If you start with an understanding of navigation, the sport can be quick and easy to learn, says Lindsay Lowe, ’05.
- By October 10, 2015
- Media Entertainment and Sports
I started sailing at Cornell University, where I joined the club team. I also spent a semester at sea. It’s a bug that bites you. After college I moved to San Francisco and bought a decrepit, leaky, 20-foot sailboat for $1,000. That’s where I learned to sail single-handedly. With solo sailing, I can just go. I’m not counting on anyone.
At Booth, two years later, I had to set aside sailing. The Chicago boating season is short, and I concentrated on my studies. Once I was out of school, I got back on the water. That I could let go of sailing and focus on something else was an important life lesson—one that has also made it easier to step back from racing while my daughter is young. When you leave something behind, the desire doesn’t disappear. You have to wait until the opportunity returns.
Sailing alone on the ocean is the ultimate act of self-sufficiency. You’re out for five days, just you. It’s beautiful and fun and lovely, but something always happens—a catastrophe—and you have to learn how to deal with it yourself. One day I had a light wind and lumpy seas, so I set the spinnaker [the large triangular sail]. But it failed to fill with air and instead slowly wrapped itself around the headstay. This giant piece of bulky fabric knotted and left me exposed if a squall came up.
It took me 26 hours, in two-to three-hour shifts, to get that knot out. More than one full day on one knot! The whole time I was saying to myself, “Why am I doing this? Why can’t I have a normal hobby? I’m never sailing offshore again. This is insane.” I was miserable, in tears. But the moment I got it undone, I recovered. I even set the spinnaker again.
To qualify for the Bermuda One-Two, a sailor must go out overnight completely offshore. A friend was so spooked by this experience that he quit sailing. But I found my place. I’d brought the boat to Cape May, New Jersey, and took it out. I could see the lights of Atlantic City, the buildings receding, then gone. Out on the ocean alone, I got this rush of adrenaline. I wasn’t scared. I thought, “I love this.”
For experienced sailors, there are two kinds of races: “around the buoy” and distance. The buoy races are contained, formal, and strategic, demonstrating a sailor’s skill at getting around a triangle of points. More interesting to me are distance races because you are actually going somewhere. One of my favorites is the Governor’s Cup, on Chesapeake Bay. It’s 70 miles. You race through the night and finish as the sun’s coming up.
To sail and race, you’ll need a good understanding of navigation. There are phone apps, but I gained a formal understanding from my semester at sea, when I learned traditional navigation skills on paper charts. How many skills in life are still this refreshingly elemental?
Other than the America’s Cup, racing isn’t a spectator sport. My husband is also a sailor, and now that we have a toddler, we take our powerboat out to watch the start of a race. Our daughter, Penny, smiles and waves to every passing boat. Watching her enjoy the wind and waves is at least as much fun as participating in a race ourselves. She loves her life jacket and insists on wearing it around the house. She’ll be racing her own boat in no time.
Instruction: Sailing is fairly quick and easy to learn—a 12- to 15-hour course can teach you the basics. Look for classes that fulfill the American Sailing Association’s international standards. ASA 101, for example, certifies you to skipper a sloop-rigged keelboat of 20 to 27 feet, by day, in light to moderate wind and sea conditions. Completing ASA 104 allows you to helm a bareboat charter, overnight, anywhere in the world. Each level is four or five three-hour sessions. Cost: $24 per hour, on average, or $1,250 and up for weeklong instruction.
Racing: The best way to get a taste of sailing competitively can mean nothing more than showing up: Appear at a yacht club and offer to crew in a “beer can” race, a casual, short-distance competition. A skipper ultimately wants experienced crew, according to Lowe, but there’s also value in someone who can simply sit on the rail—contributing his or her weight. Over time, the rail sitter who’s a good observer will learn different roles such as trimming the jib and the main. Cost: zero.
Equipment: The sun always shines in sailing photos, but don’t be fooled: “To sail means to be OK with being cold, wet, and tired,” said Lowe. Figure $400 to $1,000 for foul-weather gear (pants, shirt, and jacket). Deck shoes start at $70.
Boat Owning, Boat Sharing: Sailboats cost from $20,000 to $250,000, depending on size, weight, finishes, and age. Small “dinghy” sailboats cost about $3,500 new. Racing sailboats are lightweight and minimal and are similar in cost even with far fewer amenities. Leisure sailboats can be fully outfitted with TVs, ample bedding, refrigeration, and cooking equipment—to the point of housing a dozen people for a long weekend.
What’s Next: Lowe and her husband talk about taking a few years off to cruise as a family. “We’d hit Patagonia, Cape Horn, the South Pacific, and Asia, and Penny would learn about the world firsthand.”
“Out on the ocean alone, I got this rush of adrenaline. I wasn’t scared. I thought, ‘I love this.’”
There’s a reason Lowe lives here. The state capital, equidistant from Baltimore and Washington, DC, vies with Newport, Rhode Island, as the sailing capital of the United States.
Newport, Rhode Island
Newport is the ultimate old-money resort town devoted to sailing. Countless prestigious races start here, including Lowe’s favorite solo venture, the Bermuda One-Two.
San Francisco, California
Sailors appreciate San Francisco Bay for its challenging conditions: fast water, shipping traffic, and intense fog. The city hosted the 2013 America’s Cup.
Auckland, New Zealand
The “City of Sails” is dotted with volcanoes and is home to more than a dozen sailing schools. Team New Zealand, based in Auckland, has won the America’s Cup twice since 1995.
La Rochelle, France
Four hundred miles southwest of Paris, La Rochelle has been a center for French sailing off the Atlantic Coast since the late 19th century. Medieval towers mark the port, and the region’s vintners deliver Bordeaux dockside.
The America’s Cup is the oldest international sporting trophy and the gold standard, attracting the world’s best sailors—only 11 may crew—and a newly revived television audience. People still talk about where they were in 2013 when defender Oracle Team USA representing the Golden Gate Yacht Club came back from certain defeat against Emirates Team New Zealand to seize the cup. Next race: Bermuda, June 2017.
The Volvo Ocean Race is the premier around-the-world offshore race, touching four oceans and five continents over a nine-month period, and watched by 2 billion television viewers worldwide. It begins in Alicante, Spain, and finishes in Gothenburg, Sweden. Next race: fall 2017.
The Vendee Globe is the pinnacle of ocean events, the “Everest” of sailing. It’s the only nonstop, around-the-world, offshore, singlehanded race. It takes place over four months. As few as one-third complete the course. The start and finish are out of Les Sables d’Olonne, on the west coast of France. Next race: November 2016.
The Rolex Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race is an annual offshore regatta in the rough waters between Australia and Tasmania, attracting 100 racing yachts for the 628-mile Boxing Day “sprint.” Begun in 1945, it’s known for a 1998 storm, when only 44 of 115 boats finished. Next race: December 2015.
The Rolex Fastnet Race is a popular 600-mile inshore and offshore race on the coast of the United Kingdom, from Cowes, around Fastnet Rock, on to Plymouth. Last time it was run, it attracted 350 vessels. A 1979 storm killed 15 crew members and three rescuers. Next race: August 2017.
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