My adventures with MIT Sailing!

My adventures with MIT Sailing!

My adventures with MIT Sailing!

From channeling my inner Moana to almost drowning in the Charles

February 7, 2023 | Vyshnavi V.


I was always drawn to bodies of water like rivers and seas. I had visions of sailing on boats and riding on ferries, but I never imagined that I would learn how to sail myself! When I first arrived at MIT, I heard about the MIT Sailing program, but an obstacle stood in my way: the swimming prerequisite. I couldn’t sign-up for any of the ‘Learn to Sail’ classes until I learned how to swim and passed the MIT swimming test. In 2020, I learned how to swim. At this point, I was finally eligible to sign up for the MIT Sailing programs. The sailing classes at MIT are notoriously difficult to get into, so I kept an eye on their website, and signed up at the first opportunity. Initially, I was on the waitlist for the class, but was ultimately able to make it into the class.

The MIT ‘Learn-to-Sail’ program consists of a three-day sailing class. Every day, we would learn to sail for two hours. I was excited just to be there! I am a huge fan of movies like Moana and the Pirates of the Caribbean series. I am not going to apologize for saying that ‘Captain’ Jack Sparrow is my inspiration to learn to sail! I always imagined how amazing it would be to be on the Black Pearl and sail the dangerous and untamable seas. But first, I had to learn to sail on the Charles River, a much less formidable body of water.

Several sailboats sit on the dock in the foreground of the image; more are seen in the distance on the Charles River. Across the river, clouds obscure the tips of the Boston skyline.
The cloudy skies on the first day of sailing class at MIT Sailing Pavilion

Before the first class, I honed my sailing jargon by studying wikihow. Although I was prepared for our first class, unfortunately the weather was not so cooperative. It was drizzling and cold, and we were not sure if we would actually get on the water in our boats. We spent some time learning the different sailing knots like the stunsail tack bend, cleat hitch, and bowline, which are important know-how essential for sailing. We were also taught how to rig a boat – which is how to get the boat ready for sailing. Towards the end of the class, we were shown how to go into the river in the boat and do a simple tack turn, where the boat turns upwind. I had the chance to go into the river with my partner, and successfully complete a tack turn. Initially, I was the skipper, and my partner was the crew. The skipper commands the boat and controls its direction while the crew is responsible for balancing the boat while. The instructors used a boat simulation to explain these different roles. Despite being a slow learner when it comes to driving or sailing, I was able to execute the tack turn along with my sailing partner without getting capsized. On our way back, we “parallel parked” at the dock without crashing into the dock or any other boats – another achievement!

I came home feeling accomplished and satisfied with the skills I learned during my first sailing class. In fact, I brought a rope from the sailing class to my apartment and practiced the sailing knots a few more times in preparation for my second class the next day. I even went to the MIT Sailing website and watched the video about rigging a boat, to ensure that the skills I learned would be ingrained in my brain. I went to bed but had a tough time falling asleep, as I was so excited about the next class tomorrow. You may think that I am exaggerating, but I was as excited about sailing as Hermione was excited about learning magic!

Luckily, the weather during the second class was not as bad as it was during the first class. First, we brushed up on the sailing knots and then each of us teamed up with a partner to rig our boats. Then, we practiced our tack turns on the river, and my partner and I took turns being the crew and the skipper. I was initially a little scared to spend time in the river as I was worried about our boat capsizing. Of course, it would not have been the end of the world; in the worst case scenario, we would have swum in the Charles for a while and gotten back into the boat after turning it over. Nevertheless, I was really hoping that wouldn’t happen! While I was lost in a stream of worried thoughts about capsizing, I witnessed two other students capsizing. That was it – I freaked out! The fear and worry were evident in my eyes. However, my sailing partner was supportive and reaffirmed that we would be careful, and that the sailing would go just fine. She eased my fears enough that we went out onto the water. After the second class, I can confidently say that we mastered the tack turn and executed it precisely around the buoys!

On a clear, blue skies day, a row of sailboats without sails sit on the dock.
Clear skies on the third day of sailing class at MIT Sailing Pavilion

This third class was adventure, excitement, and adrenaline! On this day with pleasant weather, we all again teamed up with our partners and rigged our boats. After this, our sailing instructor taught us the jibe turn. While the tack turn involves the boat turning upwind, a jibe turn is carried out with the sail flipping from one side of the boat to the other while sailing downwind. We were told that the jibe turn is potentially more hazardous than the tack turn owing to the strong force with which the boom could move across the boat. Even a minor mistake while executing the jibe turn could result in loss of control of the boat! 

After demonstrating the jibe turn, we were asked to head into the river and practice. As we set out on the river, I started out as the skipper, and my partner was the crew. We made an amazing start from the dock. I was using the tiller exactly as I had been instructed. We sailed smoothly for a while and reached the orange buoy at which we were supposed to do a simple tack turn. However, on that day, we were sailing with some intense northwest winds that are – well, to put bluntly – dangerous! While my turning technique was good, we almost capsized, but fortunately recovered quickly and were back to smooth sailing. Then, we headed to a green buoy, where I waited for the ideal wind conditions and went for the tougher jibe turn at what I thought was the opportune moment. I’ve almost executed the sharp jibe turn to perfection – ‘almost’ being the key word! But the wind changed its mind and hit our boat at the wrong angle, and suddenly half of our boat was under water! 

My sailing partner and I instinctively got onto the side of the boat above the water and put all our weight on it. I could feel the adrenaline rush. I yelled words of encouragement at the boat, “No! We’re not capsizing!”, hoping that that would help. Of course, my yelling at the boat was less than helpful. But the two of us kept pushing down on the uneven boat, and the boat started rising out of the water. The moment it almost reached the surface, I jumped to that side of the boat while my partner jumped to the center of the boat. I took control of the rudder and she pulled in the sail. In short, we survived! We almost capsized, but thankfully managed to stay afloat. However, we did end up with water in the boat, a minor inconvenience compared to what could have happened! And now, I can vouch that Jack Dawson in Titanic was speaking the truth when he said “I’m telling ya, water that cold, like right down there, it hits you like a thousand knives stabbing you all over your body.” Of course, only our feet felt the knife-stabbing of the cold waters of Charles. And the moment we were back on the water in our boat, we yelled in excitement and laughed and high-fived! “We didn’t capsize! We did not capsize”. 

As we settled back into smooth sailing, we realized that our little adventure had caught the attention of the US coast guard helicopter that was circling above us. We waved at them and yelled at the top of our voices that we were fine and alive! We laughed at our circumstances! All in all, the last day of sailing class was a day of adventure but more importantly, a day of survival! And despite our adrenaline rush, we were not scared off from sailing. We went back into the water again, ready to continue honing our sailing skills. You’ve got to woman up and keep sailing, right!? 

During the course of the MIT sailing program, I learned a lot about conquering my fears. Initially, observing someone capsize sent shivers down my spine, but by the conclusion of the course I felt inexplicably brave and confident in my sailing skills, even after almost capsizing myself! For me, this learned confidence is an even greater achievement than learning to sail.

Vyshnavi stands, holding a Despicable Me Minion-shaped backpack, on the MIT dock between two sailboats. It's on a sunny day, and the Boston skyline is in the background.

Standing at MIT Sailing Pavilion on the last day of sailing class

Share this post:

« Back to Blog