We had sailing all wrong.

Until the Flying Classroom spent an afternoon at Sydney’s Woollahra Sailing Club with world-class “Adventures of a Sailor Girl” Nic Douglass, we all thought winds filled the sails and pushed a sailboat forward from behind. Now we know that a sail works more like an airplane wing.

“An airplane cuts through the air like this,” said Nic, holding her arms up like wings out to her sides. Then she tipped her body to the side, pointing her left hand at the ground and her right hand toward the sky. “A sailboat cuts through the air like this.”

Imagine wind particles racing along the curvature of a sail. The particles traveling around the outside—or leeward—side of the sail have to travel faster than the particles along the inside—or windward—side to keep up. Like air passing over and under the curve of an airplane wing, these two different air speeds create a high-pressure area on one side and a low-pressure area on the other. The pressure differential creates a vacuum on the leeward side that sucks the boat into it.

A sailboat also has a daggerboard, which is a vertical board that sticks down into the water through the bottom of the boat. That’s what stops the wind from pulling the boat sideways. Confused? Picture a wet bar of soap. What happens when you squeeze a bar of soap? It shoots forward, right? Sailboats work the same way. Wind on the sail is one force; water pushing against the daggerboard is the other; and together, those two opposing forces squeeze the boat forward.

Photo by Oliver Uberti

Photo by Oliver Uberti

Photo by Oliver Uberti

After showing us the ropes—literally—it was time to set sail! Nic took Barrington out on a B14, a specific type of sailboat designed by Frank Bethwaite in Sydney in 1964. It was made of fiberglass with a carbon-fiber mast, boom, and wings. It had three sails: a mainsail, a jib, and a large, optional third sail called a spinnaker that, when unfurled, can get the boat up to 16-18 knots.

The mainsail does most of the work. The jib is a smaller, triangular sail on the bow of the boat. It creates gap between itself and the mainsail called “the slot.” To increase or decrease your sailing speed, you can open and close the slot to increase or decrease the amount of wind passing through and accelerating over the mainsail. If your jib is too tight, then you kill the wind. If your jib is too slack, then you’re not creating that funnel effect.

To get Barrington’s feet wet, Nic sailed out into open water far from other boats. “When sailing, your most sensitive organ is your butt,” she said. “It will tell you when to move or shift positions with the wind. Balance happens naturally.”

A splash of water told Barrington something else. “That’s all it took to get me focused. Some cold water on my butt.”

After about twenty minutes, Nic and Barrington started sailing toward the pier where Brian and I were standing. They were cruising on a line at 8 to 12 knots and getting closer and closer. “I kept worrying that we were going to hit the pier,” said Barrington, “but Nic was like ‘not yet, not yet, I got it.’”

And then all of sudden, ten feet from the pier, Nic bashed on the tiller, the hull turned, the boom swung, Nic and Barrington ducked, and just like that the B14 was sailing away from the pier. That’s what is called a “tack” and, as Nic explained, “that’s how you win races.”

When the wind is blowing right at you, you can’t sail into it. So you zigzag–or tack—at 45° angles: 45° to the left, then 45° to the right, back and forth in either one big V or lots of little V’s like a zipper. I had no idea how much math and geometry was involved. Sailing is all about timing. That’s why it's such a technical sport. You have to anticipate when the wind is going to change, and then be prepared to move your body with the boat and duck under the boom when the boat turns, the wind shifts, and the sail swings to the other side.

Once safely back on shore, Barrington reflected on his afternoon at sea. “From a training perspective, it was just like moving from a single-engine aircraft to a jet,” he said. “It took some time to learn how everything flows.”

Later that afternoon, Nic took us into the hills to watch the sun set over the harbor. “How did Barrington do today?” I asked. Did he earn the right to be called Adventures of a Sailor Boy?

Nic laughed. “How about Adventures of a Sailor Girl’s First Mate?”

Photo by Oliver Uberti

NEXT STOP: Koror, Palau