One day when I took two teenagers out for their first sail, the winds were stronger than any I had experienced before. I had a death grip on the tiller and the mainsheet while Lisa and Alishia chatted, dipped their hands overboard to get wet in the spray, and asked questions about the scenery on shore, which was being left behind at a bone-jarring, thumping pace. In just 20 minutes we'd come a distance that normally took better than an hour to cover. By the time I'd retraced our course back to the small bay where the marina is, I was exhausted.
The wind had eased up a little, so I told them I was tired and asked if one of them wanted to tack us back the remaining distance to the marina. They didn't know what tack meant, so I explained it, and then handed over the tiller and the mainsheet to Alishia. Sitting back for the first time during the sail, I immediately felt relaxed, and began to refresh myself with the same views of the water and the shoreline they had enjoyed while I was battling the elements.
When it came time to tack, I told her to just bring the tiller over as she crossed the cockpit to sit to weather, and haul in the mainsheet to ease the boom over at the same time. To our mutual surprise, she handled it beautifully. They both screamed with delight as we heeled sharply and spray flew over the coaming. Exciting as that was, I asked her to ease the mainsheet back out so we would sail flatter, as catboats should, and she made it so. We tacked again, and then again, and then twice more just for the fun of it before lowering sail and motoring to the dock. After she stepped off the boat, she turned and, beaming with pleasure and satisfaction, thanked me for a wonderful time.
And I thanked her and her friend. It must have been "tilleritis" or some other sailing phobia that made me think the best way for company on the boat to enjoy themselves was to have nothing to do but ride along as passengers. If I hadn't handed off the tiller and the mainsheet when I did, they might still have enjoyed themselves, but not as much. And I probably would have stepped back on shore wishing I'd put the whole thing off until conditions were calmer.
I think I had actually forgotten that I enjoyed sailing. Instead, I'd allowed myself to become obsessed with the responsibilities of skippering. On a run, I fretted over the wind's direction for fear of an accidental gybe. On a close reach, I struggled for the right sail trim to keep the boat moving fast without too much strain on the tiller and without pinching too close to the wind. And on any point of sail, I was constantly straining to catch sight of the next landmark or buoy, referring again and again to the chart to check my position relative to the shoals, while casting an eye overhead at the clouds to guess if the weather was going to take a turn for the worse.
If you single-hand most of the time, it's easy to fall into the mistake of carrying out the routine as if you were alone, risking only yourself, instead of clueing-in your passengers. Before you leave the dock, show newcomers where the PFDs, the head, and radio
are, and explain how to operate them. Clarify the man overboard drill, and after you're away from the dock, toss a cushion over and show them the recovery procedure. Don't worry about boring them. It only takes a few minutes to do all that, and a surprising number of people interested in going for a sail are also interested in how to sail, and how to do it safely and comfortably.
It's better all around to have crew members instead of passengers. Spending a little time instructing them on the workings of the boat for a particular task, and then mentoring them as they carry it out, pays terrific dividends. Once they feel comfortable with the step involved, you have a crew member instead of a passenger. And with luck and patience, you'll have a happy ship.