After checking the forecast for the day (wind variable, five knots or less) I headed down to the harbor with a good bit of concern. What could new sailors possibly gain from sailing lessons without wind? Little did I know that the ocean would come to our rescue, once again.

humpback whales

Two snoozing humpbacks blew fishy snores at us while we drifted around them.

I stretched the dock talk as long as possible, even including a bit on design and equipment evolution. But after lunch, we couldn’t put it off any longer and we headed out into Monterey Bay. The boat moved easily through the water, but when we cut the motor the sails hung like sheets on a clothesline.

Looking down into the deep blue of a calm ocean, I noticed an amazing plankton bloom beneath us. I was blown away by how thick it was; as the tiniest of waves rolled beneath us, the plankton at the surface moved as if an artist had drawn a brush across a canvas bathed in wet brown paint. It was stunning. I started describing to my students how important plankton is to the health of our planet, since it produces most of the oxygen that we breathe (sorry rainforests).

Then I saw two charter boats very near each other with passengers hunched on the same rail—whales! We dropped the jib to the deck, strapped the mainsail in tight, fired up the outboard, and headed over for a closer look. By the time we arrived the charter boats departed, and we cut the motor. Peace.

student helm humpback

A student takes the helm, absorbing the feel of command on a windless day.

There was a hint of breeze and the occasional cats paws on the surface so we drifted-sailed slow laps around two snoozing humpbacks. This was the best complement to the plankton show I could imagine, since humpbacks are plankton eaters. I was able to easily connect the health of the smallest animals in the bay to whales that grow to fifty feet.

As the humpbacks blew small plumes of fishy snores, I helped my students understand how important the health of the bay is—not only to plankton and humpbacks but to our own species. The black cod and king salmon that are fished from our bay and end up on our plates won’t continue to inhabit the bay unless we treat this amazing resource with the respect (and restraint) that it deserves. Simple choices about what we put in our shopping carts determine the future of myriad species in our oceans, which in turn determines our future.

So the lesson of the day was a little more big picture than usual, as discussions of sail trim melded into discussions about lifestyle choices. These are the challenges each of us faces in one fashion or another each day, but making the connection between the ocean we love and the way we live adds depth to both.

Written by: Dave Robinson
A licensed captain, Dave Robinson teaches sailing, windsurfs, and advocates for the health of the ocean on the coast of California.