- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2003

Fred Wilson takes his morning coffee on the water, often getting through a full pot as his student skippers work on the rudiments of small-sailboat handling under the lee of the nation's capital.

"This is my office," he says, looking out upon a broad expanse of the Potomac River on a recent Monday morning.

Mr. Wilson, 55, teaches beginning, intermediate and advanced sailing classes through the Mariner Sailing School at Belle Haven Marina in Alexandria.

Classes just started at the beginning of the month and will run every day but Friday through October, during the regular sailing season. The beginner class has five students heading out with other instructors, which Mr. Wilson says is average for a Monday.

"It gets pretty packed out here on the weekends. And nice weather will probably bring out more people than normal, given the winter we had."

Mr. Wilson starts his beginner class by briefing students heading out with other instructors on basic nautical terms and their objectives for the day. Mainly, students will rig a Flying Scott, a 19-foot day boat, and execute a few boat maneuvers on the water.

He packs a bewildering amount of information into a 10-minute talk before concluding, "Just remember the mantra of you're either moving away from the wind or you're moving toward it."

The goal by the end of the 10-hour course, costing $275 for adults, is to teach the student to sail independently to three specific points on the water and back to the marina.

On this day, Mr. Wilson is taking one student for his instruction, George Duarte, an Army reservist and Alexandria resident. Mr. Duarte, 33, starts his first hands-on lesson by rigging the boat's jib and mainsail.

Once the boat is outfitted with the sails, Mr. Wilson shoves off from the banks of the Potomac to teach Mr. Duarte turning moves on the boat.

The two men don't wear life jackets, though the boat has four on board. By law, all boats on the water must have a life jacket on-hand, but Mr. Wilson said it's a matter of preference to the student.

"It's easier to sail without one on, but the choice depends on how well the student can swim."

While the weather is breezy and cool at 56 degrees with an outlook of rain in the horizon, Mr. Wilson says it's perfect beginner sailing weather.

In fact most weather is good sailing weather to Mr. Wilson, unless there is lightning, little or no wind or too much wind, at speeds of 20 miles per hour or higher.

"We also won't go out in miserable weather, like if it's raining cats and dogs," he added.

While Mr. Duarte takes the tiller, and becomes acquainted moving it, Mr. Wilson reviews the two moves Mr. Duarte will learn by the end of the lesson.

He reminds Mr. Duarte that the boat cannot sail directly into the wind. "You'll know that you're [sailing into the wind] because the boat will immediately slow down." The move is called luffing.

The goal of any sailor is to sail a 45-degree course to the wind. Mr. Duarte does luff a few times when he begins trying turns, causing the sails to loosen from their curved, semitight position to flap noisily in the breeze.

The first turn he tries is a tacking, a 90-degree turn into the wind that provides a quick shift of the sails to the other side of the boat.

The sailboat gathers headway and heels over, nearly submerging the gunwale. But Mr. Wilson isn't worried about capsizing. So far, he has never had a boat capsize during an instructional outing.

He assures Mr. Duarte by noting, "I'm not going to let the boat flip over because I don't want to get my cigarettes wet."

The next turn is a jibe, a 90-degree turn away from the wind. Mr. Wilson is vigilant that Mr. Duarte speak the proper phrases when executing the turn.

"Do I have to say 'aye,' as well," Mr. Duarte asks. Mr. Wilson laughs off the cliche and replies, "You can say whatever you like, as long as you get the turning phrases down."

Mr. Duarte practices the turns for another hour on the water before heading back to the marina. Mr. Wilson offers suggestions, but sits on the side of the boat the entire time. "Don't be afraid to vigorously move the tiller to go where you want to go," he says.

Mr. Wilson, who is wearing faded jeans, loafers with identical holes in the front and a wool sweater, says he tries to interfere with the sailing as little as possible.

"This is the perfect retirement plan," he says.

A retired Army tanker, Mr. Wilson's last job was a consultant at Pacific-Sierra Research Corp., an Arlington environment consulting agency.

He has been working at the sailing school since 1999, teaching about 40 hours a week. While he has no official certification, Mr. Wilson has been sailing since he was a third-grader.

"My school buddy and I decided to just go out and sail, without any lessons, so I've made about every single mistake you can make. And the school made sure I was a competent sailor to teach here."

Mr. Wilson says he picked Belle Haven because it was a "funky" marina without the yacht-club feel. "There's no intimidation or structure rules here besides safety. The marina has all types of people coming in for lessons, whom you'd never meet anywhere else."

Mr. Duarte docks the boat with little trouble after his three-hour lesson. He says he is confused on most of the terms, but satisfied with his first try.

"There's a lot more to it than I had thought, but overall the course has just increased my interest."

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