FORT MYERS BEACH - The sailboat heeled to its starboard side as it sliced through a narrow, finger-shaped inlet off the Gulf of Mexico. Its sails loomed above me, and from where I sat at the stern, confidently steering the vessel between passing boats and a palm-dotted shoreline, I could see across the emerald-green water to a rocky outcropping where hundreds of pelicans were sunning themselves.
Suddenly the wind shifted, causing the 26-foot boat to tip dramatically onto its side, its sails parallel to the water. I thrust the tiller away from me, as I watched the rail dip below the surface, and braced myself to keep from falling in.
"Sheet out the mainsail," called out Beite Cook, 49, my instructor, as he crouched at the front of the cockpit.
While I tried to steer us away from disaster - in the form of a large wooden pier and a sizable powerboat docked next to it - Charles Kiss, a fellow student, grabbed the line for the mainsail and played it out, enabling the sail to spill air and the boat to right itself.
In two days of sailing, this was the closest we had come to tipping. I was rattled by the experience, called a knockdown in the boating world. At least our custom-designed training boat was "virtually unsinkable": the hull's foam-filled compartments help keep the boat afloat.
My husband has been a sailor since he was 7. We've talked about chartering a boat with friends and sailing around the Greek islands or Belize. But I want to be a participant, not a passenger, so I decided to take a five-day Learn to Sail course through Offshore Sailing School at its Fort Myers Beach location. This intensive course blends classroom and practical training, and provides US Sailing certification to those who pass.
Steve Colgate, a former Olympic competitor and America's Cup sailor, founded the school in 1964. He even designed the training boat we were using, the Colgate 26, with the help of a naval architect. Doris Colgate, Steve's wife and also an accomplished sailor, founded the National Women's Sailing Association, wrote "Sailing: A Woman's Guide" (International Marine/Ragged Mountain Press, 1999), and developed the school's women-only programs for beginners to seasoned sailors.
"I took enough elbows in my ribs to find out I could handle a sailboat as well as most guys," Doris Colgate said. "That's why I've been so involved in getting women out on the water, so they can be in charge of their own destiny while aboard."
Offshore has 11 schools, located in New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Florida, the Bahamas, the British Virgin Islands, and St. Martin. It offers instruction for children as young as 7, but there's no upper age limit.
"A couple of years ago, we retaught a 92-year-old woman who lives near here," said Steve Colgate. "She was 79 the first time she took the course. She had said to me, 'Next year I'll be 80 and I thought I would be too old.' "
For the Fort Myers Beach program, students stay at the Pink Shell Beach Resort & Spa, where all rooms overlook San Carlos Bay, the training ground for the course, and seven-mile-long Fort Myers Beach. Classes have a maximum of four students per instructor, but Kiss, 52, a local scuba-diving instructor, was the only other student the week I was there.
The first two days were the most difficult, as we filled our heads with new terminology. Students receive a 90-page textbook, "Basic Keelboat," in the mail several weeks before their course. Reading it in advance is essential.
Cook explained the parts of a boat, how the sails work, and how a boat reacts when it's sailing toward, away from, or perpendicular to the wind. The writing on his whiteboard, at times, looked like a teenager's text-message shorthand, with notes on LOA, LWL, CE, and CLR, referring to a boat's "length overall," "length at waterline," "center of effort," and "center of lateral resistance." Eventually, I understood what Cook meant when he said, "A boat is balanced when the CE is over the CLR."
"At least English is your first language," Kiss said to me one afternoon, speaking in perfect English but with a Hungarian accent. "You at least have a reference point."
But I stumbled over the language, too: "It's pronounced 'starbird,' " Cook said to me with a grin. "If you say 'starboard,' people will know exactly how long you've been sailing."
By day two, I felt I just needed to figure out how to put everything together and use it. As if to make us feel better, Cook said, "Martina Navratilova took this course and said learning to sail was one of the hardest things she's ever done."
That afternoon, we sailed out of Matanzas Pass and into San Carlos Bay in the Gulf of Mexico, where we had views of the hotels and palm trees lining Fort Myers Beach and the barrier islands that protect the area from the open seas. Bottlenose dolphins darted through the water in front of our boat, playing off the bow waves. We also spotted a green sea turtle floating on the water's surface, snowy egrets and great blue herons along the shore, and only two other boats.
Kiss and I took turns steering and working the jib and mainsail, while Cook gave us pointers.
"Here comes a burst," Cook said, pointing at the water, but when I looked, I couldn't see anything that distinguished a gust of wind. "Riiiight, now," he said, and a sudden puff of air made the boat tilt and leap forward.
It took a lot of repetition and practical time on the water for things to begin sinking in. Thankfully, the training boat had little labels next to each rope (or "line," as it's called). That way, when Cook said, "Secure the halyard and tighten the boom vang," I knew I was supposed to grab the red rope, release it from the thingamabob and hoist the mainsail, and then grip the rope attached to the silver tube and give it a tug.
Over the next couple of days, we practiced tacking and jibbing up and down the coast, and learned how to react more instinctually. As our skills improved, we practiced man-overboard drills, learned what to do if we grounded, and reviewed basic navigation, right-of-way rules, and safety issues.
"How do you know you're not on a collision course?" Cook asked, as we steered toward a channel at the same time as another boat. "If the land behind the other boat appears to be moving, then you're OK, but if the land isn't moving, you're on a collision course," he explained. "It's geometry."
Unlike the classroom sessions, which got easier each day, the practical part of the course grew more difficult, as Cook encouraged us to make more decisions and sail on our own. Rather than telling us what to do, he would ask questions to get us to think and react. He was preparing us for our last day, when Kiss and I would take the $39,000 boat out on our own.
"The 'free sail' is the graduation," Steve Colgate said.
"We're one of the only schools in the country that does this, and we've done it since the beginning," Doris Colgate added. When I mentioned that it seemed like a great leap of faith to let students do the free sail, she said, "We know we have given you the skills to go out and sail without an instructor. Some students are apprehensive, but come back all smiles."
Kiss and I both passed the 80-question, multiple-choice test on day four, joining the more than 100,000 people the school has certified in nearly 25 years. We went for another afternoon sail with Cook, to get more practice maneuvering the boat in and out of the slip and through the narrow channel into the bay, and to boost our confidence.
The day of our free sail, we inched away from the dock, waved goodbye to Cook and then eased the boat into San Carlos Bay. The wind was relatively calm but shifty, blowing to about 15 knots. Tentatively, I took the helm, and I soon realized it was the idea of sailing without an instructor that spooked me, not the sailing itself.
For the next four hours, we zigzagged up and down the coast, making minor adjustments to the lines or tiller as the wind shifted. As I relaxed and tuned into the boat, I was surprised at how "alive" it felt: I could feel the wind as it vibrated down the mast and buzzed in the rigging, I could hear the waves coursing over the hull.
"Ready to tack?" Kiss said, when it was finally time to head in.
"Wait a second," I said. "I think I see a puff of wind coming."
We sat for about 15 seconds, staring at the ocean's surface and listening to water slap against the hull. Then suddenly we felt the boat accelerate as a small gust of wind crossed the sails and swept across our faces.
Kari J. Bodnarchuk, a freelance travel writer and photographer, can be reached at email@example.com.