Five tactics for boating with a newbie

If you’ve been boating for years, chances are you’ve forgotten what it feels like to be a newcomer setting a tentative foot on a rocking platform on the water. Yet, at some point, you are likely to find yourself inviting a non-boater to come aboard. Perhaps it’s your mother-in- law, or your daughter’s boyfriend, or that nice person you met at the market.

We happen to be sailors, so much of what I say below is written from the standpoint of an owner of a wind-driven vessel.

However, many of my suggestions will apply to the treatment of guests on powerboats, too. Power or sail, there’s more to worry about than what kind of soles are on your guest’s shoes. To ensure that both of you have a good time, here are five things to keep in mind as you prepare to leave the dock.

1. A non-boater may have no idea how things work on a sailboat or a powerboat, so explain. This was illustrated to my husband, Rick, and me on our Cape Dory 33, Ara, when we invited some acquaintances from my organization’s headquarters to go for a sail. Ben, a handsome, tall, brilliant policy analyst, asked how he could help so I passed him a jib sheet. I soon was shocked to find him pushing on the sheet. Yes, pushing instead of pulling.

Ok, that’s an extreme case. But you can’t assume any knowledge if your passenger admits to having no experience. Give him or her a simple explanation of how the wind passes through the slot between the sails and thus powers the boat. Let him know that when the wind pushes on the sails, the boat will tilt. Lead him on a quick tour of your craft, which brings me to the second point.

2. Speak English first, then translate. Don’t start the trip by asking your guest to stow her ditty bag on the starboard settee in the saloon. Yes, you are bilingual, but remember, she is not. Make sure your friend knows what you’re saying.

Then, if she seems interested, teach her a few of the more useful words, especially words that may come up as you sail: port, starboard, bow, stern, jib, main, mast, boom, buoy, halyard, sheet, leeward, windward, heel, tack, jibe, etc. Don’t overwhelm her; let her ask for more rather than forcing it. And here’s an added benefit: Teaching sailing vocabulary can turn into a game that will carry the conversation if you run out of things to chat about.

Oh, and be sure to explain about the keel. Tell your friend how heavy it is. And when the boat is “tilting” wildly, remind her that the keel will keep the boat from capsizing (unless you’re sailing in a Sunfish or a Laser or something made for capsizing).

3. Go for safety, not style points. When I was 17 and already madly in love with Rick, he gave me a heavy green ex-Army jacket, which I wore everywhere, including on the Lightning on which I crewed every Sunday at the Winnepesaukee Yacht Club in Gilford, N.H. During one gusty race, I was swept overboard by the boom as we made a surprise jibe. I almost drowned trying to swim with that jacket on. In hindsight (about 20 years later), I realized how foolish that was.

So, today, if I think a guest should wear a PFD, I don one first and offer another to him. If it’s not safe to go up on the deck, I say, “Stay in the cockpit and talk to me.” Be firm; some people don’t like to admit that there could be danger or that they might be frightened.

There’s an old family tale about my father racing in our Lightning with my Great-Uncle Henry, who must have been in his late-70s at the time and considered himself an Old Salt. Uncle Henry would never be caught dead wearing a PFD, but he was almost caught dead without one. They were running downwind, the spinnaker fouled, and Uncle Henry went forward to unwrap it. A big puff hit, and Uncle Henry was whisked right off the bow. (He did survive, only slightly the worse for wear.)

You’re the captain: You must explain that on a boat the captain’s word is law. Say it nicely, but say it firmly. Even if this is your boss you’re talking to, or your girlfriend’s husky older brother, be clear.

4. Put comfort at the top of the list. That other sailboat that you’re trying to catch? Your guest won’t think less of you for letting them get away, especially if it means you’ll relax, stop sailing so close to windward, and keep your boat sailing on its bottom and throwing up less spray. You and I may not mind heeling at 35 degrees, but chances are a newbie will be scared witless. Even if you’ve explained about your weighty keel, she’ll still be full of dread. Go ahead, reef the sails, spill some wind, take it easy. The point is not to instill a lifelong fear of boating.

And watch the wind, the sun, the temperature. Bring up a boat cushion or two. Offer a fleece or a hat. Serve a snack. Which reminds me….

5. Stop seasickness before it becomes a problem. Is your guest suddenly quiet and pale? Yawning? Bring out the crackers. Pour a glass of ginger beer or offer a bit of crystallized ginger candy. No one knows if he’s prone to seasickness until he goes to sea. But certain things can contribute to seasickness. Anxiety, for one. That’s another reason why you don’t need to put your vessel on her side during this cruise.

An empty stomach, for another. Maybe you were planning to break out the snacks on the downwind leg. But if your passenger is already feeling woozy amid tacks to windward, give him a couple of crackers to settle his stomach. Explain that sometimes it just takes awhile to get used to the motion of the boat, and encourage him to stand, look around, and make himself at home. Some people, my daughter included, swear by wristbands. Encourage a newbie to wear them if he’s never been sailing. They’ll act as a placebo if nothing else. In a more extreme case, or with someone who admits to having been seasick before, drugs can be effective, but they have to be taken ahead of time. Seasickness is something to avoid, for it can ruin the trip for everyone.

If you follow these tips and pay attention to your guest’s needs, you’ll be inducting a new person into the worldwide club of people who are at least mildly fond of boating. Did someone, once, long ago, introduce you to the joys of being on the water? Here’s your chance to “pay it forward,” as the saying goes.

Barbara Burt and her husband, Rick, recently acquired Lark, a Nordic 40, which they sailed from Annapolis to Maine last June. They look forward to sailing out of Rockland this summer with friends of all levels of experience. (This article appeared in the July 2011 issue of Points East Magazine.)