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Beline Obeid

Sailing: For the young at heart

"Believe me, my friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing," he went on dreamily: "messing — about — in — boats; messing — about in boats." — Water Rat from Kenneth Grahame' "T


March 26, 2009
When the hearty Water Rat in "The Wind in the Willows" took amiable Mr. Mole on his first-ever boat ride on an English river, their enthusiasm could just as convincingly have been set in Lake St. Clair under the willow trees cascading over the shoreline of Crescent Sail Yacht Club in Grosse Pointe Farms.

At Crescent, there is nothing half so much worth doing during summer as messing about in boats. Sail boats.

"We sail at Crescent just about every night of the week," said Dave Simon, a club director and sailing instructor. "We race on Sunday mornings. Personally, I'm on the water five days a week and working a full work week."

Simon, an engineer from Grosse Pointe Woods, has been sailing since his early teens 35 years ago.

"Sailing offers a tremendous connection to nature," he said. "It's a very visceral experience. We're all made of 70 percent water. We need air to breathe. When your sailing, it involves the two most fundamental things there are."

For adults who want to learn to sail, Crescent offers an Adult Learn to Sail Program. Classes start in May and include 12 weeks of water-borne training from June through August.

"A big part of the classes is getting people feeling in control and mastery of the boat; controlling the forces of wind and water," Simon said. "We're emphatic that when you pass our class, you are a skipper. When you want the boat to do something, you can do that."

Students sail 19-foot Flying Scots and are accompanied initially by instructors. Lessons culminate in a student regatta. Early on-the-water sessions can be a madhouse.

"There are no arrows on the lake pointing where we want students to go," said Jerry McNamara, program director, City of Grosse Pointe resident and a former U.S. Sailing sailing director of the year. "It's like herding cats. Boats are all over the lake. Some guy's heading toward Canada and you have to chase him down and get him back on course."

A typical challenge for rookie helmsmen is learning to steer by tiller. Unlike a car steering wheel, which is turned in the direction a driver wants to go, a tiller is counter-intuitive.

"You push it one way to go another way," said Loretta Rehe, Crescent vice commodore from Harper Woods and the club's first female flag officer in its 76-year history. "We teach pushing the tiller away from you to make a turn. For jibing, turning when the wind is behind you, you pull the tiller toward you."

That's only half of it.

"It seems like a lot of students forget to return the tiller to the middle," Rehe said. "They end up going around and around and around."

Pretty soon, students and instructors get on the same wavelength.

"After a month or five weeks, students get to where they can go out in boats by themselves," Rehe said. "What's amazing is when you give students the tiller for the first time and tell them to sail out of the harbor. At the end it's like something they've done all their lives."

"We teach basic points of sail and to feel comfortable in the boat," McNamara said. "We teach going up wind and going down wind. We want them to sail in the groove, on the edge of the 'no go' zone, the area practically right into the wind. As the program progresses, we want them to sail a course."

The practice course evolves into a race course.

"Once they start racing, there's a lot of fooling around and fun," McNamara said. "Several people from different years said they had more fun during the summer they took the program than they can remember."

Simon is gratified to help landlubbers become sailors.

"On the first day of classes on the water, we have students point which way the wind is coming from," he said. "Everybody points in a different direction. It's really funny. Now, fast forward with those same students a couple of months later. They've done a little bit of racing. They're getting ready for the regatta. Oh boy, not only do they know which way the wind is coming from, they're seeing cat's paws (ripples) on the water and seeing that the wind is shifting."

Simon added, "My favorite thing to do is look at people's faces the first time they get a sailboat out of the harbor, make it go where they want it to go and realize there are no mysteries. They've gone from being a mystified passenger to being in control."

"These are adults," McNamara said. "They want to be there. They're generally bright people, really engaged. They interact and bring out the best in each other. They develop friendships. There's a lot of good humor that goes on in those boats."

Candidates for Crescent Sail Yacht Club's Adult Learn to Sail Program are urged to register early. Classes fill early. Classes meet once a week and are available Monday, Tuesday and Thursday evenings. Total course fee is $450. The club has launched a series of free "Learn to Sail" online video classes designed to help people interested in sailing cover basic knowledge required in the adult program. More information is available on the Crescent website, crescentsail.com or by e-mailing alts@crescentsail.com. The Crescent Sail Yacht Club is located at 276 Lakeshore, Grosse Pointe Farms.

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