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Summer in the City

Sails pitch: novice at the helm

City program at Jamaica Pond offers affordable, little-used amenity

Jamaica Pond offers many pleasures, including sailing, which Christina Close and her husband, Jay, enjoyed Wednesday. Jamaica Pond offers many pleasures, including sailing, which Christina Close and her husband, Jay, enjoyed Wednesday. (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By David Abel
Globe Staff / July 3, 2010

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Over the years, I have become acquainted with the trees surrounding Jamaica Pond, although not intentionally. I have also learned the consequences of ripples spreading suddenly across the spring-fed waters and the value of such nautical terms as “Duck!’’ “Brace for Impact!’’ and “Please ignore that you’re sitting in what seems like a bathtub.’’

I pass along this hard-earned knowledge in the selfish hope that you, dear reader, might stay away from one of the little-used amenities that make Boston such a luxurious place to live in the summer.

For $15 an hour, the city offers residents with sufficient experience, or in my case sufficient ambition, the opportunity to rent sturdy, 15-foot sailboats on one of the area’s more pristine bodies of water. Over the years, despite a few unintended collisions and some overindulgent heeling, sailing on Jamaica Pond has provided me a spontaneous salve on many sticky afternoons, a hint of adventure in a secure place, and more than anything, an escape from the urban confines of the city.

Indeed, if you can rig the sails, thread the lines, and release the ties to clear the dock, it takes no more than a mild gust to send you to a place that feels faraway, even if the traffic on the Jamaicaway remains visible in the distance.

Over the past six years, the city has leased its dock on Jamaica Pond to Courageous Sailing, which rents six sailboats, among a small fleet of rowboats and kayaks, nearly every day between April and November.

There are other places to rent boats in the city, including the Esplanade, Charlestown, and Dorchester. But sailing on the pond has its unique rewards — and challenges.

Annie Butts, director of the sailing program on Jamaica Pond, appreciates them, perhaps, better than anyone. She knows the pleasures of plying the warm, silky waters, where double-crested cormorants mingle with snapping turtles.

Occasionally she gets to take a dip, so long as it’s in the service of others. (The city, for obscure reasons, banned swimming in 1975.) One recent Saturday, she had to take the plunge to rescue four boats that had capsized.

“It’s great to sail here, because there isn’t the traffic that you have on the Charles or the harbor,’’ she says. “But a lot of people underestimate what it takes to sail here, and when they don’t pay attention, a puff [of wind] might make them dip the rails or turtle,’’ which means taking on water or capsizing.

The available 800-pound day sailers are prone to sudden shifts, given the unpredictability of the pond’s wind patterns.

Like others, I have learned this the hard way. With my mother and other loved ones aboard, I have sailed into trees. At other times, when the wind has died, I have had to jerk the tiller back and forth, effectively rowing back to the dock.

My passengers and I have had more than a few close encounters with the boom and learned how to bail out water.

Most of the time, however, I have found the breeze to be just right.

I usually go in the afternoon, when the wind tends to pick up and there’s little wait for a boat. It takes a few minutes to rig the sails and a few minutes more to untie and glide off the dock, leaving all the stresses on land.

It’s easy to feel as if you’re one with the wind, holding it in your hands as you grip the tiller. The boats, when they hit the right pocket of air, can cross from one side to the other of the 68-acre glacier remnant in a few minutes.

The most difficult part is learning how to land. Near the dock, which juts out from a rocky shore beside the boathouse, there’s little room for error.

I’ve seen some stall and drift to shore, others come in too fast and crash into other boats, and there are those who seem to sail in just right and then get carried away on a surge of air and sweep past the moorings.

On more than a few occasions, after basking in the accolades that come with being the captain of a safely steered vessel, I have seen such praise vanish with a muffed landing.

The more practice, however, the smoother it goes.

On a recent morning, when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the water sparkled in the sun, I had the pond to myself. The breeze was steady and the boat sliced through the rippled water like a knife in warm butter.

I swept back and forth, oblivious to the teeming city beyond the tree line, inhaling the moist air and the peaceful lapping of the waves, until it was time to get back to land. I turned the tiller toward the boathouse and glided in on a southerly breeze, easing in to the dock without incident.

As it often is, it was hard to step off the boat.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

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