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Sailing Through Parenting

Sailing Lessons

Alexandra Newman

I should have taken sailing lessons before I had kids. But I came to sailing late when my kids were nearly adults. Even so, the parallels were striking. 

Every Wednesday night I rode my bike to one of dilapidated sailing clubs skirting Toronto’s harbour where Albacore dinghies lined up in rows on the pock-marked lawn, the gentle slap-slap of metal halyards against masts a deceptive peace. I was taking classes with students the age of my kids. Only one other woman was on the far side of middle age.

We learned our lessons well, though, and within a few weeks I could rig a boat, rattle off the points of sail, knew when to tack or gybe. It got so I could tell the speed and direction of wind before class from riding my bike to the club. When the wind blows from east or west at about 6 kts/hour, the boat practically sails itself. But a wind from the north can be switchy, changing direction on a whim. And a gusty wind from the south can give you trouble out on the lake. 

In a gusty wind, the boat can easily heel -- tipping over so far the gunwale kisses the water and the crew person must quickly hike out on the opposing side to balance the boat.  (Basic Cruising Skills by Gillian West)

One evening, when the wind was high out of the north, I got paired with “Rick” a bare-chested late 20-something wearing a ball cap backwards. He claimed to have passed the CanSail test, but after two minutes on the water it was clear he had not. 

In a dinghy, jobs are clearly defined – there are only two after all – the skipper who maneuvers the tiller, mainsail and boom, and the crew who handles the jib (the front sail). Your job as crew is to make sure the boat is balanced, compensating when it dips to one side or the other.  Dinghies are notoriously tippy, so the crew person has to act fast – you sit on a gunwale, feet tucked under the hiking line, ready to jump fast to the other gunwale when the sails change during a tack or gybe. 

In a high wind, with an excellent skipper, this is exhilarating. 

With Rick, it was scary. He jerked the tiller back and forth, like he was riding a mechanical bull in a seedy 1980s bar. Predictably, the boat pitched and rolled. No sooner would I hike out, than he'd yank the tiller the other way; my side would then dip perilously close to the water, and I’d scramble to the other gunwale to hike out again for balance. 

The wind kept switching that night too – from the north one second, due south the next – and the boat zigzagged back and forth, pushing into the bay and out towards the lake. 

As he whooped with glee, I gritted my teeth and dashed from side to side to keep us afloat. 

He got peevish: “You need to relax. All that jumping around is making the boat real tippy.”

If you knew what you were doing, I wouldn’t have to, I snapped back.

The skipper’s main responsibility is the safety of the crew and the boat. The crew’s responsibility is to obey and assist the skipper.

Neither of us was following that script.

When the whistle blew to switch positions, I demanded we go in. I was queasy and soaked to the skin. Blood was already pooling into bruises on the backs of my calves, thighs and butt where the centreboard trunk and gunwales left their imprint. 

This is what they call body memory. 

Cycling home that night, I obsessed over every detail, angry with myself for not taking the tiller. I knew Rick was a terrible sailor. 

But he had something I didn’t -- unbridled confidence. Which is why I flunked the practical part of the sailing test – TWICE. I don’t like taking responsibility. Too afraid I’ll fail, my body and brain freeze simultaneously. 

In sailing, not taking responsibility spells disaster. Because out there on the water, with a switchy wind, shit happens fast. 

It’s the same with kids.

Wind is invisible, of course, but you can see and feel its effects. Look about you. Are flags limp or fluttering gently, or are they flying out straight? In what direction are they blowing, which way are the low clouds moving?

In sailing, the more you throw yourself into all kinds of weather the better you are at reading external conditions and trimming the sails accordingly. In parenting, I created scenarios and responses in my head. 

The first six months of my son’s life I didn’t sleep thanks to the recurring nightmares of pulling him out from under an 18-wheeler (we lived on a quiet residential street), or saving him from a rip tide (we lived nowhere near the ocean). 

The fears were needless – it was smooth sailing with my son. 

My daughter, coming along six years later, was a different animal. Restless from the get-go, always wanting to be out, away from home, into the world, at three begging for sleepovers and furious that other moms weren’t keen on diapered overnight guests. 

The roaming expanded in her teens, so I finally broke down and got us both cell phones. Initially, I figured I could use her phone as leverage, taking it away if she was rude, or neglected her homework. But it became too valuable a lifeline for me to do such a thing. 

Her daily texts would read: Can I hang out with so-and-so? Can I go down to the fireworks, we won’t be late (her idea of late is after midnight, and she wears short cut-offs). 

My only line of defence a worn-out mantra -- you are only 13. I worried she was going to turn out badly because I hadn’t provided enough of either love or discipline, or because I was distracted by her father leaving me for someone else.

You must adjust the sails … to take best advantage of the wind. Trim is concerned with sail shape and the angle of the sail relative to the wind direction [so] to trim your sails for maximum performance you must know where the wind is coming from. 

One Saturday night I waited at a friend’s place for my daughter to call for a pick-up. My own calls went immediately to voice mail, so by midnight I drove home to wait. Eventually I noticed her bedroom door was locked from inside. Banging on the door, rattling the knob and shouting threats were met with silence. I pushed in a ruler and slid up the latch. 

She was sprawled on the bed, passed out in vomit, not moving and her skin a waxy pallor.

I’d heard about this kind of thing and for a moment of paralysis thought she might be dead. I shook her. She breathed. 

I called her father, waking him up. He was so groggy I hung up, and tried getting her on her feet again, yanking under her arms, trying to move her, get her off the bed. This is what dead weight feels like, I thought, her feet sliding out so that her body slumped to the floor. 

My ex-husband called back. He said try waking her and then monitoring her breathing before you call an ambulance. 

I threw a clean sheet over the vomit, and lay down beside her, dozing off, waking every five minutes to shove her hard enough to stimulate breathing. 

None of this stuff was in the parenting manuals I’d read. But there was something in the sailing manual:  

Sooner or later, you will find yourself in strong winds. If you have practiced your boat handling skills in gentler winds you will welcome the challenge. 

Not sure about the welcome part, but it comes whether wanted or not. 

A year after the vomit experience, I was woken from a deep sleep by the phone showing my daughter’s number. I answered, and a man asked for me. His voice had the same timbre as a cop and my lizard brain cried out “No, no, no, no, no.” 

He spoke over the wailing: “She’s been hit by a car but will be alright.” (How can breaking the fucking windshield be all right?) 

Stepping into jeans on the floor, and grabbing wallet and keys, I drove too fast to where she was sitting white-faced in an ambulance. The boyfriend was likewise in shock, but at least able to ramble through what happened. They’d left a party, walked along the sidewalk, when she decided to cross the street, looking one way but not the other. Alcohol was involved.  The bf saw the car coming and screamed but she didn’t hear because of the earbuds.

Thankfully, the driver heard him and was able to brake. Not soon enough to avoid hitting her, but at least slowing the impact. Thankfully, he was coming home from tutoring and not a night of drinking. 

As the ambulance took off for the hospital, I called her father to say I was coming to pick him up. He didn’t answer, so I drove to his house and banged on the door until he got up. En route to the hospital I filled in the details.


The nurses allowed me to sleep in the empty hospital bed in my daughter’s room. I refrain from lecturing her, partly because if she hasn’t learned something from this she never will. But mostly it’s because I can’t bear to verbalize where this could have gone. 

Encountering wind and waves while sailing a small tippy dinghy are things I would rather do without. But if you remain forever on dry land, you will never experience the exhilaration that comes from slicing through the water in a high wind, free of panic because you’ve learned – and earned – the talent for responding appropriately to sudden changes. 

As for my children, they are fully functioning, grown up -- alive. So maybe I haven’t been such a bad skipper after all, even though they haven’t taken up sailing. Yet. Perhaps they will when they have kids. I might even suggest it.

Alex is a writer and editor living in Toronto with her Lab puppy and aging cat. The kids are well and truly launched and can now enjoy sailing, kayaking and canoeing without anxiety!


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