November/December 2001


learning the ropes

Letty Wheeler demonstrates line handling, at left. A student navigates on the cabin top, above


After making the boat shipshape, we explored Diamond Island, which was the site of an old military outpost and prison used in World War II. Many of the buildings had been renovated to become an art gallery and a few condos. The setting was picturesque.

We returned to a delicious dinner. The Wheelers pampered us, making it clear there was no galley duty allowed for students. Letty’s gourmet cooking was something we looked forward to each day, and it transformed an excellent sailing school experience into a real vacation. Even our simple noon meals, eaten while underway, were delicious: home made soups with interesting spices and fresh bread made the previous night kept the crew quite content. Wonderful Dutch-East Indian spices, which flavored our dinners, were a real treat. After dinner, we wandered ashore again or remained on board reading or visiting.

There is a strict no-alcohol and no-tobacco rule on Samana. We all were a bit surprised when Larry and Letty turned in at 8 p.m. that first night, but none of us stayed up too much after sunset. Each day, after a shower ashore, we walked back to Samana to find muffins, cereal, juice, and yoghurt in the cockpit for breakfast. After breakfast, Larry taught us additional navigation skills, tailoring instruction to meet the needs of the students aboard.

His flexibility in addressing the experience level and needs of the students was appreciated. For example, I asked about heaving to in a storm, and Larry readily included heaving to in the day’s sail plan.

Another student was having some difficulty getting a line to lie right for coiling, which led to a brief lesson on handling rope. Whatever the skill or level of difficulty, Larry and Letty were ready with instruction.

Movie Site:
Over the course of five days, we sailed to Diamond Island, East Boothbay Harbor, Boothbay Harbor, and Mackerel Cove at Bailey Island. We also sailed to Monhegan Island and jibed around the rock just off the coast. The Wheelers informed us that East Boothbay Harbor was the site of the filming of the movie Message in a Bottle.

We also got to see a whale, several dolphins, and harbor seals. I particularly enjoyed the seals, which look like puppies when they pop their heads out of the water and look at you with big eyes. As our instruction continued, Larry taught us a variety of navigation methods so we would never be dependent on a single method, which might fail. As if to emphasize Larry’s point, the taffrail log we were using broke on the second day, presenting a real-life opportunity to use a back-up method requiring time and speed checks to track our position.

We also used radar and, later, Nobeltec, a computerized navigation program. Letty’s experience as a computer consultant was evident as she guided us through the program. Thus, by the end of the course we felt comfortable using everything from very low- to high-tech instruments.

Unfortunately, we had beautiful weather with clear blue skies and lovely winds, which was most unusual for Maine in the month of August, so we weren’t able to navigate through fog. However, Larry insisted we navigate as if we were in fog so we would know how to do it. He taught collision-avoidance techniques, and we learned how to make a collision-avoidance plot chart. We put this knowledge to use when we encountered three tankers in a row.

We later practised simulated calls to the Coast Guard, giving our position as if in an emergency situation. It is quite one thing to read about navigating on the ocean, but it is another to experience the necessity of frequently checking your position and scanning for ships, which can approach with surprising swiftness. We learned that dead reckoning is not difficult, but it is a demanding job. Good navigators are always navigating, always checking their position.

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