This was Nellie's first sailing article. Being a nurse, she had been used to writing professonal articles. I like these better. This first appeared in Southwinds, a St. Petersburg, Florida sailing and cruising magazine.

Southwinds Magazine, P.O. Box 1190, St. Petersburg, Florida 33731 (813) 825-0433,
Free at marinas and boating stores through the Southeast, by subscription for $15 a year.


It was later re-printed in 48 Degrees out of Seattle.

Read it, print it and share it with your friends, but remember that it's copyrighted material. Get written permission from the author before publishing it.

Gene Gruender
Austin.sailor at yahoo.com

THE MAKING OF A SAILOR
By Nellie Symm-Gruender
Copyright 1997

It used to be that when I thought about sailing, I would have black and white flash backs of the Kennedy's. They were always smiling and happy, moving effortlessly through the water and Jackie had her pearls on. They had just sailed from the "compound", and I know I never noticed any of them breaking a sweat.

Then, I met the man who would become my husband. I thought it was wildly romantic that he lived on a boat. We had midnight cruises, and I began to learn about his 37 foot cutter rigged Hunter. As our relationship progressed, I was pleased to find that after raising 3 sons he still had enough interest left to bond with my 7 year old son, and take him under his wing. We soon began enjoying sailing, with Gene giving Zach and I directions in a language that was as foreign to me as Russian. I always thought a tack was what you used on a bulletin board. Jibe, I had no idea, wing on wing? I thought this was a boat, not a plane. It became obvious I had a lot to learn.

Gene began to share his dreams of making the boat into an ocean going vessel and then going cruising. Funny, I thought we were cruising when we went over 5 knots on the lake. I soon found out that "cruising" had a much broader meaning. It became apparent that not only was Gene not interested in having a white picket fence, he didn't want the house either.

I must now admit that in the beginning I may have been just talking big about cruising, with the thought in the back of my mind that there was no way I could give up my career and sell my house to live on a boat. Did people really take their kids out of school to persue sailing on a full time basis? Sounded pretty radical to me.

As I began to read Cruising World, I read the stories and accounts of the "cruising community", and began to warm to the idea. There was obviously a lot of ground to be covered before our "maybe dream" could happen. I needed to become a sailor.

When Gene and I exchanged vows of commitment (on the boat of course), Zach and I joined with Gene to become the crew of Rainbow Chaser. Gene's participation in realizing this dream was moving off the boat into our house so the renovation of the boat could begin.

There were the expected adjustments. "You have to spend the whole weekend working on the boat?" "That new sail cost how much?" "What do you mean the lawn needs to be mowed again?" We each had to be flexible enough to work toward the dream. That flexibility was never tested more than when I decided I wanted to leave galley duty and steer the boat. (See how much I had to learn?)

Gene had been a self taught sailor, and a very good one at that. As he began to work with me he felt that despite his excellent direction my learning curve was flat. It became like the husband teaching the wife to drive a car. You got it - we yelled A LOT.

Perhaps if we did some "real sailing" as a crew things would fall into place. We signed on to be the 4th and 5th members of a crew sailing from Port Aransas, Texas to Vera Cruz, Mexico on the Regatta de Amigas. I did my watch at the helm, and enjoyed the 5 day passage. By the time we got home I learned I didn't get sea sick, and despite the I still didn't "get it". I had a very hard time grasping how, if the wind was blowing at the side of the boat, why does it move the boat forward. If the wind is blowing hard why would you need to decrease the sails? Why did the sail only "flop" when I was at the helm? Gene worked and tried, but I felt the need for a second opinion on my ability to follow in the footsteps of Columbus.

On New Years Eve I announced to Gene that I felt a strong need to build on the basics that he had given me. I was going to take a sailing course. One for women only. I had researched what was available, and had chosen Womanhip. It states right in their ad "No one yells". I got the literature, and signed up for the course in The British Virgin Islands. Just because you're learning doesn't mean it can't be fun. I prepped, I prepared, I read Chapmans, and I packed. The week spent on the boat with five other women and two female captains was money and time very well spent. I learned gained confidence and the sails didn't flop. It was a real metamorphosis. I was hooked and I wanted to cruise....bad.

Cruising suddenly had meaning to me. I came home wanting to share in the partnership of sailing. Even Gene was impressed with the gains I'd made. He was even taking my suggestions on how to trim the sails. The proof of his increased confidence became apparent when Gene went below to take a nap with me at the helm. I managed to get the boat in irons, but the great news was I got it out and had it moving before Gene ever got up. Sailing for me was sort of like learning to use a computer. One day it was a daunting screen that appeared to have some level of intelligence that my neurons didn't reach. The next day my mouse was flying and I was clicking the tool bar with the speed of light. In the case of sailing, wind on my beam pushed those sails to make me move, and as I trimmed them, soon I was moving fast.

Much to Gene's pleasure I proved I could pull up the anchor, and hank the staysil on. That's not to say there wasn't ongoing transition, and compromise. It's amazing how many acrylic nails you can pop and break off during an afternoon of sailing. Mirrors had to be added so I could see to put on my makeup. Gene learned that any tool not being touched for longer than 5 minutes was subject to being put away. As I mentally began moving from the position of land locked to live aboard I began looking at the boat as our potential home. In a sense I moved back to the galley. I wanted pots, and pans and candles, and a stereo. While I did this Gene was moving the boom up to make sure no one was killed. I moved into the realm of making a home... one that sails.

Things began to come into focus as we lived on the boat for the summer. I learned a great deal about 12 volt power, how large an inverter needs to be to run a hair dryer and an iron. Until we got a sufficiently large inverter, I would show up at work sans makeup in shorts with straight hair. After a half hour locked in my office I emerged in my suit and heels with makeup. I experimented with how far over the galley stove I could bend before singeing important parts of my anatomy. I found the perfect places to put my feet so that I could cook, sail, and heel without becoming a flying object. Each day spent on the boat, whether it was at the dock or on the lake sailing, helped to prepare us for the final transition to selling the house, quitting the job and really cruising. And there were still more transitions.

Now that the bigger inverter was installed I learned to get ready in a head the size of a telephone booth. I learned how far up I needed to pull up my skirt to clear the lifeline. If I were a person prone to paranoia I would believe my departures were a spectator sport at the marina. Perhaps the best shift was that I began to believe that the hedonistic joy of sailing was worth going from a large 3 bedroom house to inhabiting an area smaller than our living room with 2 other people. Through this belief Gene, Zach and I became a crew, a team and best friends. Sailing became our lives. As far as the cruising goes we went through what I now understand most potential cruisers do. We made time lines, we trashed the time lines for work commitments, we took three steps forward and two steps back. It seemed that Gene and I could not get in sinc. If he was ready, I was in the middle of a big project at work. I wanted to get Zach through the 4th grade. Gene suddenly got offered a great contract job that could help fill the cruising coffers.

In the end the stars and planets did line up. Our Karma became harmonic. Zach finished the 4th grade, I completed all of my commitments, Gene quit work for the 2nd or was it the 3rd time. We sold the house. We packed. We stored. And we moved to the boat. It's interesting to note that as the boat became our permanent home we seemed to work more, and sail less. We now wanted to hop the dam on Lake Travis and head for blue water. We began to remind each other that if we waited to move the boat until everything was done we would never move.

There were parties, and good-byes, and the usual "I never believed you'd really do this". Then the day did finally come, and the boat did move, cat and all.

Our first shakedown cruise tested everything both Gene and I had ever learned about sailing, but that is another story. The team was further solidified, and best of all we survived. As I look back on the past three years it's interesting to reflect on the personal and even physical changes that have occurred. Zach is the consummate boat kid. He'd rather read Joshua Slocum than comic books. I no longer wear make up, and I've ditched the fake nails. I stocked up on deodorant because I work up a sweat. I did make one concession to that original flash back. In Jackie's memory I brought myself a string of pearls. After all, I am a sailor.


Copyright 1997
All Rights Reserved



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