Sailing: a chill and relaxing experience – not
I’m standing on Doca da Belém, a sailing harbour just outside Lisbon. It’s 10am, a beautiful morning, and rows of sail boats lap on the water, tilting from side to side in the light breeze. This is our first time taking Urban Sport of the Week outside Germany and first on the agenda is a sailing lesson with Seatours on the Tagus River.
João, founder of Seatours and sailing enthusiast, shakes my hand warmly. He wears a blue Seatours polo shirt with khaki shorts and boat shoes. He looks extremely relaxed, like he’s been around boats his entire life. And he basically has. As we walk along the jetty to our sail boat he tells me that he first started sailing when he was a young boy and hasn’t stopped since. “All my friends I met sailing when I was 8 or 9 are still my best friends today,” he says happily as he helps me on to the boat. Today I’m also joined by Onya, our Lisbon-based photographer. You’ll see why Onya plays an important part in this blog post presently.
The sail boat is shiny white, about 3 metres long and 2 metres wide. Ledges line the bottom of the boat and two masts – one in the middle and one at the front – stretch high into the sky, several metres tall. João hands us both life jackets and tells us to store our bags in the cabin.
“And I’ll need your help getting the sail out,” João says as he drags a large roll of tarpaulin out. We unroll it and João clips it expertly to the sail and hoists it about half way up. “We’ll put the rest up when we get out of the harbour,” he says.
Onya and I sit on the side of the boat and João tugs on the motor. We chug out of the harbour and onto the choppy green water of the Tagus River. The sky is totally clear and the 25 de Abril Bridge stretches across the horizon.
As we chug along and out into the middle of the river the sloped terracotta roofs of Lisbon come into view on one side and the luscious rolling hills of Alameda on the other. It’s breath-takingly beautiful; the scene could be taken out of a postcard.
João turns the engine off and shows me where to sit so I can steer the boat. “I’ll be in charge of the sails,” João says. Then he raises the main sail to its full height and that’s when the nightmare begins.
At this point João hasn’t told us much about sailing – I imagine it to be extremely relaxing, a chill activity. “It’s very gusty today,” João says. “Look – there’s a gust coming now.” I can see the water ahead turn dark grey, an ominous ripple that heads quickly towards us. Then it hits, the gust catches the sail and the entire boat tilts violently at a 90 degree angle. I clutch the sides and scream. Onya’s camera dangles around her neck as she clutches the side too.
“IS THIS NORMAL?!” I shout at João who is laughing uproariously. “Don’t worry!” João laughs. “We won’t capsize!” He tugs on a rope and thank the heavens, the boat straightens out. My heart is beating so fast it feels like it will thump out my chest. “It’s very gusty today,” João says. “Oh really,” I say still clutching the side of the boat. “Hadn’t noticed.”
Onya is back on her feet taking snaps of the beautiful scenery. The boat continues to rock and lurch but it stays relatively calm for a few minutes. “Look! Another gust!” João says. But this time I’m ready. I brace myself to get lurched sideways and Onya does the same. It’s still terrifying but I try to believe that we won’t capsize. João knows what he’s talking about afterall.
And when the river is calm the experience is incredible. “You can see the whole of Lisbon!” João says. “This is the best way to see the city.” He’s right. We pass under the gigantic red suspension bridge, then past the spread arms of National Statue of Christ the King on the banks of Alameda.
“Maybe we should put the second sail up,” João says. “It’s pretty calm now.” I have a bad feeling about this plan but I say okay, João, fine. Let’s put the second sail up. We turn the boat back in the direction of the harbour and João heads to the front to rig up the second mast. “Do you want to try holding the rope?” He asks me and puts the rope in my hand before I have time to answer.
And then, of course, at that exact moment, a gust of wind comes. But this time it’s hitting two sails. The boat lurches violently sideways and upwards. The opposite side of the boat plunges underwater and I’m pushed upwards, almost to standing. I can feel myself lose my balance and realise this is it. This is the moment I get hurled into the choppy waters of the Tagus River.
Onya and I are screaming our heads off. One side of the boat is entirely submerged underwater. Even João looks worried. He tugs on the sail. The boat balances back slightly, enough for me to get into a foetal position at the bottom of the boat. This is by a very long way the most terrifying Urban Sport of the Week I’ve done so far. “I thought sailing would be chill!” I shout from my foetal position.
Then Onya does the unthinkable. The boat is mid-lurch, almost entirely on its side in the water, and Onya gets up and makes her way to the front of the boat. “Onya!!!” I scream. “Don’t do it!!!!” But it’s too late. She wraps her legs around the main mast, camera round her neck and, despite being tilted at 180 degrees, proceeds to take snaps of the entire ordeal. “Don’t worry!” She shouts. “I’ve got used to the near-death vibes!” I think we can all agree that Onya deserves a medal for commitment.
After a few more terrifying gusts of wind where my life flashes before my eyes we finally spot the harbour again. João takes down the second sail, probably because he’s sick of hearing me scream at the top of my lungs, and he turns the motor on to guide us back into the harbour. I’ve never been so relieved to stand on stable ground in my entire life.
Afterwards João tells me that this was a particularly intense day to have a first sailing experience. But he assures me it’s a fantastic hobby. “It clears your head.” he says. “All the things that fill your head, they disappear when you’re sailing. When you’re in the boat you don’t think about anything else. And when it’s calm you can truly enjoy the moment.” I didn’t quite get to that point but I have every intention to try sailing again – I’ll just go on a day that’s less gusty.