Learning to Sail off Captiva

By: Thomas Becnel

A three-day sailing course can help you earn your sailor's cap.

It's easy to get carried away.

It's easy to be seduced by the tiller in your hand, the wind in your sails, the pair of dolphins off your starboard bow. It's easy to be drawn into a dream by the warmth of the Gulf of Mexico and the beauty of Captiva Island.

Yes, it's easy to just breeze along, and that's usually when you find yourself headed for a sandbar.

The challenge of the Offshore Sailing School, then, is to stay single-minded, or sailing-minded, and I did my best during a three-day weekend in January. The basic keelboating course includes about an hour and a half of classroom instruction each morning. The rest of the program is hands-on practice aboard a 26-foot sloop.

Evenings are spent at the lush South Seas Resort, where on-site sailing lessons are just one of the attractions. A golf course, restaurants and guest suites are nestled among mangroves and Australian pines along the north end of Captiva Island. Activities offered at the resort include swimming, scuba diving, nature tours, day cruises, fishing and tennis. Sprawling banyan trees drape across the narrow roads, and the overall effect is one of easy seclusion.

My Offshore instructor looked the part, with an even tan and a sailor's squint. My classmates, Wim and Nancy Bosch, claimed to be as clueless as I was, but at least they were experienced power boaters. He was a character besides, an Indiana tavern owner sporting a gray handlebar moustache.

Soon the three of us were up to our necks in sailing jargon. The language of the sea can be colorful or maddening or both, depending on your mood at nine o'clock in the morning. You start with the basics, including bow and stern, starboard and port, but quickly move on to knottier stuff. The parts of a sail, to take just one instance, include the clew and the tack and the leech and the luff. Then there's the pronunciation. Leeward is slurred into "luwrd," while bowline is mumbled into "bolin."

We all struggled with the tiller, which you had to pull left to steer right (make that port to starboard). We all had moments of doubt, jibing when we should have tacked, and running when we should have reached. (That's more sailor talk.) And yet we all got the hang of it, handling the boat like we more or less knew what we were doing.

"Learning to sail is like riding a bicycle," Steve Colgate says in an Offshore training video. "Once you get it you never forget it."

That's about right, I think. There wasn't a single moment when everything unfurled, but I felt pretty sure of myself by the end of the second afternoon. Wim and Nancy looked confident, too. By day three, after passing an 80-question written exam, we welcomed a late-afternoon sail without an instructor aboard.

And now we're sailors.

Of course, I might be getting a tad over-confident. As much as we learned, it was just three days in class and on the water. Maybe I'm talking right out of my crisp new sailor's cap.

Like I said, it's easy to get carried away.

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