Lessons for Landlubbers

I have often wondered how a person could be drawn to the slowest form of recreational travel short of turtle back, namely sailing a small boat, then spend hours devising ways to make it go faster.  Such is the life of a sailboat owner wanting to race.

Sailboat racing is an oxymoron if ever there was one.  As the spouse of an avid sailor, I never really got into the racing thing, being content to drift along on a leisurely course now and then,  but panic-mode would set in quickly the minute the wind picked up or another sail drifted into sight, presenting a challenge to the captain of my fate.  However, I did learn enough about the basics of sailing to pass a few lessons on to other landlubbers.

Lesson #1  is quite simple:  Accept the fact that you’re either going to be bored to death or scared to death every minute you spend underway on board a small sailboat.  There is seldom any in-between .

Lesson #2.  “Boat Speak”. When you first set foot on a boat, any boat, you’ve entered a world where nothing is as it was.  From the crudest dugout to the sleekest cruise ship, they are all female.  Don’t ask why; despite much speculation, no one really knows.  Just remember “she” is always ”she” unless “she” is “her.”  Just accept it.  Also what you knew as a kitchen, a wall or floor, bathroom, food or drink, left or right can be forgotten.   “Boat Speak” refers to galleys, bulkheads and decks, heads, chow. port and starboard.  There will also be strange directions; abeam, abaft, amidships, Ahoy, Yo Ho Ho, on and on.

Getting down to the basic basics;  there’s a tall stick standing straight up in the middle of a sailboat.  It’s purpose is to hold up the big white flappy thing that makes the boat go.  The stick is the  MAST.  The flappy thing is the SAIL.  If you’re a really salty old sailor you’ll be referring to the mast as – guess what – the stick.  This is sort of reverse yachting snobbery, similar to drinking martinis out of your coffee cup.  Once again, don’t ask.

And then there’s the BOOM. Never forget the boom.  It’s the mean little sidewise stick that holds the bottom of the sail and swings about with such gusto every time the boat changes course.  The boom swipes right across the center of the boat (amidships)  at a low level with the briefest of warnings from the captain.  Anyone on board with the exception of the captain is at risk of catching the thing behind the ear, the back of the neck or any other exposed part of the anatomy.  Remaining alert is vital to survival.

You find yourself lurching to the opposite side of the boat, crouched as low as possible, stumbling over other feet, coils of rope, ice chests and any loose flotsam.  The threat of decapitation speeds this action up considerably.  Otherwise the meaning of the word  “boom”  will be brought cruelly home.

Lesson #3.  If you’re not dizzy enough from all the terminology, yes, sailboats do go left, right, sideways and backwards  (well, almost)  in order to go straight ahead.  This is called “tacking” and it does work.  It’s one reason regattas have been described by spectators as being as much fun as watching street lights change color.

Lesson #4.  Being a rather reluctant First Mate, there were only two jobs I was trusted with on board our small boat.  The first one, called “hiking the rail” in our particular Boat Speak involved sitting on the rim  of the high edge of the boat, leaning backwards as far as I dared, using a white-fingered clutch and all ten toes to hang on, the object being to balance the boat against the wind.

As you know, any breeze stronger than a zephyr causes a sailboat to lean.  The more it leans the faster it goes.  Simple, right?  In the middle of a race, or if the captain is a daredevil by nature  (not mentioning any names)  this can be a real adventure.

With every tack, the poor fool on the rail has to change sides at the right moment.  Scrambling across the cockpit, dodging items deliberately placed there to break toes, hopefully ducking beneath the boom as it swishes past at warp speed, all part of the excitement. This maneuver is repeated over and over, hiking to the opposite rail with each tack.  Thrilling or terrifying, you decide.  I have my opinion.

Lesson #5.  My other job involved even more split-second timing.  Once back at our local yacht club after a day on the bay, picking up the mooring was a real challenge.  Our club didn’t have slips, the boats were anchored out, each mooring marked with a float.  A small boat with no engine could only come in under sail. Some boats would have oars or a paddle for emergencies but trying to row a boat meant for sail is very difficult and we had our system worked out.

My job of standing at the bow, boat hook in hand, stabbing at that dratted mooring could hardly be called the end of a perfect day.  Woe betide us if I missed; coming back around was not fun.  Once the mooring was secured, the sail was dropped and we sounded the boat horn for a pick-up by the club launch, hoping to be heard over the ongoing revelry at the clubhouse.  By now we were longing for home, a light supper, hot showers and bed. Believe it or not,  sailing is hard work, definitely not as easy as it looks.

Lesson #6.   The captain, or master of any boat under way regardless of size, has absolute authority  on board.  His or her word is law and orders need to be obeyed.  Needless to say, spouses of these masters don’t always make good first mates.  If, for example, the captain happens to get caught in the shipping lane and  glances over his shoulder just in time to see the two story tall, rusty bow of a tramp freighter out of Monrovia, Liberia, bearing down,  when he bellows  “Ready About” (meaning change direction),  he needs a fast response.  He doesn’t want to hear  “Just wave them on around, Dear, they’ll move over.  After all, we have the right-of-way.”

He definitely doesn’t want to hear  “I broke another fingernail on your darned old boat.  You can just wait while I file it down.”  And he most definitely does not want to hear  “Stop yelling at me!  (sniff)  I told you if you ever yell at me again, I’ll never make another trip on this stinky old tub (sniff sniff). I wish I’d stayed home.  I could be at the mall.”

I suppose there are statistics somewhere showing the number of small boat captains who suffer massive coronaries while wrenching a tiller out of its fitting to be used as a weapon on hapless first mates.  And there may be statistics showing how many first mates mysteriously disappear overboard in open water on what could otherwise be called a perfect day for sailing.  Such things do happen.  In rare circumstances a captain has been known to disappear, too, if the first mate is unusually brawny and driven.

And, yes, it’s true, any boat, whether canoe, kayak or sailboat without auxiliary power does have  the right-of-way over any vessel moving under power.

However, claiming this right-of-way would be like standing in the middle of a train track, waving at the locomotive bearing down,  yelling  “I was here first!”

Not advisable.


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