Tish's late partner, Jim, was an enthusiastic sailor and he left funds in the form of a kitty to encourage new sailors and help reimburse some of the costs involved in attending regattas away from home. Tish signed off saying that she did not want receipts or justification for how I spent the money but instead asked for a one or two page description of my experiences at the regatta. This is what I wrote:
My Experience of the 2011 Victorian Access Championships
February 26 and February 27
My first experience of sailing was in the 1980s when my dad was learning to sail by crewing for a friend at a Sydney yacht club. My dad is the most enthusiastic person I know and he had been bitten by the sailing bug in a big way and was keen to share his latest pastime with me. I knew virtually nothing about sailing, but to my obnoxious teenage self, the idea of champagne and strawberries on a yacht on Sydney Harbour sounded pretty luxurious so I was more than happy to give it a try. Dad maintains to this day that “all you need to know about boats is that the sharp end is the front and the blunt end is the back.” Armed with this vital piece of knowledge, we set out.
The yacht was a lot smaller than I had pictured and required far more interaction from me than I had anticipated. Where were the sun lounges and waiters deftly balancing trays of drinks and caviar? As the boat heeled and I got closer and closer to the water, hanging on for dear life while trying to stay out of the way of that lethal boom (surely so named for the sound it must make when it hits your head!), I worriedly asked Dad “Is the boat supposed to do this?”. I can't even remember if my knuckles had unclenched enough to hold a champagne glass when the whole thing was over. Quite clearly, I was not ready for sailing.
Fast forward to Hume Dam in Wodonga for the 2011 Victorian Access Championships held on February 26 and 27. Older and wiser (and hopefully less obnoxious) I was a little more prepared than all those years ago. I have been learning to sail with my local Sailability club and just a few weeks ago experienced my first solo sail. There was barely a breeze and it was in the middle of a heat wave but it was glorious! With my big mobility scooter, “Black Betty”, safely stowed in the boat shed and a handful of dedicated volunteers to capably lift me out of the beach wheelchair and into the boat, I was off to chase the dolphins. It was lucky that Barry and Bob in the support boat were keeping a close eye on me or I might have followed the dolphins out past the heads. Fortunately there were no dolphins on Hume Dam so I could concentrate more fully on the racing.
The races began on Saturday afternoon which had turned into an extremely hot day with very little wind. I was racing with the President of our local club, Malcolm Cameron, who is a very experienced sailor. We were in the Access 303 Two-Person Division 3 group. For the uninitiated, an Access 303 boat has a main sail and a smaller sail called a jib and can be sailed by one or two people. All boats in the Access class have two major advantages over regular sailing boats: firstly, the boom is raised so that when you are seated in the sling chair, it is impossible for the boom to hit your head; secondly, the hull and keel are designed to make the boats virtually impossible to capsize. This makes the boats perfect for disabled and elderly sailors alike as you don't have to move from side to side when tacking or going about.
With Malcolm as skipper and me as crew, I started to delve deeper into this new world of sailing with its comprehensive rules and colourful language of flags and nautical words. I was already becoming familiar with some of the more common terms, such as port and starboard, tacking and gull winging, but as all you experienced sailors out there know, that is barely scratching the surface. Luckily for me, Malcolm's most important piece of sailing advice is simply to have fun and I was more than happy to do just that.
At the conclusion of Saturday's races, I was overheated and exhausted but absolutely thrilled to have made it through the day. Unfortunately, multiple sclerosis symptoms are exacerbated by heat so the conditions weren't ideal for me. Malcolm helped by periodically scooping lake water over me and I tried to drink as much as I could without bursting my bladder! Unfortunately when I came ashore I had to make a hasty departure to get to the toilet and back to the hotel air conditioning so I missed out on the wood-fired pizza which everyone said was fantastic. On the drive back to the hotel, my husband, Glen, asked me what I liked most about sailing: was it the sailing itself, or the racing? I thought about it for a minute and concluded that it was probably more the sailing itself. After a very long, cool shower and a good night's sleep, I was so happy to feel able to sail again on Sunday.
Overcast and drizzling with no wind whatsoever, Sunday was a complete contrast to the day before which suited me well. After a short delay, the wind picked up enough for the organisers to give the go-ahead and Malcolm and I were off again, this time in wet-weather jackets. We were very pleased to win the first race, but it is the second one that was the most memorable for me. In contrast to our start, our Callala team mates Grace and Pete crossed the starting line in fine form and led the race up until the first 'sausage' when they accidentally rounded the wrong buoy, costing them the lead. Malcolm now introduced me to the whole points system and how it is calculated, explaining that at the end of the championship, the team with the fewest points would win. As we progressed, we became a little stuck behind some competitors from another division and watched helplessly as every other boat in our division sailed past. We were now in last place. I was momentarily disappointed, assuming that there was no chance we could win, but Malcolm had other ideas. Assuring me that you can't win a race by following another boat, he asked if I was ready to tack and try something different, saying that we had nothing to lose. Aye, aye captain!
We tacked and set off in the opposite direction to every other boat until we had enough room to tack back across in order to approach the buoy from the correct angle. Malcolm skilfully steered us through the oncoming boats from the other division and we rounded the buoy, taking the lead! Exciting stuff, especially for a newbie such as myself. We managed to maintain our lead and, thanks to our team mates Grace and Pete who came in second (thereby allocating a crucial point to our nearest rivals) we won!
At the end of the race, we weren't entirely sure exactly where we sat in the table of points, but it really didn't matter. I was so impressed by Malcolm's winning manoeuvre and exhilarated by the feeling of freedom and the connection with the elements that the experience was enough. I said to Glen on the way home “Remember yesterday when I said I like the sailing itself more than the racing? I think I've changed my mind!”.
Finally, I can honestly say that I am ready for sailing. I just hope that sailing is ready for me!