Gayle: "They can't make us sail." At least that's what I told my best friend, Marjorie, two weeks after we booked what seemed like the ultimate girlfriend getaway: three days at an all-women sailing school in the Florida Keys. We'd live on a sailboat, lie in the sun, swim in the sea, and have the sort of conversations we once took for granted (conversations that aren't constantly being interrupted by 2-year-olds demanding yet another reprise of "Wheels on the Bus"). Oh, and we might even learn to sail, something I'd been hankering to do since spending part of my honeymoon cruising the Turkish coast.
Marjorie: And then the paperwork arrived. Uh-oh. The packing list gave us visions of George Clooney in The Perfect Storm, and not in a good way. Foul-weather pants? Heavy slicker? Warm hat and sailing gloves? Gloves? Our little pleasure cruise was starting to sound like work. We vowed that we wouldn't pack the damn waterproof pants. If it were that rainy, we'd stay below deck and drink.
Gayle: As soon as we board Sunday Morning--a 35-foot Beneteau, for you sailors--and meet our captain, Jennifer Wirth, we relax. With her soothing presence and crinkling laugh lines, Captain Jen is nothing like the bullying phys-ed-teacher-type that Marjorie and I were dreading. She introduces us to our fellow sailors: Vanessa Rogers, a photographer, and Ann Angers (it's a soft g; she's not at all mad), a Kansas City, Mo., native who recently bought a large sailboat with her husband. Everyone has much more experience on the water than Marjorie and I do. We're a couple of Jewish girls. Except for Noah, Jews don't sail.
Marjorie: After a quick equipment check (and an embarrassing moment when I spot what I think is a blender and squeal, "Yay, margaritas!" only to be informed that I'm holding a lantern flashlight), we're off. We motor out of the marina and into Biscayne Bay. The Miami skyline shrinks behind us as Captain Jen coaches Gayle and me on how to raise the sails for the first time. Gayle lurches across the deck and begins pulling the halyard to raise the mainsail. (Listen to me use the lingo!) I tighten the line. The sail begins to rise up into the sky, fluttering ever so gracefully and easily. Then Gayle starts having trouble; she's tugging heavily at the now-resistant sail.
Gayle: I think, This is hard! I'm such a wuss! It's exactly what I was dreading.
Marjorie: But Captain Jen sees what's happening. She tells Gayle to lean far back while holding the halyard. Then she tells her to let go, and she shows me how to take up the slack. Gayle and I quickly find a rhythm. It's the first of many times during the trip when Captain Jen will demonstrate ways we can use the wind, the current, and our bodies to accomplish physically demanding tasks. Gayle continues to jump the halyard, I tail it and winch it, and Ann points the bow into the wind, putting us in irons. I have no idea what I just said. But it's in my notes.
Gayle: Once the mainsail is up, we unfurl the front sail (also known as the jib, the headsail, the genoa, and the jenny--sailors love their synonyms). Then the boat begins to move. Woo hoo! We're sailing!
It's all about the wind. Not just in the obvious, you-need-to-fill-the-sails-somehow way, but in how you steer. Understanding where the wind is hitting the boat, your so-called point of sail, determines the position of your sails and your ability to move forward. This all sounded academic when Captain Jen explained it, but now that we're on the water, I start to get it.
After a few hours, I'm steadier on my feet. My body is sun- and salt-kissed, and I'm feeling the Zenned-out floppiness of being on the water. A pod of dolphins arcs out of the bay on our port side. I adjust the jenny and start singing, "I'm just Jenny on the boat. I used to have a little, now I have a rope." Ann chimes in.
Marjorie: They sound like dying goats. At the helm, I go all Mom on their asses, "If you guys don't stop singing, I will turn this boat around!" In response, they switch to Streisand. Kill me now.
Gayle: Captain Jen knows how to avert disaster. She shows us how to drop the anchor and then pulls wine and beer out of the little fridge nestled in the counter below deck. After some decompression time, we cook: blackened tilapia (no, we didn't catch it; we bought it in Miami) with couscous and a salad. Because we each have two X chromosomes, we all pitch in, bustling around the tiny kitchenette. We eat on deck, under the stars. It's quiet save for the lapping of the waves and the sounds of our laughter. It feels like we're floating in our own little world.
Marjorie: As we pass around the Mint Milanos and sip chardonnay, someone finds an '80s station on the ship's radio. Late into the night, we lounge on the white leatherette banquettes around the table in the cabin and sing along with Cyndi Lauper. We segue into impassioned discussions about Angelina vs. Jennifer, whether Madonna's a baby stealer, and how we all (Republican, Democrat, and libertarian) feel about our president. It's a safe space for Vanessa to confess her love of vintage red-haired musical mallrat Tiffany.
"What was Debbie Gibson's big hit again?" asks Ann.
Thus begins an obsession that will last the next two days . . . until Ann finally decides to call her husband for the answer when we dock. (Should you ever appear on Jeopardy, it was "Electric Youth.")
Gayle: It's fair to say that the fore cabin Marjorie and I are sharing is about the size of a Japanese capsule hotel room, albeit without the mini TV. We squeeze in and unpack. Marjorie pulls out her practical fleece, and I lay out my cashmere sweater. Marjorie shoots me a look that I can only describe as withering.
"You brought cashmere?" she asks.
"Don't give me shit--it's lightweight and warm, and I have this to go over it," I say, waving my anorak in the air.
Marjorie hurriedly stuffs a blue slicker and waterproof pants into the hold. But I catch her. Rain gear? Oh, the betrayal.
Marjorie: I'm so sorry! My husband forced me!
Gayle: Whatever. We climb into the narrow bed, smaller than a double and angled like a slice of pie (hence its name, the V-berth). It's so cozy, I'm fairly sure our feet wind up spooning. I stare out the hatch into the starry sky and fall asleep to the gentle bobbing of the waves.
Marjorie: I keep waking up to discover that Gayle has stolen the covers. By morning, I'm exhausted. But we quickly down our Special K and yogurt (and oh, bliss, there's a French press). Then we jump into the warm, teal bay for a revitalizing swim. After splashing around for a while, we head up on deck. Captain Jen begins discussing sail trim. If the sail is overtrimmed--too tight--we learn to ease it out until it starts to luff, or flap. The new vocabulary comes fast and furious: balancing point, heave-to position, lateral aids. Now she's explaining navigation. Oh God, sailing involves too much math. She starts to sound like an adult in a Peanuts cartoon: "Mwah mwah mwah." I fight to keep my eyes open behind my sunglasses. Captain Jen says something about one nautical mile equaling one minute of latitude and 60 miles in one degree when the pen drops from my hand with a clatter. "Why don't you go take a nap?" Gayle suggests. I slink off to the cabin.
Gayle: While Marjorie snoozes, Captain Jen instructs Ann and me to navigate our way to Key Largo, where we'll dock for the night. First we have to figure out where we are, which I do by using a hand-bearing compass to plot our point on the nautical charts. Then I use the parallel ruler to determine the degree we should be sailing, a divider to measure distance, and finally--yikes!--an algebraic formula to figure out how long the trip will take. There's no wind, so we fire up our motor. I take the helm from Barnes Sound to Blackwater Sound.
"It looks like I'm taking us directly into the mangroves," I say.
Captain Jen smiles in that oh-little-grasshopper way, and sure enough, after a while I see square, red channel markers and, a little farther down, a gap in the land. We've made it to Jewfish Creek (no, really). I pilot us through what looks like a swamp surrounded by shallow mangroves. The water has turned from aqua to a murky green-brown. Vrooming cigarette boats--or small-penis boats, as we call them--leave us swaying in their wake. At the other end of the creek is a drawbridge, and it opens just for us.
Marjorie: We cruise into Blackwater Sound's marina, which is packed with sailboats, yachts, and speedboats. We're immediately walloped by the noise from a thatched-hut waterside bar in a thicket of palm trees; it's part of Gilbert's Resort. The band is playing "White Rabbit" at deafening volume; soon they're skidding into something by Pink Floyd. If that old Patrick Swayze movie Road House were set in a tiki bar, it would be just like this. You can practically hear the mullets.
We cruise up and down the channel looking for a place to anchor. I spot a guy striding purposefully toward the dock and can just tell he's about to pull out. "Parking space!" I scream. Hooray! Who cares if a space at the dock is not actually called a parking space? (Officially, it's a slip.) As we put out the rubber fenders, a zillion guys come out of the woodwork. They suck in their bellies, puff out their chests, and pontificate about how to do what we're already doing.
Gayle: There are sunsets, and there are sunsets, and this one is a doozy. The sky streaks peach, then pink, then orange--the colors reflected on the water make it look aflame. Marjorie and I leave the rollicking bar and head to a small beach, where we snap goofy pictures of ourselves. Then, because it's such a romantic moment, we call our husbands. As we walk back to the tiki bar for dinner, I feel dizzy, like the ground underneath me is shifting.
"You have sea legs," Captain Jen informs me when we join her at a table. This makes me feel strangely proud. I'm a real sailor now.
Marjorie: Early the next morning, we head back out. I'm at the helm, Gayle is navigating, and Captain Jen is somewhere below deck. "You can tell we're doing well because she ignores us," says Gayle.
Our next activity is learning how to tie various knots and what they're used for. "The only knots I care about are fixed by deep conditioner," I mutter to Gayle. But as Captain Jen takes us through the square knot (a.k.a. the reef knot), the sheet bend, and the clove hitch, I discover I like knots. Even better, I'm good at knots.
Gayle: There's not much wind until we reach Biscayne Bay, when the breeze picks up to five knots per hour. Now we're cooking. Captain Jen decides we're ready for the man-overboard drill. First, we throw Wilson (a life jacket) into the water. Next, Captain Jen shows us how to sail at a beam reach (with the waves hitting the middle of the boat), then head up, come about, and bear away from the wind. And finally, when we reach Wilson, we have to turn right into the breeze, to slow the boat enough to fish poor Wilson out with a hook. We each take turns at the helm. I really begin to physically understand where the wind is, how the sails should be manipulated, the mechanics of it all. When I tell Captain Jen that I'm in love with sailing, she says, "I had a feeling you would be." Marjorie, she's not feeling the love.
Marjorie: I'm the only person who failed to rescue Wilson on the first try.
Gayle: He died. She has survivor guilt.
Marjorie: Shut up. During drills, Captain Jen would yell "Come about!" or something, and Gayle and Ann would rocket into action while I stood frozen like a doofus. I always needed someone to tell me what to do.
Gayle: But then Marjorie goes all butch and rescues Wilson off the port side of the boat, with her left hand!
Marjorie: Go, me. Seriously, though, I'm so glad we learned that we travel well together and can shelve our momness and go back to the core of our B.C. (Before Child) friendship.
Gayle: Me, too. And I'm counting the days until I get to go sailing again.
Marjorie: Yeah, well, I think that perhaps I'd rather go hiking.
Gayle: Can I come?
Marjorie: Only if you loan me a cashmere sweater.
Women-Only Cruising Courses
Captain Jennifer Wirth offers introductory, women-only cruising courses year-round aboard the Sunday Morning. All of the classes depart from Miami. Most students will sail Biscayne Bay to the Florida Keys; advanced seafarers may get to venture to the Bahamas. Captain Jen prefers that parties book the entire boat, but she'll do what she can to pair solo travelers with other sailors or small groups. 305/807-1484, bikinisailing.com, $500 (three-day minimum) for charter and class fee for all students, and fuel; reserve at least one month in advance.