Expanding My Horizons and Learning to Sail: Taking to the Seas During a World of Too Much!

Image of three friends: Jessa takes a power stance with one arm open wide the other reaching down, Mariah crouches with her hands on her knees, and Geoff squats closer to the ground with his arms crossed and resting on his knees. The pose in front of their first keel boat.
My first crew! Jessa, Geoff and Me.

hey call the wind Mariah. I am named after that song. I’ve always loved that it means the wind. And with my new study, interest, and practice in sailing, I’m getting a whole new way to understand who I am.

Sailing Lessons?

My friends have been shocked. Sailing really wasn’t in my repertoire or cultural schema. Every time I mention that I started taking sailing lessons, I am met with “What? Really? How did you get into that?” There are many answers. I had my first experience on a chartered trimaran on the Pacific ocean when I was 18. We took off from Wikiki Beach and spent hours out in the sea in the evening light. The sun was setting over the water as we departed. Dolphins lept alongside our gliding boat. And as the moon rose, a trail of diamonds on the water was left by its’ light. It hypnotized me. The dolphins and I synched in telepathic gazes as they squealed in delight.

It was an enchantment I had never experienced before. I felt safe and free. I tossed my flip-flops, sat on the very edge of the bow holding on to the railing, and completely disengaged from the rest of the people on board.

Though the experience absolutely merited an obsession, I did not become obsessed. However, whenever there was a boat ride available to me, I gave an emphatic yes! In my imagination, boats were for the wealthy. If I had an invitation to be on one, I would delight and savor the experience.

I started to entertain ways I could experience boat rides. There were glass bottom boats in Jamaica, whale watching in Monterey Bay, canoes on lakes…boats started to become something I could seek out and enjoy. I even started to take the ferry over to San Francisco, which is far more of a delight than taking other public transportation.

When 2016 happened, I, like so many, sank into a place of darkness. My mind replayed visions written by Octavia Butler, and for four years, I kept planning exit routes. I like to believe that I am of a relatively sound mind. Still, between 2016 and 2020, it was like a dementor constantly sipping from my spirit. I would find ways to replenish, ignore, revitalize my soul. Still, inevitably, the dementor had a full-access pass to my joy. So I planned, like many others, what my available options were.

It finally boiled down to “how to (mentally)getaway.” I stopped consuming social media, engaging on Facebook, and started replacing the news with comedy sketches and podcasts. But it wasn’t enough. I needed to be in the natural environment. I needed to think about something other than my work and the state of the world. I knew that being out on a boat would bring joy. I’m always happy on a boat. Like, physically and energetically, it is an immediate shift. What I wasn’t expecting was to say “yes” to learning how to sail. My friend and colleague Jessa is a “say yes” to life sort of person. She is always game to explore and understand life in new ways. Taking cues from my endless fantasies about how to “escape” the world, Jessa finally said, “let’s do it! Let’s learn how to sail for the apocalypse!” And I said okay.

We signed up for classes at a nautical club. Tradewinds Sailing School and Club gathered us on a weekend back in September 2020. Covid cases were down, and Jessa and our friend Geoff had care agreements for how we wanted to be safe together. We were overwhelmed by the two days we had on the water with our instructor. Filled with adrenaline, we were excited about our introduction to the parts of the boat, starting the motor and experiencing what it was like to be out in the Bay on a basic keelboat. On day one, we took turns motoring in and out of our slip. On day two, we were learning how to do PIW’s (Person In Water) rescues. We all went home exhausted to the bone.

Our instructor for this class was a former military man. His teaching approach was not based on any contemporary pedagogical instruction but an old-fashioned military-toned experience. We recall from our time with him how he mostly yelled at us, making for an already heightened experience to feel tense and uneasy.

Jessa pointed out that we didn’t need to learn from someone that yelled at us. I, for reasons that I will call the patriarchy, assumed we didn’t have a choice. But we always have a choice.

I’m going to spare you all the fine details but here’s what happened after our first weekend of sailing class:

  1. The spike in Covid cases happened across our region here in California. We were afraid to return to our classes, given the cavalier attitude of our instructor and the school.
  2. The Tradewinds owner did not show palatable communication skills when we tried to reschedule and ignored our request for a female instructor. He was terse and disrespectful. At one point, we finally got rescheduled for another weekend of training after the spike lulled down but were told that a stranger would be joining our team. This increased our risk and exposure to Covid. Tradewinds was unresponsive to our concerns and told us they wouldn’t make accommodations for our needs, placing one individual’s interests over ours.

We asked for refunds.

Between the time I started sailing lessons, another group of friends who saw that I was learning how to sail took interest. They had a longing to get on the bay waters and asked if I wanted to take Powerboating lessons with them. I said yes again! So I joined a new sailing school and waited to see if it would be the same arrogance and uninviting attitudes we had received from Tradewinds.

To my relief, it wasn’t (Thanks, Club Nautique!)

Powerboating

Image of four friends, Teddy, JP, Mia and Mariah and our Instructor. We are on a docked powerboat.
My second crew! Mia, JP, Teddy, Me and our Instructor!

Powerboating classes began in the spring. By this time, the people in my circles were vaccinated and taking great care to enjoy the world while staying safe as possible. Learning with them was great. We had an instructor that was kind, gentle, and didn’t yell. We took turns learning how to motor the boat in and out of the slip and how to navigate the rules of the water. We crossed the Bay from Alameda to San Francisco and enjoyed docking at a public dock by the Embarcadero and grabbing a midday caffeine pick-me-up from Red Bay Coffee. I felt successful and learned a ton about navigation, how to operate a 35ft plus powerboat, and gained confidence in being on the water.

When I wasn’t at the helm, I would find myself slipping into that familiar hypnotic state when the wind and waves consume all your senses.

Awareness of a New Nautical Heart

I’ve just completed my basic keelboat course. I am feeling utterly exhausted after back-to-back weekends on the water on a 16ft keelboat. Sailing is a workout! It’s also sneakily dehydrating if you don’t remember to drink water throughout the day.

Sailing is changing my entire knowledge of the world. Being on a boat, learning to navigate the great San Francisco Bay, feels like transporting to a new world. In the world of sailing and navigating the water, the world has more profound clarity and a more palpable presence. You have to be aware of the wind, the tides, the waves, the heat from 160 miles away, ropes become lines, lines become extensions of your veins.

Image of a bright red and orange main sail of a trimaran in Hawaii.
The sails of a Trimaran boat in Hawaii.

The act of sailing forces you to connect, understand and read the wind. You learn to feel the apparent wind pressing on the side of your cheek and make a subsequent shift in how the sail is trimmed. You may decide you need to tack, or you may need to reef the main.

This new awareness that I am building opens up subtleties and metaphors found throughout history that I never really understood before. An idea put forth by Buckminster Fuller settles with me all the more differently with better knowledge on the physics and motion of sailing:

“The whole ship goes by, and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing on the edge of the rudder called a trim tab. It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving that little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. It takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that, and the whole ship of state is going to turn around. So I said, ‘Call me Trim Tab.’”

Popeye the Sailing Man

The world of sailing in these parts is captivated mainly by white men. In fact, two of my sailing buddies are white men living in the corporate sector of the Bay Area. Not an eye flinches when they arrive at the dock. So when I show up with my Black body, sometimes my hair in singles or twists or stuffed under a silk-lined cap, I almost always get a second glance or two. I’m used to this in general, but I like the nonverbal way I command space when I show up for a lesson. I park my belongings on a bench, take a wide stance and fold my arms over my breasts. I crank my neck from side to side and then shift my arms down and stuff my hands in the pockets of my hoodie or pants. My shoulders are broad. I may tilt my chin down and offer a bold look, or lift my chin up and eye my instructors or crew with some side-eyes (now they all know they are not to touch my hair.)

Me giving a salty gaze standing in front of a boat named Salty.

I do feel different when I’m on the boat as a Black person. I can’t help it. Their Popeye language and intentions while sailing is often so vastly different. My mind is constantly doing laps between the waves, the tides, the moon, and our place in the universe. Then I draw up visions of ancestors navigating the seas and how they learned to sail and then over to my brothers and sisters in the global majority (nonwhite kinfolk) and how they live in tune with the oceans around them.

You might be expecting me to mention The Middle Passage. I’ll speak briefly to it. Yes, I do think about them. I wonder why I find so much joy in a space where my ancestors suffered immensely. But then I jump to this dream I had. I was standing at the edge of a beach, looking out over the ocean. To the horizon, I saw a line of figures emerging from the light. They sang a song. It went like this “enjoy the limits of this world.”

And so I sing this song while I’m out there on the boat. Allowing myself to enjoy the limitations of this world, knowing that realms exist that I cannot physically reach. Knowing that they are the ones encouraging me to explore, learn, make attempts, build confidence in my new skills and enjoy the world!

I Wish This for You.

sailing has not been something you’ve given thought to, I invite you to follow your curiosity and try it out. Even if you get seasick, there are some curative meds you can try (in addition to Dramamine). Explore the world around you and let it include the feeling and sensation that you can only experience when you’re out on a boat feeling the wind on your face. And allow yourself to have a new getaway activity for times such as these.

Image of the water surrounding a marina in Sausalito, California. The moon is shining bring and full with the fog rolling in across a purple sky.
Returning to the dock from an evening of sailing. Sausalito, Ca.

Notes:

  1. Trade winds are the winds that blow east to west. Enslavers followed these winds during the Trans-Altantic Slave Trade. The middle passage was the second part of a triangle that enslavers sailed transporting millions of Africans like chattel between the shores of west African countries to North America, the Caribbean and South America.
  2. Buckminster Fuller Article: “Call me Trim Tab” — Buckminster Fuller & The Impact of an Individual on Society by BY KYLE KOWALSKI.
  3. My friend Mia, who is Black, experienced racism at Club Nautique much like what I experienced at Tradewinds. My experience as a Black woman in sailing schools built by white men has been a challenge at times. Navigating white space can be exhausting as we know, but stay your course and enjoy the experience with all the tools you employ for your personal, physical, and spiritual safety. I refuse to feel like I don’t belong in a sailing club and hope the same for you.
  4. I lost my dear friend Matt Wooten who was crew on The Nina, a schooner that was sailing from New Zealand to Australia in 2013. I think of him every time I’m sailing. I love you, Matty!
  5. Let me know if you end up taking sailing lessons! Hope to see you on the Bay!

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Mariah Rankine-Landers

Mariah Rankine-Landers

Mariah Rankine-Landers, Ed.M co-leads Studio Pathways for transformative school and organizational change that centers the cultural and contemporary arts.