Smooth Sailing

In the shadow of Lady Liberty, our reporter learns her lessons in luffing.

Offshore Sailing School’s Learn to Sail course takes novices onto the Hudson River for ­lessons with a view.
Photo by Billy Black.

Seen the Statue of Liberty? The Manhattan skyline? Of course you have. But have you seen them from the water, sails snapping, salt spray nipping your face? If you can bear a one-weekend break from sunbathing down the Shore this summer, you can soak up this scene, learn a skill for life—and catch a reprieve from Parkway traffic.

The adventure begins in a corner of Jersey City’s Liberty Landing Marina, where the lively crew of the Offshore Sailing School awaits, determined to turn you, your spouse, friends, or family into sailors. Steve Colgate, an America’s Cup and Olympic sailor, began Offshore in 1964 with just two boats and one location on City Island in the Bronx. With his wife, Doris (a former student), he expanded the business, which now has seven locations, including destinations such as Florida, Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and the British Virgin Islands—and has graduated more than 100,000 sailors. Offshore’s three-day Learn to Sail course is designed to have you mastering tacks and jibes, and even sailing without an instructor as your final exam.
I was doubtful. I had taken a beginner sailing course before but never felt confident enough to hit the water solo. But my instructor, Alex Smith, was insistent: “You will be able to sail at the end of this course.”

Offshore’s Learn to Sail starts each day with classroom instruction aboard a huge, historic lightship permanently docked at Liberty Landing. Here, students learn the lingo: sheets and halyards, the difference between a beam reach and close hauled, and what the heck luffing is. (It’s when a sail flaps in the wind, indicating that you should trim it or change direction to fill it.) I also marvelled at my instructor’s ability to draw countless little sailboats in various positions on a whiteboard. The helpful accompanying textbooks are custom-made, written by Steve and Doris. Though the daily instruction was dense, it all came into perspective once we hit the water, which we did, thankfully, for most of each day.

It can be hairy, as I learned the first time we were faced with wrangling sails and avoiding ferries, cruise ships, other sailboats, buoys, and ornery Port Authority vessels. This is the Hudson River, after all. I thoroughly expected I’d be the one in my group—there are up to four students onboard at a time—to get knocked out by the boom and plunge headfirst into the not-so-inviting waters. And we hadn’t gotten to the man-overboard drill yet.

But Smith never stopped coaching, and before long we were catching on, trimming sails, cruising swiftly upriver or maneuvering past Ellis Island for photos, slowed only by the wind shortfall that sailboats suffer when passing the skyscrapers of the Financial District. “When they’re not stealing our money, they’re stealing our wind!” was our instructor’s favorite quip. And just when we had the open water figured out, there came the challenge of returning the boat to its slip without denting it. We weren’t the best at docking on day one, but we did better than some who had gone before. A storage box at the corner of one slip had been impaled by a bow; seeing it was a welcome reminder that Offshore teaches beginners, and whatever mistakes we might make have surely been made before.

Nervous types have other reasons to breathe easy. Offshore’s fleet consists of 26-foot sloops designed by Steve Colgate (hence the name Colgate 26) and naval architect Jim Taylor. These craft were made for instruction. They feature a roomy 11-foot cockpit, and—here’s the clincher—are designed not to tip. Which isn’t to say they are slow-going: Colgates have the guts of a racing boat, and are used in the prestigious Knickerbocker Cup and by the U.S. Naval and Coast Guard academies for their sail-training courses.

By day three, our crew was looking more and more like sailors and getting the Colgate prepped for voyage in record time. Everyone took turns at the motor, the tiller, the sheets, and docking, and there were plenty of opportunities to improve in areas we each were unsure about.

Personally, I was having trouble with the motor, which is needed to propel the boat out of the marina until the sails take over. Smith made me yank the starting cord until I finally got it, my classmates cheering as the engine hummed to life. On the water, instruction was non-stop; in each spare moment Smith quizzed us on points of sail, the three different meanings of “tack,” and more, so that we could ace our written tests, which we did.

At last came our final exam on the water. We motored to the bay and prepared to raise our sails. Our Colgate pointed into the wind, my classmates and I pulled the halyard to lift the mainsail and unfurled the jib. In just three days, these tasks had become routine. I took the tiller first, and we set a course for the Statue of Liberty—where else?

With a loud crack, the canvas snapped full as we turned. My classmates trimmed the sails and we picked up speed. After two days of clouds and drizzle, the sun was bright and high, and it seemed even Lady Liberty was rooting for us. There could be no better feeling for us novices than working as a team, sails full, on a confident, leisurely trip, then masterfully returning to the dock—and our proud instructor.

There’s a lot to love about Offshore’s approach to sailing, thoughtful teaching, and friendly instruction, but the best part is what happens once you graduate. After completing the course, you can join the Jersey City Offshore Sailing Club. For a seasonal fee, members can take out a sailboat any day of the week with guests (in good weather and when they aren’t being used for lessons), and can participate in other club events. Weekly races on Wednesday and Sunday nights enable recent grads to learn from more experienced sailors. “I found myself a little intimidated to go race, but with the slightest of encouragement I did,” says Gwen Hughes, a club member and activities chairperson. “You learn so much when you are on a racing team—it’s competitive but still informal.”

After the races, the group congregates atop the lightship for a barbecue, cold beers, and great company. There’s also a monthly Full Moon Sail, which gives a rare and beautiful up-close view of Manhattan. This year’s events will include excursions to Coney Island, Staten Island, and the Nyack races. Club members range from young singles to couples and families, but because everyone shares a love of the sport, new members are welcomed quickly into the fold.

“Once you go through Learn to Sail, you’re at a point where you’re really excited to sail,” says Hughes. “The club offers the perfect way to continue to learn—and from great sailors. Compared to purchasing a boat, you can continue to learn and not take on that huge financial burden.”

If you are ready to take your skills up a notch, Jersey City Offshore also offers a multiday course aboard a gorgeous 46-foot Hunter cruising sailboat. After completing my Learn to Sail, I spent a weekend aboard the larger craft. We motored under the East River bridges and into Long Island Sound, dove off the bow for a swim, and docked for the night at City Island, where Steve Colgate long ago began his business. Taking the helm of such an impressive vessel, pretending it was mine, and cruising along with the breeze was exhilarating and matchless. And it was a moment well worth the sacrifice of a few beach weekends.

Offshore Sailing at Liberty Landing Marina, 80 Audrey Zapp Drive, Jersey City, 201-432-7763 (or toll-free headquarters: 800-221-4326), Learn to Sail tuition begins at $795.

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