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Rivah Visitor's Guide

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Sailing Lessons

a summer adventure leading to a lifetime of experiences

by Shannon Rice


So you’ve come to the Rivah and naturally the first thing you want to do is hit the water. You want to enjoy the tranquility of a natural environment, but find the jet skis and motorized boats too closely resemble the hustle and bustle of the busy highway you left behind. Still, you want an exhilarating water experience.

The Optimist is the most popular type of racing sailboat for juniors up to 15 years of age.

Finally, you find your vessel. It’s majestic yet serene. It’s a sailboat, and you’ve got to have one.

But what type of boat do you get? What does starboard mean? How do you dock it?

“It’s much easier than you think with a little instruction,” says Arabella Denvir, sailing instructor and owner of Premier Sailing School in Irvington. Denvir grew up in the sailing community of Kinsale, Ireland.

“I started when I was eight [years old] and I was terrified,” said Denvir. “At 10, I went back and loved every sense of it.”

With extensive cruising and racing experience, Denvir and her late husband, Philip, provided sailing instruction in Ireland, England, France and the Mediterranean Island of Malta before coming to the U.S. Premier Sailing School was established at The Tides Inn in 1998 and its instructors are Premier graduates. The school offers courses to children as young as age 6 to adult, including a U.S. Keelboat Certificate Program.

“For both the children and the adults, the most important thing in the beginning is confidence-building,” says Denvir.

Before you begin any type of instruction, you need a boat.

How to work your crew to get the most out of the boat are among the list of advanced sailing skills.

“This is totally subjective,” says Brad Sindle, sailing instructor at Norton Sailing School in Deltaville. “There are as many types of sailboats as there are desires for the use of that particular “perfect” boat.  I have taught couples whose first sailboat was a 46-footer though many of us started as kids in a Laser or an Optimist Pram.”

In general, sailboats are distinguished by size, hull configuration, keel type, number of sails, use and purpose. The Optimist is usually the go-to boat for junior sailors, says Denvir. A level up is the Sunfish which is one of the most popular. The Laser is similar to the Sunfish but higher performance, according to Denvir. Then there are Keelboats which can hold several passengers and can contain in-board diesel engines.

Both Denvir and Sindle insist you can learn to sail on any type of boat. However, Denvir’s personal favorite for beginners is the Sunfish.

“In a smaller boat like this you learn those finesses. You use your body and physically feel the movements of the boat. And the Sunfish is totally usable all around for recreation and racing,” says Denvir.

Premier Sailing School in Irvington offers instruction to children as young as six. Adult certification courses are also offered. The school features a fleet of sailboats including J24s, Cal 30 and Catalina 30 for its adult courses.

Doug Power, commodore of the Rappahannock River Yacht Club prefers a Cat Boat.

“It has one sail to deal with, but all the basic skills are the same,” says Power.

Not ready to commit to purchasing a boat? Many of the sailing schools have their own fleet available for courses.

Once you have chosen a vessel, it’s helpful to learn the lingo of sailing.

“One should know the names of the basic parts of the boat, the sails, and standard nautical terms associated with the sport.  This is especially true in boats having more than just the skipper onboard.  A sailing crewmember should know what the captain is talking about when he asks you to “trim the jib” or “hoist the main halyard” or “sit to windward” etc.,” says Sindle.

Sailing has had a language all its own and the jargon is one of the most intimidating factors for beginning sailors. (See sidebar) For those who find even the condensed list a bit daunting, rest assured.
“We really play that down especially in the beginning. It just happens automatically. You learn it by actually going through it,” says Denvir.

After learning the vocabulary, it’s time to start sailing.

Safety should always come first when sailing. Common sense such as not anchoring in rough waters could have prevented this boat from landing on Dameron Marsh last year. Denvir says sailors should be self-sufficient and not count on others to rescue them.

“One should understand the basics of sailing, how to make the boat go where you want, how to read channel markers, several important knots, and the basic rules of the road, meaning who is expected to change course when two vessels are approaching each other,” says Sindle. 

Aside from learning how to rig a boat, most of the instruction actually takes place on the water, says Denvir. At Premier, students practice a particular skill each day. Basic skills include learning to sail away from the mooring, trimming the sails, knowing the points of sailing, anchoring the boat, picking up a man overboard, docking the boat, and and learning to tie the right knots. Learning how to fly the spinnaker, gybe, sail faster, put your weight in the right place and work your crew to get the most out of the boat are among the list of advanced skills.

“There are skills required to sail, but mostly it takes common sense and focus,” says Powers.

As for the fear of docking, Denvir says, “Do not be afraid of big boats and docking. It’s only a little bit more difficult than parking your car.”

As for sailing, Denvir insists it’s something you have to experience to understand and encourages everyone to do so.

Denvir says, “Just go for it. It’s a very happy, exhilarating, confidence-building sport. It’s a sport for life.” has compiled a list of sailing terms everyone should know:
Aft - the back of a boat, also known as the stern. 

Bow - the front of the boat.

Port - the left-hand side of the boat when you are facing the bow.

Starboard - the right-hand side of the boat when you are facing the bow.

Leeward - also known as lee, the direction opposite to the way the wind is currently blowing.

Windward - the direction in which the wind is currently blowing.

Boom - the horizontal pole which extends from the bottom of the mast. Adjusting the boom towards the direction of the wind is how the sailboat is able to harness wind power in order to move forward or backwards. 

Rudder - located beneath the boat, the rudder is a flat piece of wood, fiberglass, or metal that is used to steer the ship. Larger sailboats control the rudder via a wheel, while smaller sailboats will have a steering mechanism directly aft.

Tacking - basic sailing maneuver, turning the bow of the boat through the wind so that the wind changes from one side of the boat to the other side.

Jibing - the opposite of tacking, this basic sailing maneuver refers to turning the stern of the boat through the wind so that the wind changes from one side of the boat to the other side.

The Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula are home to many sailing schools and boating clubs that provide lessons to children and adults in a variety of formats, including:

Nortons Sailing School
50 Marina Road, Deltaville
Offers fully sanctioned American Sailing Association classes
to both beginners and advanced students.

Stingray Pt. Sailing School
18355 Puller Highway, Deltaville
ASA certified training facility offering sailing instruction
from Introduction to Sailing to Advanced Coastal Cruising.

Premier Sailing School
744 Saint Andrews Lane, Weems
Professional sailing school recognized by US Sailing to teach Keelboat Certification Program. Options include US Sailing Certification Courses for Adults, Family Sailing Courses, Sailing Courses for Children & Teenagers, Corporate sailing afternoons
& special events and Premier Women’s Sailing Club.

Yankee Point Racing and Cruising Club
734 Oak Hill Road, Lancaster
Club offering various seminars throughout the year.

Rappahannock River Yacht Club
100 Rappahannock Road
Junior Sailing Beginner’s Week is August 6-10.

posted 07.26.2012

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