First Sail on a New Boat

A sailor takes his first voyage onboard the new-to-him Pearson 356.
Sailing on Sarasota Bay
August West harnesses blustery breezes for a spectacular midwinter sail on Sarasota Bay. Herb McCormick

The southwesterly breeze had filled in nicely, and perhaps with a tad more punch than I would’ve hoped for; in my slip off Buttonwood Cove on Florida’s Gulf Coast isle of Longboat Key, the prevailing beam-on winds had me pinned tightly against the pilings. As I scratched my chin and contemplated exactly how I might extricate myself from the dock, it occurred to me that this might not be such a great day to go sailing.

It was a fleeting thought. I’d had this February afternoon marked off on the calendar for a couple of weeks, at least. It would be my very first sail, under my own command, since I’d purchased my classic old Pearson 356, August West, the previous spring. I was going sailing.

I’d recruited my old mate Dan Spurr as crew, which was appropriate since I’d bought the boat from his son, Steve. Dan had logged plenty of miles on the vessel, and, for that matter, so had I, but never as its skipper. So, my mouth was a bit dry as we tossed off the dock lines and I backed into the cove. The Pearson is a notoriously poor performer in reverse, and there are many obstacles in my marina, specifically sandbars and tightly spaced vessels. But August West backed out like a champ—a happy omen, I thought.

It’s a fairly long motor out a narrow, winding cut into the deeper sections of Sarasota Bay where we could hoist sail and maneuver freely. That time gave me the opportunity to realize it was a whole lot breezier in the open waters than it had been in my protected slip.

Hmmm. Was this still a good idea? Too late. The die was cast.

I swapped the helm with Dan and went forward to raise the mainsail, which is when I remembered I’d not yet addressed the rather fundamental matter of running the reef lines on the quite powerful, full-battened main. And it certainly wasn’t going to happen now. A full-hoist mainsail it would be.

Sarasota Bay was choppy and flecked with whitecaps—“sporty” and “dramatic” were words that popped to mind—and I guessed it was blowing 16 to 18 knots, with gusts in the low 20s. Well, at least we needn’t worry about being becalmed. And while there wasn’t much I could do about the main, with my furling headsail, at least I could unroll just a scrap of it to keep things tamed and civilized.

We hardened up on the breeze and threw in a series of southbound tacks, which carried us past the mansions and museum of the late John Ringling, the circus entrepreneur who is synonymous with Sarasota, and onward to the city’s skyline. With boat speeds steady in the high-6-knot range—not bad for a beast built in 1977 with a 17,000-pound displacement—it dawned on me that we were having a cracking great sail. The helm was light and easy, the motion downright pleasant. “The boat has no bad habits,” Dan said, and he was right.

Near the city front, we turned and eased sheets for a fast reach back toward Buttonwood, notching a nifty 7 knots at times.

Once the sails were doused and furled, perhaps prophetically, I missed a channel marker on the way back to the marina and squished into a sandbank. Being a good friend, Dan just laughed. “You’re officially a Florida sailor now,” he said. “Everyone goes aground. No worries. It’s just sand.” It took a bit of wrangling to get off, which we accomplished after I unfurled the jib again, and we were able to sail back into deep water. Lucky should be my middle name.

And just like that, we were back in my slip, safe and secure, where we cracked one cold beer and then another. True, August West has no bad habits. But me? That’s another story.