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Sailing Lessons

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“So this is your boat is it?” Gimli looked sceptically at the small wooden craft. Here on the shore of the great bay of Belfalas, it looked laughably tiny.

“Yes Gimli, this is the ship on which we will sail to Aman.” Legolas looked wistfully out towards the ocean.

“Are you serious? It’s tiny! There is barely room for the two of us, let alone any luggage or somewhere flat to sleep.”

His companion’s anger seemed to pull Legolas back to the present, and he turned to Gimli looking rather amused. “That was a joke meleth.”

Gimli shook his head and muttered under his breath. “If this is not our boat, then why in Mahal’s name are we here?”

“Because I can’t sail us there myself.” Said Legolas. “I need a crewmate who knows port from starboard. I borrowed this dinghy for you to learn in, it will be easier for a beginner than a larger vessel.” He gave Gimli an affectionate smile, “I promise to build something more luxurious for the actual voyage.”

“Humph.” Gimli turned back to the boat. It was perhaps twelve feet long, and had a single mast with a triangular sail. Despite its size he had to admit that it did look reasonably sea-worthy. He breathed a sigh of resignation. “Okay, where do we start?”

Legolas smiled and took his hand, leading him down to the edge of the water. With his other hand he reached out and grabbed the stern of the boat. “Go ahead and climb in. I’ll hold it still.”

Gimli gingerly swung his leg over the side and stepped into the boat. As he did so it rocked alarmingly and he grabbed the edge for support. “I thought you were going to hold it steady!”

Legolas smirked. “You didn’t fall in, did you?”

Gimli grumbled something unintelligible, and shuffled over to sit in the bow. Satisfied that the boat was balanced Legolas stepped lightly aboard, pushing them away from the sandy shore as he did so. Taking hold of the tiller, he sat down in the small space at the stern of the boat. With his other hand he reached over and took hold of the rope curled by the mast, pulling it tight. With the sail now properly set they began to pick up speed, and the small boat pulled away from the shore.

“Okay, lesson one.” He said to Gimli, who was looking forlornly back at the rapidly disappearing beach. “This is the tiller, you use it to steer.” He demonstrated by pushing the wooden handle one way, then the other. “The most important thing to remember is that the boat will turn in the opposite digestion to the way you point it.”

“That makes sense.” Gimli nodded, peering down at the spot where the rudder disappeared into the water.

“Great. If you come back here you can have a go at steering us.” Legolas shuffled over to make space, and Gimli obediently took hold of the tiller. He was surprised to feel the force with which it pulled against his grip, and he struggled to hold it steady. Legolas watched him for a moment, then when he was satisfied that they weren’t about to start spinning in circles, he continued.

“Whenever you plan to change direction you need be aware of where the wind is in relation to the direction the boat is facing and the position of the sail. If you turn far enough that the wind passes across the boat, the sail will suddenly swing over to the other side. On a boat this size you just risk a knock to the head, on a real ship the boom could throw you into the water or even kill you.” He reached out and grabbed hold of the wooden beam holding the bottom edge of the sail in place. Gimli nodded again, looking up at the sail as though he rather expected it to turn around and bite him. “Of course, sometimes this is unavoidable. If you need to make an about turn you must plan carefully and make sure to duck out of the way in time.” He looked at Gimli thoughtfully. “Although, in your case that might not be necessary.” He smirked.

“Very funny.” Gimli rolled his eyes.

“Now this rope is called the mainsheet, and you use it to control the sail. When you turn about it’s a good idea to pull in the sail first to stop the boom from swinging over so far.” Legolas demonstrated by pulling on the rope so that the boom came in tight across the boat. Their speed slowed considerably. “That is also a good way to slow down.”

“Because the wind is behind us, so now it’s hitting the edge of the sail instead of filling it.”

“Exactly. Now when we turn we’ll need to cross over to the other side of the boat, otherwise the extra weight on the leeward side will cause us to capsize. On my count of three push the tiller away from you and step over, I’ll deal with the sail.” Gimli desperately tried to keep all this in mind as Legolas began to count. “Three… Two… One…” Gimli pushed.

“Good, now straighten it up again, we don’t want to go in a full circle.” Gimli did as instructed, pulling hard on the tiller as he sat down heavily on the opposite side of the boat. He looked up in time to see Legolas let the sail out once again, now safely on the other side. Ahead of them was the shore. They had done it. He breathed a sigh of relief.

Legolas smiled at him. “That was well done. What we just did is called changing tack, and it’s one of the most important fundamental skills of sailing.” 

They continued to sail straight for a minute, then Gimli gradually turned them away from the shore once more, this time paying close attention to way the wind moved across the boat.

“Notice that as you turn closer to the wind I’m pulling the sail in.” Said Legolas. “You want to try to keep the two at right-angles to each other so that the sail stays full. We can practice changing tack again now if you’re ready.”

They turned back and forth a few more times, finally with Gimli holding both the mainsheet and the tiller, and Legolas observing from the bow.

“You’re really getting the hang of it now.” Said Legolas, impressed. Then he grinned. “The next thing to learn is how to stop.”

“Turning into the wind would work.” Said Gimli, who was now confidently adjusting the trim of the sails, noting how their speed changed along with their relative angle to the wind.

“That’s the general idea.” Agreed Legolas. “But you don’t want to go completely head to wind because it’s very hard to get going again from that position. Instead you turn in close…” He paused while Gimli turned them around gradually. “Like that, but instead of pulling in the sail to compensate you let it out as far as you can.” Gimli did so, and the little boat slowed to a halt. “It’s even possible to sail backwards like this, with the wind pushing on the front of the sail, but it’s not easy. When you want to move forwards again you just have to pull in the sail as tight as you can and it will catch the wind.”

Gimli nodded and pulled on the mainsheet. The sail caught the wind again suddenly, and the force of it caused the boat to tip sharply to one side. Legolas leaned out as far as he could to compensate, and Gimli followed his lead. Their combined efforts pulled the boat back over, and soon they were speeding along with the wind in their faces.

“Sorry, I should have warned you about that.” Said Legolas. “Sailing close to the wind causes the ship to lean, I never really understood why.”

“Vectors.” Shouted Gimli.


“When the wind is behind you the only force acting on the boat is forwards, so the boat sits flat in the water. When the wind is coming from the side, the same force is actually pushing the boat sideways. The sail catches the wind and forces the boat forwards instead, but that energy is still there, so the tighter you pull in the sails to trap the wind, the more the boat will lean over.”

Legolas looked at him blankly. “How did you work all that out so quickly?”

Gimli shrugged. “Physics. The only part I don’t understand is how we’re moving forwards at all right now.”

“What do you mean?”

“The wind is off the port bow, we’re sailing into it. How is that possible?”

“I never really thought about it.” Said Legolas. “That’s just how it works.”

Gimli shook his head. “But how does it work?” He looked up at the sail and experimentally pushed on the tiller, edging the boat closer and closer to the wind.

“Careful!” Said Legolas with alarm. “It isn’t possible to sail directly into the wind, you’ll get us stuck.”

“It’s okay, I know what I’m doing.”

“Gimli, this is the first time you’ve ever been sailing! I’m supposed to be teaching you.”

“And you’re doing a fine job of it love.” He pulled in the sail as tight as it would go, then, just as the boat drew to a stop, pushed the tiller hard over and yelled. “About!” Legolas ducked just in time.

“You’re supposed to say that before you turn!”

“Sorry!” He grinned. “I forgot just how far up in the clouds your pretty head is.”

“That was cruel revenge.”

“Actually that was an experiment, from which I gathered valuable data.”

“On what? The reflexes of elves under extreme stress?”

“The wind catches the sail at an angle of approximately 45 degrees.” Said Gimli. “Any closer than that and you stop.”

“I could have told you that if you had taken the trouble to ask.”

“Sorry.” Said Gimli, a hint of sheepishness in his tone. “I wanted to see for myself.”

Legolas pretty much gave up on having any say in which direction they sailed in after that. As they made their way back and forth across the lake, Gimli’s obsession with solving the mystery consumed him completely. Recognising the same mood that often overcame his companion when he was working on his architectural plans, Legolas knew better then to try and fight it. Instead he offered advice where he could, and spent the rest of the time sitting back and trying to enjoy the ride. Gimli did not make it easy.

“Watch out!” Legolas cried in alarm, seconds before the boom swung violently over their heads for the second time. When they had once again settled he added. “And that is why you should avoid sailing with the wind directly behind you, the smallest gust can tip you over the line and catch the sail from the other side.”

“Noted!” Said Gimli, now grinning furiously.

Eventually, after a few more laps of the lake, Gimli steered them back towards the shore. “Have you solved it?” Asked Legolas.

“Not yet, but I think I’ve done everything I can here. Now I need a pen, lots of paper, and a hot drink. So how do we get off?”

“Come in as close to the shore as you can, then slow to a stop and turn alongside at the last second. I’ll jump ashore and pull the boat in.” Gimli did as instructed, and soon they had the boat pulled up onto the sand. “This rope pulls the sail down.” Legolas untied it and passed it to Gimli, showing him how to collapse the sail. “Then we tie it to the boom with these straps, and cover it to keep any rain off. The canvas isn’t waterproof, and it will rot if left to the elements.”

Once Legolas was satisfied that the boat would not sail away without them, they left the beach and made their way up to the small fishing village on the clifftop. The inn where they were staying was a rickety old building, battered by the centuries and the strong sea winds, but the owner was kind and the food good. When they arrived Gimli immediately shut himself in their room. Knowing better than to disturb him while he was working, Legolas returned to the common room and ordered supper. When he had judged that enough time had passed for Gimli to be growing hungry, he finished his glass of wine and piled up a plate of cold finger food which he carried to the bedroom.

*Knock Knock* “Gimli, can I come in?”

“Of course. You might even make yourself useful.”

Legolas opened the door, looked inside, and stopped dead. Every available surface in the room was covered in paper. In one corner Gimli was sat at a small table, furiously scribbling on the closest sheet. Legolas stepped closer, and saw that on the paper was a complex diagram of a sailing boat surrounded by arrows and equations.

“How much does that boat weigh?” Gimli asked without looking up. Then, before Legolas could answer, he said. “No, never mind. It’s not important.” And went back to scribbling. “But I do need to know how deep the keel goes under the water.” He paused, the end of the pen in the corner of his mouth. “Yes, I think that is important.”

“About two feet I think.” Replied Legolas. “I brought you something to eat.”

“Wonderful! Now if we add that to the equation, and adjust the angle of the boat relative to the wind just so.” He scribbled another arrow beside what looked to be the sail of the boat. “Then the only way the boat can go is forwards. That’s it, that’s the solution.”

“What is?”

“The boat goes forwards because it’s the only way it can go. The wind is trying to blow it sideways, but the combined action of the keel and the sail prevents this. Due to the shape of the hull it takes a lot more force to push the boat backwards than forwards. There is a critical angle, depending on the exact shape of the hull and the sails, at which the forces balance out and the boat stops. At angles greater than that, even if the boat is technically head to wind, forwards is still the most efficient direction of travel.” He threw down the pen in triumph.

Legolas looked at the diagram, then back to Gimli. “Congratulations?” He hadn’t really understood any of what the dwarf had said, but he seemed satisfied.

Gimli laughed. “Don’t worry love, I’ll show you when we build the new boat. I think with a little more work we can optimise the design to allow for much more efficient travel upwind.”

He looked very pleased with himself until Legolas said, “Gimli, you do realise Valinor is East of here, and the prevailing winds will be behind us for the entire journey.”

Gimli froze, and slowly turned to face Legolas. “Why.” He said, slowly. “DIDN’T YOU TELL ME THAT BEFORE?”

“I’m sorry.” Said Legolas sheepishly. “I thought you knew.”

Gimli spun back round to face the table, pulling out a fresh sheet of paper. “That changes everything.” He said, starting a new sketch. “But perhaps if we had a square sail…”

Legolas put the plate on the table beside him, and quietly backed out of the room, closing the door behind him. It was going to be a long night.