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Staff members heed call of the river

Diego M. Gonzalez was not having a typical lunch hour. Instead of eating a sandwich at his desk, he found himself in a small sailboat that was slowly capsizing in the Charles.

"I had made a tack around the buoy and forgot to straighten the rudder," he explained later. "The boat kept turning and it got into a position where the wind was coming over the stern. It wanted to jibe, but I was holding the line of the sail quite firmly so it couldn't jibe. The boat goes over quite easily when that happens."

Mr. Gonzalez's next thought: "Oh well, I guess I'm going to get wet today."

Thanks to the particularly shifty winds at this neck of the river, that was not the only time Mr. Gonzalez and a handful of other amateur sailors got wet during the learn-to-sail classes offered by MIT's sailing pavilion over the summer.

For the first time, the beginner classes, which have typically been held Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings, were offered twice weekly at lunchtime. The prospect of a dunking didn't stop more than 60 people from crowding the dock for the first class on July 8.

"It was very nice, because we've had a lot of people (in the classes) who have been at MIT for many years but who have never been down to the sailing pavilion," said pavilion manager Melitta King. "People said to us, 'Hey, this was the first time I was able to take advantage of sailing here.'"

As the pavilion's instruction manual points out, the Charles River was the birthplace of intercollegiate sailing. Hundreds have learned to sail on its waters, which are often maligned for their lack of cleanliness. Although sometimes it's hard to believe, especially after a heavy storm, the Charles is actually pretty clean. Ms. King says it's far cleaner than it was 10 years ago, when she was required to get a tetanus shot before venturing out on the water with the Northeastern University sailing team.

"We're seeing a lot more cormorants and eels, as well as birds like seagulls that fish for food," she said. The Charles is expected to be completely swimmable by 2003. But even if you don't feel like plunging in for a dip, the river and the view of Boston make a scenic backdrop for the dozens of sailboats that criss-cross it on sunny days.

Like Mr. Gonzalez, Lauren Gallant, administrative officer for the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, was lured to the pavilion early in the summer by the 12 1/2-foot Tech dinghy stranded high and dry in the lobby of Building 10 that said "Take me to lunch!"

The offer seemed too good to be true: learn to sail for free in four easy lessons. It conjured up visions of gliding effortlessly through the water, sun glinting off the pure white sails.

"Sailing is really the way to connect with the water," said Mr. Gonzalez, who works part-time for music and theater arts and part-time for the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. "You're out here with the powers of the world -- the wind and the waves. It's elemental, and yet there's a great elegance to a boat under sail."

"I read about sailing and submarines as a kid," said Mr. Gonzalez, who practiced his bowline and stunsail tack bend knots while riding the commuter train to work from Norwood. "There was one book that my father gave me for Christmas about a guy who sailed solo in the Atlantic in a small boat. It was quite an adventure. I never planned to do anything like that, but I had this old-fashioned, romantic image of what sailing was like."

"I always meant to take sailing classes," said Ms. Gallant. "It seems silly not to know how to sail." But for her, as for most beginners, the vision of gliding effortlessly began to fade as she looked at the ropes that seem to sprout from every corner of the boat. And then you're on your own on the water. "It's a lot scarier than you expect it to be," she said. "When you're on the boat, you realize, 'I could fall out.'

"I don't know physics. I don't know how the boat went forward. Everything you did [to the boat] did something. You want to make it go forward and not do something awful. You're out there experimenting, 'What happens if I do this���������������������������'"

"The more times you go out, the more you can practice different things, like where the wind is coming from and how to keep wind in the sail," Mr. Gonzalez said.


"The wind is the most difficult thing about learning to sail here. But the good thing is that if you can figure out how to sail here, sailing everywhere else will be easy. There are no tides or sand bars. The only thing you have to watch out for is running aground on the Boston shore," Ms. King said.

The classes were repeated every two weeks during the summer. The initial class in every group of four was a demonstration of how to rig the Tech dinghy, a boat designed for MIT and first made when the Walter C. Wood Sailing Pavilion -- the oldest university sailing facility in the country -- opened in 1935. The present Techs were modified by the grandson of the original builder and manufactured from fiberglass in 1993. Designed as a beginner's boat, the fittings and adjustments on the Tech also allow it to be used by experienced sailors for racing.

Despite the novices' alarm at its many components, the Tech dinghy is easy to rig. On-the-water classes included instruction in tacking, jibing and -- for those windy days -- how to collect a man overboard.

Even though Ms. Gallant took it slowly and was "more comfortable having someone on the boat who knows what they're doing," she was pleased with her progress. She sailed solo in a Sunfish on Martha's Vineyard and was still enthused about sailing at the end of the summer.

"It was a real opportunity," she said of the lunchtime classes. "It was nice of them to offer a time that's convenient for staff members."

Ms. King said the lunchtime classes worked out so well that they will be offered again next summer.

"I think [the class] was fantastic," Mr. Gonzalez said. "I hope to keep sailing as long as the weather holds up throughout the fall, and join next year and do a lot of sailing. In fact," he said on a balmy day last week, "today is looking like a sailing day."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 23, 1998.

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