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The Wheeler Lesson
A humbled Captain
June 2022

his month, I am sharing one of the most important boating lessons I have learned. This lesson was taught to me during the year 2007 and has stayed with me every day. Every time I captain a boat this lesson comes to mind. I am certain this lesson will stay with me until my end of days.

Now, I am going to share my lesson with you.

john rahm
Captain John Rahm
The year, again, was 2007 and I was sailboat racing here in Oriental. I was crewing for Ed Bliss on his Sabre, Out of the Blue. Ed has retired from sailing, sold his boat and moved away. Out of the Blue still resides in town and is moored at the Pecan Grove Marina. (Look for the blue hull in the center of the marina)

Anyway, Tim Fowler and I were the foredeck deck crew for Ed (Tim is now the Mayor of Minnesott Beach). We were a very competitive boat. Ed was no slouch as racing sailor. He had owned Out of the Blue for more than a decade and drove the boat well. We were a fast boat and should have won more trophies. However, there were two obstacles preventing us from winning.

Two flies in the ointment
The two flies in the ointment – preventing us from winning – were Emma and Kara, the Wheeler sisters. Are you familiar with Nautical Wheelers gift shop? Emma and Kara are the daughters of owners Bill and Camilla Wheeler.

The girls were born about 12 months apart and have been sailing since wearing diapers. They started racing Sunfish shortly after learning to walk. At one time, Emma was the captain of the Harvard sailing team and Kara was the captain of the NC State sailing team. Both collegiate teams were nationally ranked when the Wheeler girls were involved.

Alexis Edwards, Nicole Edwards, Kara Wheeler and Emma Wheeler at the 2010 Croaker Relay. They called their team ‘Sailors not Runners.’

Anyway, I raced with Ed against these two adolescent girls, then ages 11 and 12. They routinely beat us. They easily beat us. They beat us on their worst days. They beat us on our best days.

It was frustrating to lose to these two pre-teens.

No. It was crazy frustrating to lose to these two pre-teens.

I was a fighter pilot in the United States Marine Corps. Unique among fighter pilots, I was qualified in both the FA-18 Hornet and the AV-8B Harrier. I was an operational evaluation test pilot. I flew combat missions in three conflicts and was on the ground for a forth.

Losing was not a part of anything I did. To lose to a twelve-year-old was maddening. It was extremely distasteful. I, out-of-my-mind, hated it.

Kara and Emma, even too young for acne, were unbelievably fast in a sailboat. But they got a lot of help.

Emma Wheeler and Zack Bruno compete in the South Atlantic Interscholastic Sailing Association in 2012.
It took the Village
Many contributed to the Wheelers’ speed in a sailboat; mostly their parents. But the sisters crewed and drove for Brian Brown on Nevermore.

Yes, drove his boat. Not a misprint.

They participated in the Sunfish racing sponsored by Paul Wells, former owner of Triton Yachts (Sunfish dealer). The girls were fixtures at Bow to Stern Boating Center during summer sailing camp and later as sailing coaches. The two Wheeler speed demons learned quickly and were fearless in a boat. There was nothing timid about either once they were racing on the water.

They earned (and deserved) much respect from the adults. But, eventually and thankfully, their reign over us adults ended.

Order restored
Relief came when both girls aged and went off to college. The playing field was level again. Equity emerged. In their absence, others won. I was glad they left.

And, I was also glad for the lesson.

Even though distasteful, this experience has served me well. So, here is the lesson, straight from the sailboat race course, courtesy of the pre-teen Wheeler girls.

Kara Wheeler competing in the 2014 Sunfish Worlds.
The big take-away
Boats do not know who is driving.

Yes. There it is – the big lesson. Simple and obvious.

The boats – that all of us drive – do not know who is driving.

No one gets professional courtesy from a boat. Qualifications, experience and personal qualities do not steer boats. Only the wheel and tiller steer the boat.

I got no additional credit from the boat for being a Marine fighter pilot. I am unable to load my resumé into an electronic chart plotter. Boats do not care. Boats have total disregard installed at the factory when manufactured. With total disregard for gender and age, fighter pilots, doctors, lawyers, judges, architects, truck drivers, garbage collectors, TownDock editors, boat owners, boat renters etcetera – all get equal treatment from a boat.

The fact that the Wheeler girls were 11 and 12 did not matter to the boat they were driving; boating is absolutely one of the most unbiased activities and completely wonderful.

Kara Wheeler (left) at the 2014 Greens Creek Challenge and Emma Wheeler in 2010 oiling the ratline teak of Jeanie B.
So now, thanks to the Wheeler girls, when I step aboard a boat for a delivery or lesson, I remind and focus myself: this boat does not know about me. I am going to get no help from this boat because I am a highly experienced sailing instructor and captain. My resumé does not matter to this boat.

Thanks to the Wheeler girls I am not cavalier, but attentive and careful. My hope is you will find this wise mindset helpful.

Emma graduated from Harvard and then Duke Law School. She is an attorney in New York City practicing corporate law.

Kara graduated from NC State with an engineering degree. She is working for an engineering firm in Asheville.

I am certain the Wheeler girls have no idea any of this has occurred. I do not know them and have only seen them up-close and briefly when purchasing items at their parent’s gift shop. My most common view of the girls was their backs since they were always in front of us on the sailboat racecourse. The girls unknowingly taught me everyone is the same and equal to a boat.

If we were more like boats, I think the world would be a better place.

Fair Winds,
Captain John Rahm
(Well schooled by the 11 and 12 year old Wheeler girls)

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Captain's Blog on TownDock.net is all about making your time on the water enjoyable. Captain John Rahm teaches sailing and boat handling at Third Wave Sailing.