- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 28, 2005

The adult basic sailing class at the Belle Haven Marina south of Alexandria began at 10 a.m., and about an hour later, students were putting up — rigging — the sails, ready for a morning run on the Potomac.

Of course, there was an instructor. Not just any instructor, but a retired Navy captain named Joan Darrah who grew up sailing in New England and is one of the teachers of an intensive course offered each weekend at the marina’s Mariner Sailing School. She does it, she says, because she likes teaching people who want to learn and are determined to master the skills involved.

People who aren’t motivated, the theory goes, don’t bother taking up the sport; why else would participants give up precious weekend time and several hundred dollars to immerse themselves in sailing’s arcane rules and language. Because, to landlubbers — a jargon term for those people who never leave land — the world on water under sail is a far different place.

At the sailing school, student sailors of any age must know about shifting winds and safety regulations in addition to small-boat-handling skills that include rigging, mooring, docking and working the sails. There are about 40 nautical terms to be absorbed in the 10-hour two-day class, offered from April through October. This particular school takes students starting at age 8. Its oldest student to date was 87.

Students — just two or three in each 19-foot Flying Scot — learn by doing with the help of some 55 instructors. By the end of the second day, they are expected to be able to manage on their own. If they feel unsure, they can practice during the week at no extra charge. Capt. Darrah recommends at least four such practice sessions. “I’ve been sailing 40-some years, and there is always more to learn,” she volunteers.

“Once you learn on a Flying Scot, you will always know how to sail,” marina President George Stevens matter-of-factly tells a group gathered briefly under a tent one recent Saturday morning. “The only thing we can’t control is the weather.” If the wind dies or a storm comes up, class sessions are rescheduled, he says.

He talks about sandbars and tides (“a foot and a half on the river” ) and begins a sort of Socratic dialogue (“What is port tack? Starboard tack? Luffing? What is the purpose of a centerboard?”) to test their knowledge in front of an easel holding a chart labeled “Points of Sail.” “Port tack is when the wind hits the left side of the sail,” he notes.

The informal quiz doesn’t phase Mindy Isenstein of Alexandria, who says she went to sailing camp as a child and has come for a refresher course.

Mark Nozaki and his son Colin, of Fairfax Station, signed up to have a summer activity the two could do together. Mr. Nozaki, a management consultant, only sailed before as a passenger.

“Once you master upwind sailing, the rest is a piece of cake,” Mr. Stevens says by way of reassurance. A fairly unstable cake. “It’s like walking on a tightrope that is moving,” he adds. “Around here, the wind tends to shift. It bounces off trees, buildings, whatever.”

The class is quiet at first. Each person is given a 10-page set of instructions and outline of the course before all disperse to the boats.

“The key is to learn all you can today and practice it tomorrow,” Capt. Darrah tells students Christopher Colan, a Richmond teenager, and Tom Bakry of Brentwood, Md., a technology consultant for a District law firm.

“This is meant to be fun. There is no test at the end. The test is your believing that you have the confidence, with somebody else [aboard], to take out one of these sailboats, sail around a bit, and get the boat back to the pier.”

That would seem to be a large order for someone who, like these two, have never been on a boat.

Capt. Darrah says, “Nothing is more thrilling for me as an instructor than to see my former students having a good time out sailing.” To this end, she spends much of the session on the water repeating words — jib, mainsail, mast, boom, halyards, etc. — and encouragement. “By tomorrow afternoon, you will be using all these terms without thinking,” she says.

A handy “Points of Sail” outline is attached to her clipboard. The chart shows the boat’s ideal placement under sail, depending on wind direction.

Feedback is positive even when a student stumbles. Humor saves the day.

Young Christopher is present because his mother wanted him to learn and he went along with her wishes. Mr. Bakry’s wife saw his interest in nautical books such as the Patrick O’Brian novels and presented him with a gift certificate at Christmas. Like many of the students who have graduated from the school during its 30 years, Mr. Bakry has dreams of one day taking his family — including his 5-year-old daughter — on a sailing trip.

First, though, he wants someone to photograph him at the tiller, steering the boat.

Anchors aweigh

Here are three sailing schools in and around the District:

• Marina Sailing School, Belle Haven Marina, south of Alexandria; 703/768-0018. Web site: www.saildc.com. Open April through Nov. 1, the school offers adult basic, youth basic, youth advanced and learn to cruise classes as well as private instruction. Many students come to prepare for renting boats while on vacation. The adult basic classes are 10-hour weekend courses that cost $325 a person (reduced for a group of two or three), about $50 less Monday through Friday. The youth basic class is a 15-hour weekday course that costs $165 for one, reduced for two or three persons. Cruising lessons are give on weekends by appointment for $400 a person. Private instruction begins at $68 per hour. Boat rentals are available. Adult graduates of the basic course can earn Red Cross certification for a small fee.

• Washington Sailing Marina, 1 miles south of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on the George Washington Memorial Parkway; 703/548-9027. Web site: www.washingtonsailingmarina.com. The marina offers youth sailing day camps (ages 10 to 16) from June through mid-August and adult sailing classes from May through mid-October. A weeklong basic sailing camp using a Sunfish sailboat costs $195, a windsurfing camp for ages 12 and older costs $230, and a weeklong pre-camp June session for young people costs $205. Adult classes meet weekends for two six-hour sessions at $190 a person and use a 19-foot Flying Scot. Adult basic weeknight classes, adult basic Sunfish weekend classes and adult basic keelboat weekend classes (aboard a 25-foot Catalina) vary in price from $180 to $220.

• DC Sail, a program of the National Maritime Heritage Foundation, based in the Matthew Henson Center, 2000 Half St. SW; 202/479-6710, Ext. 250. Web site: www.dcsail.org. DC Sail offers lessons and rentals on the Anacostia River from April through October. Foundation membership reduces the charges for a five-session beginner program, which is normally $175 for a weekend or weeknight course on Flying Scots. High school sailing classes use CFJ (Club Flying Junior) boats. A single “tryout” group sail with an instructor costs $40 for nonmembers.

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