TRAVEL Captiva Audience

Steve Colgate can teach anyone to sail. He taught me, didn’t he?

José Gaspar had a thing for the ladies. That created a problem, because women didn’t like him. Gaspar was a pirate, and something about his work, which was ravaging the western coast of Florida, seemed to leave women cold. But in a display of 18th-century ingenuity, Gaspar overcame his problem with the skills of his trade. When he saw a woman he liked, he just stole her away. Literally.

By working a little kidnapping into his piracy repertoire, Gaspar built himself quite a harem, plucking women from their homes and depositing them on a small, remote island three miles off the coast of southern Florida. The island made an ideal, if somewhat paradoxical, prison for Gas-par’s women. It was truly isolated, but it also must have been quite a pleasant place when Gaspar was away on road engagements. The Isla de las Captivas, as it came to be called, has sun, warm, clean water in every direction, several miles of pristine beaches – everything necessary to make seclusion quite pleasant.

Gaspar and his women have been gone for almost 200 years now, but the appealing little island remains virtually unchanged. While the mainland was being dotted with roadside orange stands, fast food franchises, and an overgrowth of Holiday Inns, Captiva remained untouched. As Fort Myers was burgeoning 30 miles away, Captiva Island spent the first forty years of this century as a serene, somewhat unproductive, coconut and citrus plantation. The natural barriers that made the island a good pirate’s sanctuary also protected it from the onslaught of tourists which overrun Florida in winter months. There was no causeway to the mainland until 1963. In the Forties, the plantation began taking in guests, ferried to the island by fishing boats. Captiva remained largely undeveloped, except for a yacht basin, which was dug from a mangrove swamp in the mid-Sixties, and a few guest cabins.

In 1972 Mariner Properties, which is based on nearby Sanibel Island, came to Captiva and developed 300 acres of the island into a bona fide resort, South Seas Plantation. Fortunately, the development took place after environmental preservationists had begun to have an impact. The design and construction of beach villas and condominiums has left the island with its principal asset: tranquility. The dominant component of the Captiva landscape is still the palm tree. Although the island is now accessible by car, it still feels remote, well away from the beaten path.

That is perhaps why former Olympic sailor Steve Colgate chose Captiva to subject a handful of journalists to a crash course in one of Gaspar’s skills: sailing. (Some of us thought the ravaging and plunder might be easier to get the hang of, but the majority preferred sailing.) Crash courses in anything are usually most effective when the instructor has a captive audience. Captiva is, of course, perfect for that. It is also very difficult to want to leave, since Mariner Corporation has brought the amenities at the resort to well within the decadent range. The resort has three restaurants (and a former Fairmont Hotel chef), 11 swimming pools, 16 tennis courts, a marina, and a nine-hole golf course, as well as one of the cleanest beaches I have ever put my bare feet upon. Another attraction to South Seas Plantation for most of us was what it didn’t have: winter. When I left DFW Airport one January morning the temperature was 38 degrees. When I arrived in Fort Myers four and a half hours later, it was 82. Even more impressed with the climate was a writer from Des Moines, who had seen below-zero temperatures in her hometown the night before. There is nothing like a 100-degree temperature differential to make one appreciate South Florida.

For about 15 years, Colgate has been owner of the Off-shore Sailing School, a New York-based institution that transforms non-sailors into sailors in a one-week period. Colgate and his staff crammed a week’s worth of instruction into three days, in order to get us back to our typewriters sooner. Even though the instruction was streamlined, I came away convinced Colgate’s main claim about the course is true. It works. I had never been aboard a sailboat before going to Cap-tiva. Now I can sail one.

Colgate’s secret is that he and his instructors are practically all business. Before going to Florida, I had formed the impression that the mini-course was going to be more party than school. That idea began to fade when I found myself in a classroom roughly two hours after getting off the plane. It disappeared completely when one of our instructors, a former junior high school teacher from Martha’s Vineyard, concluded his initial lecture by handing out test papers. But Colgate’s courses are not all work and no play. In the regular one-week basic sailing course, students spend their mornings in the classroom or on sailboats and their afternoons and evenings doing whatever they want. Colgate teaches his courses in places like Captiva; Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands; Hilton Head Island, South Carolina; Martha’s Vineyard; Sarasota, Florida; and Chestertown, Maryland, a resort town on Chesapeake Bay. Students rarely complain about not having anything to do with their free time.

Colgate’s instructors are unrelenting: They insist that everyone learn how to sail. The students are mailed a 127-page instruction manual several weeks before they take the course, and are asked to read it before they arrive. Since the instruction costs $219 per student, most people who take the course are motivated enough to read the manual before they attend. Those who don’t will find that it’s a good way to spend the first few hours of free time. When the instructor tells you to pull in the jib sheet, it is quite helpful to know the definitions of both “jib” and “sheet.”

Another fundamental which the novice like myself learns quickly is what makes a sailboat move. I thought it was propelled by the wind blowing into the sails from behind. Silly me.

I soon found that what moves a sailboat is what causes an airplane to fly: aerodynamic lift. Since the wind on one side of the sail moves faster than it moves across the other, it creates the same lift effect as on the flat side of an airplane wing. In sailing the “lift” becomes “push.” All that is really necessary to move the boat efficiently is to maintain a slight angle to the wind. That came as a complete revelation to me. Fortunately, sailors discovered the lift concept several centuries before it did anything for the Wright brothers. Otherwise, it would have been a little difficult to cross the Atlantic for the first time, waiting for the wind to blow from the east.

After a couple of hours of fundamentals in the classroom, we took to the water for the first time, three students and one instructor in each boat. Students sail the boats, 27-foot Solings (an Olympic racing class), from the first moment of on-water instruction.

Our first day was really more suited to sunbathing than sailing; temperature in the seventies, cloudless sky, just barely enough wind to move the boats. We ventured out into the Gulf a little way, taking turns working the tiller and the sheets – the ropes that control the sails. “What are we going to do,” we asked each other, “with the next two days, now that we have already learned how to sail?”

That evening we had cocktails aboard Sleuth, Colgate’s 54-foot ocean racing vessel. To someone who has never been on a sailboat before, an ocean racer like Colgate’s is captivating. When I learned that sailing vessels generally cost at least $1500 per foot, the boat became awesome.

Colgate maintains a full-time crew for the boat which sails Sleuth to various racing sites. It is not too difficult, I learned, to find crew members for such tasks; there is an international subculture of young people who live on boats belonging to others. They work for little more than food and the opportunity to live aboard. Colgate’s wife Doris maintains discipline on Sleuth by insisting that the crew members follow three rules: no girls, no liquor, and no marijuana on board at any time. Over dinner one of the crew, a hulking young Australian from Sydney, entertained us with stories about the macho culture of his homeland. “I never read a book in my entire life,” he proclaimed proudly after only one Mai Tai. “I tried to read a book about sailing one time, but it was so bloody boring that I threw it overboard.” An enchanting idea: There still exists in this world a vocation in which people like our young Australian friend can rely on basic physical skills and make a living in an interesting manner. “You won’t necessarily be able to build up much of a bank account,” he told us, “but you sure as ’ell will get an opportunity to see the four corners of the world.” The young mavericks of the sailing world generally tend to crew boats, however, not own them. Colgate, 43, is a product of Yale University; he has not only read a thing or two but written four books on sailing and a monthly column for Sail magazine.

During the first five minutes of our second day of sailing, I realized how terribly naive I had been to think I had become an accomplished sailor in one day. As soon as we had maneuvered the Soling out of the yacht basin and into Pine Island Sound, we encountered something we hadn’t really dealt with before. Wind. Strong wind. The instant it caught our sails, blowing across the bow of the craft, the deck tipped into a position that was more vertical than horizontal.

“Ho boy,” our instructor said, “this is just perfect. These are ideal conditions for you folks to really learn something.” None of his students were all that enthusiastic at the moment. He had told us the day before that the Solings have an 1100-pound lead weight in the keel. “They can not turn over,” he assured us, “so there is really nothing to worry about in that department.” At this very moment I found myself hoping that was not an idle claim, since the water was a totally different environment than it had been the day before. The weather was what Floridians consider cold, mid to low sixties. The water temperature was in the fifties. The wind was strong enough to make waves all over the sound. Each time the boat hit a wave, it jolted us.

My initial concern about going into the water became pointless after 1 found from experience that the water would come to me. After the first big wave came over the bow, all three students were drenched. One wave was strong enough to knock the lenses out of the eyeglasses worn by a writer from New Orleans. “You know,” she said as she picked herself up out of the floor of the craft, “I think sailing is more of a man’s sport.” That notion is, however, absurd. Doris Colgate, who would fit anyone’s definition of petite, handles a sailboat skillfully. Some of the most accomplished graduates of the school are women.

After about an hour of bouncing and rolling across the sound, we discovered that our instructor had been correct. It was a good day for sailing; the boat responds much better to a strong wind than to a light one. The fundamentals of handling the boat became easy for us after a little repetition. Before the day was over, I was able not only to handle the boat on any heading that appealed to me, but perform maneuvers like turning the craft up wind and bringing it to a stop directly beside a marker buoy. I was convinced that I had experienced a real breakthrough. I could indeed sail. That feeling is apparently not uncommon for the Col-gates’ students. In the week-long course, the last two days are spent on free sailing, with no instructor aboard. The instructors say that after four days of training the students, they have no reservations at all about turning them loose in the boats by themselves.

Students who go bonkers for the basic sailing course and have the time and money to pursue sailing further can spend a second week and take Colgate’s “learn to cruise” course, which is taught on a 33-foot cruising vessel. Students have to be graduates of the basic course, or experienced sailors, to be admitted; they also have to have $229 for tuition. Taking both courses consecutively and staying at South Seas Plantation while you learn is not cheap. Winter room rates, not included in the tuition, run anywhere from $75 a night for a one-bedroom villa to $800 a week for a four-bedroom beach house. Summer rates, in effect from May 1 to December 14, are roughly half the winter rates. Those seeking a bargain might try taking the summer course in Chester-town, Maryland, where a double room runs $24 a night.

Graduates of the Offshore Sailing School cruising course are eligible for school-sponsored cruises in various exotic locations. This year the Colgates are going to the San Juan Isles in the Caribbean; the Down Isles, southwest of the Virgin Islands; the Honduras; and the coastal areas of Maine. Past cruises have been to places like the Grenadine Islands and the islands off Greece.

For those who want to get fanatical, theschool offers a sailboat racing course andan advanced racing course. There are evenreview courses offered on Long IslandSound. I somehow find myself contentjust knowing how to get a sailboat frompoint A to point B. Even if both pointsare located on White Rock Lake.

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