Autism: Learning to Sail

24 Feb

The first summer, I was so afraid, I screamed. I screamed, and screamed, until they took me in the power boat instead, while all the other teens were sailing. I just couldn’t do it. The water was cold, and what if I fell in? But I was twelve, and the youngest (and smallest) of the group. They accepted it, and we moved on. Then again, I was in Sea Cadets, and the idea of being afraid to sail…

The next summer, I was enrolled in a three week Basic Sail course. It was located at the Royal Military College along the Lawrence River in Kingston, Ontario. The same place. The same small sailboats – Echoes they were called. Our first exercise was learning how to capsize, and what to do after. The day was warm enough, and so was the water, so I didn’t mind. In fact, capsizing on purpose was kind of fun. It was the unexpected that was scary.

I quickly got pretty good at capsizing, and was proud of how fast I could get the boat upright again after. We spent our days learning knots, and learning about the points of sail. Even this was well understood. I could pass the tests. I could tie the knots. It was time to sail.

And then we went out on the river. Two of us to a boat. Theoretically, I knew what I was supposed to do. Yet while sitting there, at the back of the boat, with my hand on the tiller, I just couldn’t seem to get it.

“Go right,” my boat mate would say, and I tried to remember… right is left, and left is right, but I just couldn’t get it, and the boat would turn left. She would yell at me, and I would hate myself for not getting it. Just tell me which way to turn the tiller, I would think. So, so stupid!

So three weeks of Basic Sail, my second year of Sea Cadets, and I hated sailing. But somehow I managed, even then, to pass my Basic Sail levels 1 and 2.

On the day of the test for level 3, everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong. My fault, I am sure, but here we are. It was a windy day, and we were sailing back and forth before the starting line of the race. We had to keep leaning over the boat to stop from capsizing, and still we took on water. Then our bailing bucket floated away, and we realized that the echo we took out was missing its buoyancy tank plugs.

As we rowed back to shore, in a panic, we forgot the centerboard, which hit the dock and cracked. We never even got over the starting line. Needless to say, I didn’t get my Basic Sail level 3. Horrible, horrible sailing!

While I didn’t like sailing, I still liked cadets, and continued on. My third summer, instead of going to camp, I went along on a trip to England with about 6 or 7 other cadets. We spent a week in London, followed by nearly a week in Portsmouth, then returned to London before flying home.

During our time in Portsmouth, we had an opportunity to sail on the Ocean. It was at the Naval base, full of ships, fairies, and such… busy. The sailboats were pretty much the same, but the environment was quite different, and much to my delight, I found I loved sailing that year.

The trouble for me is not in the activity itself, I think, but in understanding the practical applications. This is made especially hard in busy environments, full of pressure (other people yelling at me,) and fear (cold water.) If then I have to take what I know (right from left) and switch it around in a moments notice, the activity is no longer enjoyable for me, and causes much panic and self loathing.

It isn’t that I can’t learn these things, but the practical always takes so much longer (and a calm instructor) for me to learn. So while for nearly three years people had pretty much given up on my ability to either learn or enjoy this skill – along with so many others in the following years – their judgment was not correct. I only needed the right environment to thrive.


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