Thursday, February 11, 2010

How A Land-Lover Becomes A Sailor

Sailing came into my life in somewhat of an accidental fashion. I learned to sail when I took a job as a sailing instructor at Callaway Gardens for two summers. Prior to taking the job, I had only briefly been introduced to sailing at a Boy Scout Summer Camp. My job was "teaching" renters who would pay an hourly fee to sail 14' Sunfish sailboats on a resort lake of 175 acres surrounded by the beautiful Mountain View golf course (home to the annual PGA Buick Challenge for more than a dozen years). It was a great first job for many reasons. Mostly because I was required to sail for two hours a day to help attract prospective renters, which helped me to learn a lot about reading wind on the water and to understand how to “feel” the tiller. But I also admit that as a teenager, I regularly enjoyed rescuing the damsel in distress who capsized in the middle of the lake.

It would be several years later that I was introduced to larger sailboats. A neighbor who my family had known of for many years happened to also be a local sailing legend. He knew I had some sailing experience and as luck would have it, I got a last minute call because his regular first mate couldn’t accompany him at the Regatta. It was a logical choice.  I was light weight and capable of handling a rope.  For someone who likes to race and win, that was a decent combo.  So I was going to crew on his early model Catalina 22. For me, it was a chance to learn from someone who knew their stuff. Unfortunately, all the excitement leading up to that moment would later become bitter sweet. The race was over before it even began. While making a port tack just before the start of the first race (meaning the wind was coming off the port side of the boat, so our jib was on the starboard side) we got T-boned by another vessel. I almost peed in my pants!  Neither vessel saw the other coming, but since we technically didn’t have the right of way, it was our fault. In retrospect, I think the skipper handled himself pretty well. He took responsibility immediately and after realizing the hull was compromised, decided to motor back.  With damaged pride, we made our way to the dock.  It was a quiet ride; he let me steer most of the way back.

I don’t know why, but I was never invited to sail with him ever again. He had the boat repaired and to look at it, you would never know anything ever happened. I wanted so badly to learn after only getting such a small taste of real sailing, but I learned that some sailors are strangely superstitious.  I can't confirm that, but I guess I just always assumed that was the reason. Looking back on it now, I don’t think he got over that accident, even years later when I would bring my own C-22 to the water for the first time, he never acted the same.  I always thought the whole thing stunk.  It almost made me wish I'd never gone.

Again, by seemingly pure coincidence, on my way home from work some years later, I noticed a row of sailboats sitting in an obscure lot on the hard. Since Columbus, GA is a good 200+ miles from the nearest coast, this was an odd scene. It peaked my curiosity to the point I just had to stop in to see what the story was. As it turned out, the guys were in the custom sailboat trailer business.  Todd Sibert and Spencer Smith, owners of Sail Trailers. These guys would turn out to be really great guys, friends even and they became my sailing mentors.  Oh, I can't foget about Dan.  Another sailing junkie who hung out at the yard most nights working on his Morgan - the guy is a real character.  I didn’t know anything before meeting these guys, but they were patient and helpful. I bought my first C-22 from them for $700.00. It was rough, but they were generous and let me work on the boat in their yard for nearly a year. It was a top to bottom restoration job and they basically coached me through the process.  After learning the basics of rigging and sailing, I would later sell that boat for a good price. I repeated the process a few times after this. I also began working on boats on the side. I sailed as often as possible at the local club and I even made a trip with Amber about 50 miles down the gulf coast on an overnight trip with Todd, Spencer, and a few other boats.

Here are a few pics of sailboats I have restored. Since Amber and I started having babies, my priorities had to shift a bit and the sailboat hobby had to be put on hold for a while. I continue to think fondly of sailing as a favorite hobby. Amber and I hope to buy a seaworthy, fixed keel pocket cruiser in the 24-26ft range one day when the kids are a little bigger.

Catalina 22 Hull# 6799

Catalina 22 Hull# 6099

Irwin 23 - owned by my buddy, Spencer at

Catalina 25

Amber at the helm just off the coast west of Crooked Island near Panama City, FL

Me - St. Andrews Bay, FL


  1. Nice article, Ben. We are talking about going again next month. Probably the third weekend. White City to Crooked Island and back. Rusty said everyone could stay at his place.
    Spencer said that if he still has it, you could take his boat and ride along. We were just talking about it yesterday.
    Hope all is well with you and the family.

  2. Todd, that sounds great! I'll have to run it by Amber and see what we could do about getting our folks to watch the babies while we're gone. Keep me posted. If it works out, we'll probably bring along our tent and just stay on the beach instead of trying to sleep on the boat. We don't mind the rocking but the clunk of a swing keel is just too much!