Waltzing On Water
The “seafront” on the Alte Donau warms up sailing memories of a coastal upbringing
Going sailing was not on my agenda for my time in land-locked Austria. What I didn’t know is that the countryside is full of lakes, and in the city, the Alte Donau is full of boats.
I arrived at the Hofbauer Yacht Club feeling a mix of excitement, anxiety and a little fear. I hadn’t sailed since high school – those days had ended when I realised that my fear of wind was a strong indicator that I shouldn’t be a sailor. Therefore, the blustery days leading up to my recent sailing outing had made me a little nervous.
The Alte Donau does justice to its reputation as Vienna’s beach. The restaurant decks are the usual waterfront scene: leathery-skinned couples in navy knits and Bermudas, sipping wine to the sounds of clinking halyards and whipping wind.
Walking into the office, I managed to squeeze out enough German to get a locker key. I asked where the Vienna International Sailing Club meets; she didn’t understand me. A throat cleared behind me. It was an Englishman, right out of a Brooks Brothers catalogue – ascot and all – but awkwardly in a bicycle helmet.
"You’re here for the Thursday evening sail?" I nodded, and the gracious walking stereotype escorted me to the dock.
"Who has sailed before?" asked Andrew Parker, vice-commodore of VISC, greeting the group with a smile. Silence. "Okay," Andrew continued, "Who has seen Pirates of the Caribbean?" Everyone laughed. "It’s the same thing." I summoned all the Jack Sparrow in me.
Every Thursday VISC opens up to non-members for an evening sail. Novices are paired up with "expert" sailors. Besides a few old English seadogs, many of the members on this particular evening are fairly new to the game, having begun only a few years ago.
My skipper for the evening is Gyula, a burly mustached Hungarian who has been commuting from Eisenstadt for three years just to sail here every week.
As a Seattle native, summers always involved sailing school; I learned to sail on a tiny nutshell of a boat called a "pram" before I learned to tie my shoes. So we were an odd couple: Me with my childhood memories and Gyula, knowing the local "ropes".
The sailboats at Hofbauer are wooden and worn, lining the docks in a rainbow of chipping paint. We rigged our big blue-hulled boat, with Gyula narrating every step of the process for me. Then we cast the line and headed out. The seafarer aesthetic was in stark contrast to the backdrop, the glass towers of an ultra-urban skyline, as we rippled our way onto "open water".
Back in tack
The shifty city wind makes sailing on the narrow Alte Donau like ballroom dancing, waltzing around the other boats. We’d spot a patch of wind on the water, marked by dense, dark ripples. We’d trim the sails to speed up and try to catch it. I was on jib duty, pulling it side to side with the main sail as we tacked back and forth upwind.
When the gust died, we’d find another patch, and the chase would begin again. There is competition though: The skipper in the boat behind us would target the same ripples, but more often than not he ate our wake. By then, I noticed, I had completely forgotten about my wind-phobia.
Gyula and I traded jobs for the last half hour, and I skippered the boat. It took me a couple tacks and jibes to get back into the rhythm: Shove the tiller, duck under the boom, switch sides, trim sails. It wasn’t long before I was back in the groove. Shove, duck, switch, trim, repeat.
The wind started to die down as the evening wore on into night, and we used the last bits of breeze to ease back into the dock.
After Gyula had de-rigged the boat and we’d folded the sails, my friends and I sat down on the deck of the Ufertaverne. As they lit the torches we ordered dinner and watched the boats disappear from sight.
After cruising the urban waterfront, I realised that, like music, sailing is the same in every language and, even on the slim strip of the old Danube, had the breath of adventure. As we left the docks, I was already thinking about making my next excursion by daylight.