Q2 Report: Dancing on Air

A few years ago, My Beloved and I signed up for swing dancing lessons. We went to every class. We had extra tutoring. We stuck with it. And we sucked.

The whole thing about swing dancing is that only one person can be the leader. The other has to follow. The follower gets only cues and signs – a bit of pressure inside the elbow, a gentle hand on the waist, a dip of the knees – to tell them where to go and when. This is not a language I understand.

I kept trying to compensate by applying my great glowing brain to the problem. Surely there is a pattern here that I can perceive? Could I identify something specific and apply it as a general rule?? No. Every dance partner helms from the elbow and waist, and my body was supposed to swing to these signals. I literally could not compute. And I failed at something I very much wanted to enjoy.

When I first started learning to sail, it was much the same as dancing. I took classes. I took notes. I made up rules about how to interpret the wind, and then had to spend 6 months unlearning my mistakes. I did not use my senses – I relied on my mind. And again this nearly led to my defeat.

The past few months have taught me that sailing is instinctive. You feel the wind on your skin. The sails communicate by their sound and shape. They also have “telltales” sewn onto them – strings that stream merrily when the sail is properly trimmed. The engine has a distinctive purr when it is pleased. The rudder has a bit of resistance when it is balanced. There is a lot of information available through my senses, which my body can interpret and respond to on its own.

To understand my latest eureka moment, you need to know that “tacking” is sailor talk for turning the front of the boat through the wind. This manoeuvre changes the wind from one side of the boat to the other. For years, I have started the turn with confidence, only to second-guess myself on where to end it. Quite awhile ago I started to calculate 90 degrees from the course I was on, and end my turn there. It was an academic solution to an artistic problem.

The other day, I spent the day at the helm, from anchor up to anchor down. I got plenty of opportunity to practice my tacking. At first, I relied on my “rule as usual”, but got frustrated with the sloppy results. Sometimes the boat stalled and sometimes it worked properly. But it is no joy, I gotta tell you, keeping your eyes glued to the compass.

Eventually it dawned on me to read the sails. Are they backfilling with wind and crossing the midline of the boat? Did the boom swing? What was in my field of vision when I started the turn? Am I about 90 degrees from it now? How does the helm feel? Is it centred? And then, just to supplement what my senses are telling me – what does the compass say?

Ironically, I brought all kinds of wise books aboard this year, intending to to “learn” to meditate, to breathe better, and to be more mindful. As usual, I just intended to read and think about it! Spartan had other plans for me. It has been no easy task, learning to trust my senses and quiet the chatter in my mind. I suspect it will be a lifelong practice, and I am good with that!

Kathleen, February 2020 – Georgetown, the Exumas

P.S. – Thanks to all for your well-wishes about my eye injury. It is much better now!!!


  1. Kathleen, great to hear from you. I am skippering in Grenada in a few weeks with novice crew and I will be using your comments as good advice for them. Did not know about your eye, hope all is on the mend.


  2. Know what you said about dancing … we tried Salsa lessons … couldn’t do it!
    We are always learning … there is always hope … never give in!


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