The Learning Curve
The Learning Curve
by Molly Winans
My friend Robynne, to whom I’ve offered to give sailing lessons, asked me on e-mail how many lessons she will need so that she can block those days off on her calendar. I stared at her e-mail for a while. Then, I laughed. I wrote, “It depends,” but I deleted it. True, but frustrating. I was too busy at the time to give her my extended answer, the real one, the one that was not going to digest well with her (self-described) Type A personality: the achiever who wanted to schedule the days, click off the lessons, and then—ding!—get the whole sailing thing.
I settled with suggesting a couple of days in case the wind does not cooperate as scheduled. I wrote, “You can learn the basics in a day, and the rest is practice.” It seemed a more optimistic answer than, “It may take the rest of your life to figure it out.” Both responses ring true to me.
I did learn the basics in a day: the pie chart of wind angles, the “no-go” zone, which sail is attached to the thing that goes boom, port and left both being four-lettered words, and when in doubt, let it out. My first on-the-water teacher’s impatient tiller-snatching technique proved to be a barrier to learning, especially for my jumpy, awkward teenaged self. He didn’t squash my desire to learn, thankfully.
My clear memories of those frustrating moments on that pretty lake with that impatient teacher—a kind soul, really, but a crummy teacher for me—stayed with me as I sailed later with more patient guides and had time to fumble on my own. That’s where the real learning began, and my confidence grew. I still remember the first days, though, zigzagging like a fool, getting completely disoriented as I tacked, and being angry at myself for not “getting it.”
Once things clicked for me, I found it easy to explain maneuvers to other beginners. Just as I was good at teaching French as a non-native speaker who knew the trouble areas, I excelled at teaching sailing because of my thorough understanding of the common mistakes and fears.
When I taught on weekends at the Annapolis Sailing School, as I did for the better part of the 1990s, I used to have students tack back and forth repeatedly using points on land such as the water tower and the Greenbury Point radio towers. It was a simple thing to choose points on land to help someone overcome disorientation, so simple to repeat a drill until it felt comfortable, yet no one had tried that for me as I learned.
When I interviewed the co-directors at J/World Annapolis Sailing School, I was heartened to hear Jeff Jordan say that he and his instructors were continuously learning. “We are all students of the game. I like to say it’s like chess. You can learn to play chess in 15 minutes and spend the rest of your life getting better at it.”
Robynne said she would pay me back somehow for my teaching time; I told her to wait and see how the day goes and if we wreck into anything. I haven’t given a real sailing lesson since 1999, and my skill set these days involves more beer-fetching and pushing buttons to drop anchors than it does maneuvering small vessels. But I do love to teach, if Robynne will accept my rocky re-entry into a new boat and rusty teaching role. We are both works in progress in this immense world of sailing learning. I just have 28 more years of practice.
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