Her fiber-glass hull glittering in the sunshine, her mainsail bellied by the breeze, the 20-foot sloop boiled along, straight into a narrow cul-de-sac formed by three floats at the Ardell Marina, a shiny concrete-and-glass edifice on California's Newport Channel front. A middle-aged woman grasped the tiller, her anxious eyes gauging the rapidly shrinking distance to the end dock. Beside her, a young man half her age stood squinting, apparently indifferent to the inevitable crash. At what seemed the last possible second, he flipped the brim of his floppy hat upward and murmured a word of advice. The helmslady jammed the tiller to leeward, the sloop rounded into the wind, whizzed past one dock, barely skinned the next and fluttered to a stop alongside the third in a landing that could not have bruised an egg. On shore, about 55 hearts started beating again. The young man on the boat patted the grinning helmslady on the shoulder, and with sail full and sheets lifted once again they headed out into the channel.
Only seven teaching hours before, the woman who performed this neat nautical maneuver wrote "none"—and meant it—in answer to a question about her previous sailing experience. But such innocence is nothing new at the Ardell Sailing School, a unique institution whose campus is the Newport Channel and whose classroom is the Pacific Ocean. Aboard a fleet of 20-foot fiber-glass Cal-20s, 22-foot Pearson Ensigns, 28-foot Tritons, a 35-foot Alberg, a 40-foot Cal-40 and the elegant, powerful 67-foot yawl Chubasco, Ardell teaches students who never steered a boat before how to tie bowlines, set spinnakers or plot a course to Fastnet Rock.
"Sailors," says the school's prospectus, "aren't born...they're taught...not from books or lectures, but from seat-of-the-pants experience." Oldtimers brought up near the water tend to think that the only way a boy can learn about boats is to be born among them, but the founding father at Ardell thinks otherwise. "My whole idea was based on the premise that the best way for anyone to learn to sail is by going out and sailing," says Craig Cadwalader, the 25-year-old who started the school. "I'd read about boats myself. I'd been brought up in a 12-foot Snowbird catboat. But the way I really learned was by having a better sailor show me." Cadwalader believed so profoundly in this theory that he convinced President Don Haskell of Newport Beach's sleek Ardell Marina (home port of such fancy ocean-racing craft as Kialoa II and Audacious) to let him start a school there.
The doors—or, rather, the hatches—opened in the summer of 1962, but neither Cadwalader nor Haskell was prepared for the flood of would-be sailors that poured through them. Prospective pupils came in such numbers that Cadwalader dropped out of the University of Oregon so he could run the school clear through the winter. One of the first things the seagoing headmaster did was to put an age limit on enrollment, i.e., no kids. He sends applicants under 18 to the clubs and city sailing programs in the Newport Beach area. If the kids are willing to learn in conjunction with their parents he may make an exception, but he doesn't like it. Today 30% of Ardell's students are from 30 to 40 years old, many are over 50 and a few are in their 60s.
The first lesson Cadwalader ever gave was in a 15-foot centerboarder in a smart breeze. It was very nearly his last. "The couple I was teaching were 50-year-olds," he says, "and we were halfway through the lesson when the weather shroud bust and over went the mast." The middle-aged students didn't mind at all. They returned for more lessons and later even bought a replica of the dismasted boat. "But after that," says Cadwalader, "we went to keel boats. People can sail them on a breezy day and concentrate on the lesson at hand without worrying about turning over."
Ardell's elementary course, Basic Sailing I, is divided into four two-hour sessions. It begins by teaching the student the difference between bow and stern, ends eight patient hours later by letting him (or her) take a 20-foot sloop into a dock under sail all by him- (or her-) self. B.S. I leads on into B.S. II, which in turn leads on into Intermediate. At the end of this, the student must pass a practical examination on rigging, sail trim, docking and helmsmanship, after which Ardell gives him a diploma attesting to his competence.
"Before we give the test," says one Ardell instructor, "we make pretty sure the student has a good chance to pass. There isn't one graduate of this school who cannot sail a boat by himself." But few Ardell alumni are content to be only B.A.s. Most want to go on to postgraduate courses like Ocean Sailing I and II or Cruising. These are conducted aboard such sophisticated craft as the Alberg 35 or the lavishly equipped Cal-40.
Tuition runs from $50 per eight-hour course with three students participating in Basic Sailing I to $70 for the 11-hour course in Cruising. Private lessons run $10 an hour.
Advanced Ocean Sailing, a day-long session aboard Chubasco costing $75, is Ardell's equivalent of a Ph.D. Supervised by eight instructors, every student gets a shot at the helm, sets every one of the big yawl's many sails, and gasps over the complex coffee-grinder winches. "Running downwind with Chubby's 3,000-square-foot chute set and a student at the wheel can at times be quite interesting," says one young Ardell instructor. (There are some old salts around Newport who think "terrifying" would be a better word.)
At 25 Cadwalader looks like a candidate for Junior Achievement. His head sailing instructor, Tom Corkett, 23, looks more like a kindergarten truant, though he is well known as a precocious driver of ocean racers. In 1963 he became the youngest skipper ever to win the 2,225-mile Honolulu classic when he sailed his father's 40-foot Islander from Los Angeles to Hawaii in 13 days, 23 hours and 56 minutes. Corkett has sailed in so many races before and since then that he seldom remembers whether he won a race or only took a second or a third. At Ardell, however, he is too busy to care.