Mactaquac, New Brunswick is home to a hydro-electric dam that powers about a fifth of the province, and at the same time creates a vast reservoir where water-sports enthusiasts can practise their chosen pastime.
Sailing is more than just a pastime, though, for the members of the Mactaquac Sailing Association (MSA), who dock their boats in the Walanaik Cove Marina in York Centennial Park and who organize weekly and monthly races. The small but devoted group has existed since the ‘70s; back then their boats were mainly daysailers, but over the years their vessels have gotten bigger as more sailors have been drawn to the sport. Now the marina is mostly populated by Tanzer 22s and 26s.
I recently had the chance to go out on a race with Stephen Leavitt, current co-chair of the Race Committee. Leavitt owns what was once my dad’s Tanzer 26, now called simply “Raven,” a name chosen for sailing’s similarities with flying. My father, Gary Chase, has been an avid sailor and MSA member for years — I’ve accompanied him on short sailing trips over the past few summers, and he connected me with Leavitt.
As soon as I met Leavitt, his passion for sailing was clear. He’s modest about his ability, but to me it was apparent that not only did he know the ropes, but he had a distinct knack for transferring that knowledge to me and my partner Alex when we took part in the race. He expertly guided Raven around the buoys that marked out the course alongside the six or seven other boats, many of which have names that play on words: “Sail La Vie” comes to mind. Immediately he had us take an active role by hauling the ropes that hoist the sails, by fastening lines around cleats, or by manning the tiller, which turns the rudder. Even minor movements to the rudder can quickly alter the vessel’s direction, so Leavitt pointed out that it’s important to also pay attention to the wind vane — or Windex — a small arrow that sits atop the mast and points into the direction the wind is coming from.
While the motions themselves are simple, there are a lot of them to remember and they’re not intuitive, at least at first. For example, if during the race Leavitt would advise me to turn left, each time my gut instinct was to pull the tiller in the direction he said, when in fact it should be the opposite. He would laugh and say, “Your other left.”
For Leavitt, “the trickiest aspect of sailing is getting everything perfectly aligned, the sails, the weight distribution, the angle of the heel, and plotting the most efficient course so that the velocity of the boat is making good.
“This is also the most rewarding aspect of sailing.”
It is rewarding, but I find sailing nerve-racking at moments, especially when it’s time to “come about,” also called “tacking,” a maneuver that first turns the bow toward the wind; the boom then swings widely from one side to the other in an effort to catch wind in the sail on the opposite side. This makes the boat “heel,” meaning it sometimes leans so far to one side that it feels like it could tip over. “Jibing,” by contrast, is when a boat heading downwind turns its stern through the wind — the mainsail crosses the centre while the front sail is pulled to the other side of the boat. Sailboats can’t move directly upwind, but by a series of these tacking, zig-zagging motions, it can certainly make swift progress.
I stepped out onto the bow a few times to snap photos, and while it’s farther from the cockpit where the action is, when you’re sitting right at the front, the whole boat feels more stable. You can take a break (assuming you have a crew tasked with actually sailing the boat) and let your legs dangle over the sides. The whole experience is simultaneously relaxing and invigorating.
Leavitt believes that that hands-on experience is invaluable in learning the sport. “At the MSA, there are a number of experienced sailors who are always more than willing to take out and share their knowledge with new sailors, or even people who are considering getting into sailing. Having said that, there really is no better way to learn than spending copious amounts of time on the water, and the benefits of sailing a course cannot be underestimated.”
The MSA’s costs are minimal: each of the group’s 40 or so members pay just $40 to join. Races are held every Wednesday evening, and once a month they have an “official” race on the weekend. Leavitt has won a few races over the years, but notes that with each race it’s getting harder and harder to place.
“The racing group gets better and better every year, which is really great to see, particularly since there are no prizes other than the trophies associated with the monthly races — truly, the reward is in participating, and challenging yourself to do better each time.”
Along with its wide-open spaces, New Brunswick’s low population is actually a positive thing when it comes to sailing, Leavitt and other MSA members agree. “On any given day, you can be sailing on a body of water and have the whole place to yourself and your boat. I recently had the pleasure of overnighting in a secret cove on Grand Lake, and it was remarked that, if it was anywhere else, we would be surrounded by dozens of other boats; instead, our neighbours were a family of loons and a flock of geese.
“We happen to live in a part of the world that is particularly beautiful and tranquil, and sailing provides another way to see that all the more clearly.”