Having spent seven days on a 41-foot ketch this summer after a long hiatus doesn’t qualify me to judge the way boats of this kind now use electronic devices, but I know what I like when it comes to sailing: the taut feel at a tiller or wheel when a boat is in perfect balance as you tack to windward on a beautiful day in a breeze that is almost stiff. It’s that simple.
Off for a week in the Massachusetts waters of Buzzards Bay, our manifest included two parents, two kids, and two grandparents: family. The weather held, with lots of sun and a healthy downpour one day that gave us a chance to have lunch ashore in an old inn. For the most part, though, we cooked aboard, being well-provisioned and finding a well-equipped galley.
The kids, 8 and 11, had gone sailing on their parents’ small boat since they were toddlers and had been deemed ready for something more exciting. One of their parents is a licensed captain, the other a mate. They plotted our courses and knew how to handle the sails when late afternoon winds started gusting to 20 knots. They also had plotted a list of nautical things for the kids to learn, from terminology like “coming about” to simple knots, like a half-hitch. On the last day of the trip, the kids earned homemade “able seaman” certificates and an onshore stop for ice cream.
No boat of any size goes into Buzzards Bay without a global positioning device anymore. A GPS tells you where you are and shows you how to find where you are going. Mechanical, electrical wind indicators are common, too. Not only was there an indicator atop the main mast, but we had a dial at the helm that showed where on the compass the wind was coming from, as well as the boat’s trajectory.
If the direction of the wind waswasn’t changing much, you could steer the boat merely by watching the compass. The kids did so easily and let the grown-ups decide when to tack or change course. Oh, yes. I almost forgot to mention the autopilot, which does the steering for you if you want it to. An autopilot is all very practical if you don’t have to change course much or if you need to go below for some reason or other.
Now, I know I’m going to take heat for repeating what a woman I know — who has done a lot of sailing — had to say when I described how those at the helm relied on these electronic devices more often than not. “For the kids,” she said, “it’s like a video game.”
Okay, she conceded, a video game with the wind in their hair.
At an anchorage in a pleasant little harbor at Quisset, however, we got a good look one morning before setting off across the bay at kids learning to sail in Optimist prams. Their boats had to be bailed, the sails had to be hauled up, and then it was up to each of them to keep the boat upright, although camp counselors in separate boats were nearby. I am sure the difference between what our kids did aboard the ketch and the kind of small-boat sailing we watched must have sunk in.
Did the kids have fun? Of course. Did I? Of course. But I was glad I brought along a book.