I only drive into the mountains. But I feel like either experience is a future, because my comfort is so great.