Moving sailing beyond the bay

Voyages: Novice sailors in Annapolis are earning their sea legs in a matter of days.

October 11, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Michael Comber and Melissa Kovacs Comber, both 31, spend most of their time on dry land, he as a federal prosecutor and she as a University of Maryland graduate student finishing up her doctorate in public policy.

But in a quest to learn blue water or ocean sailing, the Combers took an intensive, three-day course in Annapolis this fall with sailboat racer Ned Goss -- training they will put to good use this month on a six-day voyage with friends to the British Virgin Islands.

"We saw what sailing was about, the points of sail and seeing where the wind is," said Melissa Comber who, with her husband, paid $900 for the course offered locally for the first time this year by South Carolina-based Ocean Sailing Academy. "It absolutely prepared me."

In an age of extreme sports, even some relative newcomers to saltwater are seeking instruction more rigorous than the typical weekend sailing school.

"There are a lot of folks who always dreamed of ocean passages, not recreational cruises on the bay," said John Martino, 30, an ocean captain who co-teaches a two-week class for the Annapolis Sailing School aboard Patriot, a 48-foot yacht. The vessel departs Annapolis for St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands next month. The class and the trip cost each student about $3,400.

Annapolis, where the United States Sailboat Show ends today, has always been defined by its place on the Chesapeake Bay. The Annapolis area has about a half-dozen sailing schools offering a variety of courses, from those tailored to beginners to specialized programs such as Womanship, founded by and for women in 1984. (Motto: "Nobody yells.")

And for a number of adult mariners -- from novices to those with plenty of experience sailing close to shore -- there's something enticing about the open sea, an encounter that can't be completely controlled.

"What we're teaching is becoming capable of reaching your dreams -- and doing it safely," said Tyson Bernthal, founder of the Ocean Sailing Academy.

The Virgin Islands trip that Martino and a co-captain will lead is the first such long-distance, learn-by-doing class offered by the Annapolis Sailing School in many years, a 1,600-mile course with the promise of wind, waves and rough water along the way. "The Gulf Stream is the bumpy part," Martino said.

One allure of that trip is the restored Patriot, a sailboat that previously was used for training midshipmen at the Naval Academy.

"Around this town, that touches people," Martino said.

He and another captain, Doug Tyson, will be aboard the vessel for its first passage-making course, with six sea berths available for student mariners who are looking for more seasoning by being one of the crew.

Tide tables, celestial navigation and right-of-way rules on the ocean all are all included in the training along with nautical jargon -- "chart" instead of "map," "lines" instead of "ropes."

`Ultimate adventure'

And the students should expect a thorough slice of life at sea. As an ocean-going vessel, Patriot is equipped to keep sleeping sailors tucked in during rolling water. "They'll keep you in the bunk when the boat is heeling and pounding," Martino said.

Rick Franke, who heads the Annapolis Sailing School, describes long-distance, heavy-weather sailing as an acquired taste that requires stamina and grit. "It's demanding and quite different than weekend sailing," he said. "Like any ultimate adventure, only a few get around to doing it."

To cater to that element, Ocean Sailing Academy opened classes in Annapolis for the first time this year. Bernthal said the fledgling Annapolis operation has already turned a profit, to his surprise.

For the Combers, the sailing class offered another attraction: Michael Comber lives in Pittsburgh, while his wife, Melissa, lives in Bethesda while she finishes her doctorate. They see each other mostly on weekends and vacations and look to share experiences that will stand out -- ocean sailing fits the bill.

During their outings with Ocean Sailing Academy, the Chesapeake Bay cooperated with the lesson plan: gentle on the first day, choppy on the second and rough on the third.

"The wind really kicked up, and the toe rail was in the water," said Michael Comber, recalling the third day. "You had the sensation of standing on the water."

After 21 hours of instruction, the Combers passed their U.S. Sailing certification test for basic keelboat sailing. Now that they're initiated, there's no turning their backs on the blue horizon.

`Embraced the moment'

For Michael Comber, who hadn't sailed since he was a teenager, the class offered a compelling glimpse of the unknown.

"I didn't know how difficult and complex it would be," he said. "I have vivid recollections of sailing on Lake Arthur in Pittsburgh, but the lake pales next to the bay."

The couple are turning their attention to their British Virgin Islands trip. The Combers say they're ready because of the training they received from sailing instructor Goss, who recently came close to earning a spot on the Olympic sailing team.

Michael Comber recalls one harrowing moment on the third day of the course when the couple felt as if they were walking on water as the boat heeled sharply. Goss assured them the keel would keep the craft from capsizing and appeared exhilarated by the sensation.

"We derived a sense of confidence from his calm because he was in heaven," Michael Comber said. "Then she and I embraced the moment."

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