Weathered wooden docks, all grayed with age and dotted with barnacles, mean the edge of the world for any person whose love of the water has met its equal in the sleek design of a boat.
Yet for many, the only true boating experience comes not in the whine of a motor, but from the feeling that hits you the moment the breeze fills the mainmast and land becomes a distant memory.
For me personally, its a religious experience out there on the waves, said Jack Cherry, program director for the J World Sailing School in Key West. Sometimes when youre out here and you see other sailboats on the horizon, you can imagine how it was back in the day when sailing was the only kind of boating.
Stepping onto any boat can take your breath away, but the distinction between a sailboat and a powerboat is worlds of difference.
To begin with, the entire experience is based around the wind and the waves, nothing more and nothing less. Though one could be added to the outboard, there are no motors present on a sailboat; movement is propelled only by the breeze.
The size and model of a boat determines how many sails are needed to harness the winds power and send the boat gliding over the waves.
Powerboats are great and so are Jet Skis, but sailing is completely unique, said John Gauthier, a member of the Key West Sailing Club.
The motion of a sailboat is much more rewarding and feels more natural than the pounding of a powerboat, said Cherry. There is no unnatural motion.
A sailboat cuts through the water in the same way a glider plane slices through the air. Sailing is quite possibly as close as you casn be to the cadence of the water without having to actually get in.
If you have never been, sailing can be an overwhelming thought. The idea that you must rely solely on the good graces of the often-fickle wind is somewhat intimidating and can detour a beginner.
While sailing is user-friendly when armed with the proper knowledge, every shudder of the sail or pitch of the boat can cause one to wonder if something is wrong. However, it is the thrill of the indescribable ride that keeps even first-timers coming back for more.
And Keys sailing is one of a kind.
This is the best sailing location in the country, said Tom Theisen, past commodore of the Key West Sailing Club. We dont have all that traffic that a metropolitan area has on the water. Here, its nice.
The Keys have the added benefit of ideal weather conditions in which to learn. The normally flat green water and perfectly blue skies of the Keys add an immeasurable advantage to beginners. We have a very protected learning area, said Natalie Watson, youth instructor for the Key West Sailing Club.
Holding the rudder of a sailboat and feeling the tug of the current as the boat plays to the wind, the feeling is like none other.
If you do something right, it feels right. And if you doing something wrong, it feels wrong, Cherry said.
Sailing courses and activities range from beginner to professional, unrestricted by the limits of age. Sailing spans a lifetime; everyone from young children to senior citizens are able to stay involved throughout.
J World, which rotates teaching locations between Key West and Newport, R.I., throughout the year, offers everything from a Learn to Sail course to the highly defined race technique training. The quality of their services and boats makes J World a destination for both novice and professional sailors throughout the world.
But if a more low-key, less-expensive sailing option is the thing for you, the Key West Sailing Club provides a year family membership. Additionally they also offer youth instructional, adult instructional and womens sailing programs for minor fees.
According to Cherry, whether it is your first or millionth time sailing, all anyone needs to bring is sunscreen, non-slip shoes, foul-weather gear, perhaps a bathing suit and an open mind.
No matter what kind of stress you have on shore it just melts away after about three hours of sailing, he said.
When the breeze is steady and the sun is shining, life doesnt get much better for a sailor.
Originally published in the Winter 2006 edition of Keys Living.