Learning to Sail

A unique recreation activity offered at MIT
DEC 2019
Shashank
A.
Mechanical Engineering

As mentioned in one of my previous blogs, the trio-factors of inability to swim, belonging to a country where sailing is not common, and the presence of the Charles River, always full of sailing boats right next to the campus, instilled a desire to learn sailing in me ever since I joined MIT. But the fear of drowning long kept me from trying it out. However, thanks to the free PE classes at MIT, I learned to swim in the third year of my graduate studies here. Soon after having learned swimming, on a pleasantly-windy sunny day, one of my labmates invited me to come sailing with him. Hesitant but curious, I decided to go. The day was clear, the sky blue, and the trees were somehow looking greener than usual. After an hour of sailing, we came back alive, happy and satisfied. The experience was so plain and simple that it made me wonder: is this what I have been afraid of for the last 3 years? Just like when I had learned to swim a few months before, I again felt like the frog was out of the well

Later in the day, I asked my friend where he learned to sail, and he told me about six-hour sailing classes offered by MIT throughout the summer. To my surprise, similar to swimming classes, these classes are free. This was even more surprising given that the equipment used in sailing is pretty expensive. I went to the official website of MIT sailing and registered for the classes. Even though I was ~950 in the priority list, within 2-3 tries over one week, I was able to get into a class (2 hours a day, 3 days a week). 

Class 1: The classroom   

Class began around 5:30 pm on a Tuesday, and I was excited to go sailing all by myself. The class was full with about 17 folks in the batch. It was pretty gender uniform; interestingly, many of the attendees were not regular graduate/undergraduate MIT students. In fact, most of them were visiting students. 

On the first day, we spent most of the time in the classroom. We learned about the basics of sailing, types of knots, twisting and turning of sails, what to do in case of capsizing, level of sailing expertise one can get at MIT, types of boats we can use via the sailing club for free, and many other making-sail-ready things. In fact, day one made me think: Hmm, doesn’t seem that tough!

Class 2: The fun began

Day two was the day of real fun. The class started with us putting-on life jackets and safety helmets. We were grouped into teams of two. One person was supposed to be the rider, and the other one the balancing load/crew. My partner was a visiting undergrad student from Imperial College London. The wind was good (approximately 8 mph, pretty uniform and almost unidirectional). We readied the boat by raising the mast, besides many other things. We were told to do a clockwise turn away from the wind around an anchored ball (buoy) in the middle of the river. My fear of drowning was lessened by the fact that I was not alone on the boat, and also by the presence of instructors on a speed boat nearby, constantly observing us on each twist and turn. We took turns directing the boat and handling the mast. The day went pretty smoothly without a single capsizing in the batch, though there were a few collisions of boats within the batch –– but no one died :P

Class 3: Got to be cautious but it’s fun 

Day three was a day of less talking and more action. As soon as we arrived, we were instructed to get a boat issued in our name, take the safety equipment, ready the boat, and set out to sail at once. The instructions for the path to be followed on the water weren’t too different on day three. We were mainly told to go clockwise this time, against the wind. Between the two people on the boat, the same person was told to handle both the sail and the rudder (for controlling the direction of sail-boat), while the other person could just enjoy the view. The wind-speed was a bit higher and non-uniform compared to the previous day and, even though no one capsized, at many instances I was able to see other boats getting pretty tilted. Whenever this happened, the instructor gave us many pieces of advice to avoid capsizing, like avoiding sharp turns, tightening and releasing the sail accordingly, or using the lower height of the mast. The day ended peacefully and I was done with the classes. I was finally a sailor!!

In order to get to the next level of sailing and get access to better and bigger boats at the MIT sailing pavilion, I need to get my provisional rating, which will require a little more practice. I have been a bit lazy to go sailing for some time now but, hopefully, I will get regular once again soon. On each of the few occasions I have managed to be there to practice, I have felt a bit more confident every time, especially after learning from my (silly) mistakes.

Learning to sail was a special experience. It is one of the unique skills you get to learn at MIT for free, and it is pretty rare to see outside of Boston. If you are, or plan to be at MIT, I highly recommend learning this skill. Who knows, this could become really handy should you face a Titanic-like situation or Zombie apocalypse one day :p