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We've all seen those fancy advertisements for sailboats. You know the ones: sun-spangled waters; smiling, bronzed Beautiful People lounging back with chilled Chablis and freshly shucked oysters; a pristine white vessel that is strangely vertical despite its obviously wind-filled sails.

I hate to intrude on the image, but frankly this is just the stuff of ad campaigns. Reality is not like this. Especially not my sailing reality.

Let me be honest. When I get on board, I'm like someone with two left feet entering a ballet competition, completely out of my element. I've been around enough to recognize people who were born to sail, though. They carry a certain something with them: a rolling gait; the ability to wear tatty, torn clothing and make it look important; eyes creased from squinting into the sun - or, more frequently, into the rain. They can survive for a week out of a tiny supply cupboard, tie knots in anything long and straight, and they all go around using incomprehensible vocabulary.

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People who sail always keep a weather eye on rigging, horizons, water surfaces and winds, and just when you think you're starting to understand, they say perplexing things like, "Come closer to the wind." How do you get closer to something invisible?

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I will never join this elite group. For me, sailing is a demented pendulum, swinging wildly between utter boredom and total, white-knuckle terror, with only rare patches of normality in between. My husband started it all, dinghy sailing in England, where the winds were so fluky the dinghy frequently sailed backward. The water was so shallow in places that we'd use the boom to pole our way out, just like punting on the river in Oxford. I quickly learned that currents, by definition, carry a boat away from its destination.

Undeterred, my husband continued to seek his water-borne dream. It materialized in Ontario in the shape of a sailboat with a puny motor that we sometimes had to hand-crank - more sweaty, blue-air cursing and still no Beautiful People or Chablis in sight.

Instead, on Lake Simcoe, weeds and errant sandbars made getting out of the marina a regular exercise in embarrassment. Having to step off the back of the boat in mid-water to push the thing off a sandbar was a face-reddening low point. Hubby swore the sandbar hadn't been there the previous week, but the folks watching from a nearby waterside park had a hilarious time, settling in for an afternoon's entertainment with chips and cold drinks while we fumed and waited for the tide to change.

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Now in Vancouver, we sail on some of the most scenic and accessible waters in the northern hemisphere, but these bring different challenges: katabatic outflows, inbound southerlies, riptides and seething narrows that need to be timed just perfectly. Heading through Dodd Narrows with a wimpy eight-horse motor fighting a five-knot current is a triumph of will over water, and as for Gabriola, let's talk whirlpools and eddies that make a boat feel like a cork in a bucket. Our buoyant heaving lines aren't the only things heaving around here: My stomach also does a pretty good job.

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This is no place to inadvertently put two gaskets (instead of one) in the oil filter, resulting in a massive leak and overheated engine and the special humiliation of explaining it to the power boater who kindly towed us back to the nearest fuel dock for repairs. It's no place to wake up at anchor to a flat battery, either, or to spend hours trying to wrest the anchor back from its love affair with an underwater cable.

It's at times like these - in the midst of a jellyfish bloom, down to the last can of ham, my hair stiff with salt - that I try extra hard to visualize those Beautiful People and their oysters. Usually, my inner wimp just tries to get the heck out and back onto dry land.

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Over the years, though, things have improved. I have come to enjoy that moment of sudden perfect silence when the motor is switched off and the boat first bends into the wind. Those rare moments when all we hear is the peaceful rhythm of water rushing past the prow, or when a Pacific white-sided dolphin comes to play with us. We've finally had one or two of those blue-sky advertising campaign moments, when sea otters patrol tiny bays and great blue herons share our moorage with us. Call it the law of averages.

Clanking halyards and straining fenders are music to my husband's ears, but I still believe that a backstay means remaining at home when hubby wants to sail in frigid January weather. He is a true Aquarian. Me? I'm a Scorpio - apparently a water sign. In my case, though, this represents the love of a decadently foamy bathtub rather than the foam of whitecaps on the open ocean.

I suspect there is one other important reason for my husband's enduring love affair with sailing: There can only be one captain on a boat, and this is the only place on earth where I take orders, humbly, immediately and without question. Go figure.

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Mandy Trickett lives in Vancouver.

Editor's Note: An earlier online version of this story and the original newspaper version of this story incorrectly stated Aquarius is a water sign. It is an air sign. This online version has been corrected.

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