• Richard Murff

Sailing High with a Wet Bum




So there we are – rear hanging over the gunwale, getting an energetic enema of warm coastal waters. All three of us cramped into the 19 foot Lighting have got our feet under the hiking straps that run across the boat. We’re leaning backward, way back, over the water. We have to be in this crazy position, getting smacked by waves, because the wind is blowing at 15 mph (about 13 knots if you want to get into the spirit of the thing) and the boat is heeling so far to the side that we need the counter weight to keep the thing from knocking over.


Captain Bill is roaring from the helm that our only job is to keep the captain dry. In this race alone, four boats have capsized and there is been a man over board. Paddles, hats, sunglasses and at least one Rolex litter the depths. We are wet, even Captain Bill. So why are we out here?


Because sailing, even in the guise of a sport, is at the very heart of America. This impossible experiment was born on a boat. Before John Paul Jones – the naval hero, not the bassist – defended our waters with an all-American “I have not yet begun to fight!”, our first political framework was scratched out on the Mayflower. Columbus may have discovered the Caribbean vacation package in 1492, but some 500 years earlier, the Vikings invented some impulse shopping in Martha’s Vineyard. They called it Vinland the Good until running afoul of the locals. Then they called it Helluland. They meant it to sound that way.


The Irish will tell you that St. Brendan leapfrogged from Ireland to Greenland and on to North America around 525 and detailed the journey in the Navigotio Sancti Brendani. It’s an interesting document, telling of crystal pillars (icebergs?) and camping on a small island that turned out to be a sea-monster, and a little chapped that the monks built a fire on its back (blarney?), and finding a lonely island where Judas Iscariot spent weekends and feast days on his furloughs from Hell (Who gets furloughs from Hell?). Still, the topography described on reaching land is very much like Novia Scotia.


In 1978, Irish historian Tim Severin built a traditional currah to St. Brendan’s own specifications – basically a 36-foot leather canoe, and retraced the journey. In doing so he proved not only that the legend is plausible, but that if you are going to go drinking with Irish historians, you need to gird your loins for some pretty blarney shenanigans. One of the monks along for the journey, one St. Columba, is credited with bringing the art of distillation to Scotland, and later recording the first sighting of an aquatic beast in Loch Ness. The two incidents well may be related.


In short, sailing has always been a wild ride. And these ancient traditions partly explains why sailors talk in a strange code that seems to crush all of seafaring history together. And then they will deliberately pronounce sailing terms like a semi-illiterate drunk with an English backcountry accent is a mystery. For example: the gunwale I’m hanging over is really just the side of the boat. But it isn’t pronounced gun-wale like its spelled, but gunnel. The four points of the compass take a back seat to the direction of the wind, windward and leeward. But don’t say Lee-ward, say luwurd – one syllable. It really doesn’t matter if you can’t picture this, old sailors will correct you.


You’d think that the terms, even if foreign, would be self-evident, they aren’t. Sails may look like bedsheet, but on a boat “Sheets” are ropes you pull. “Shrouds” are lines you don’t pull. “Blocks” aren’t square, but round wheelie gizmos. If you are sailing Lightning class, then there is a centerboard: A retractable board in the center. Which is straightforward enough, but if you are looking one while on the water then you’ve been introduced to another maritime tradition – getting keelhauled.


This is not a sport for speed freaks and gear heads. Motorboats are easy and fast and not all that different from driving a car – fun but not terribly interesting. Sailing, however, is a different fish-fry altogether. To win a race isn’t so much a matter of speed but of finding the quickest possible route under wind. This is almost never in a straight line.


It’s a counter intuitive, but generally you want to sail is “on the reach” – sailor talk for when the wind is blowing perpendicular to the boat. Those triangular sails work on the same principle as the wing of an airplane turned on its side. The goal is to get the air pressure higher on one side than the other. Those big square sails you see in paintings in yacht clubs and nautical themed bars, as well as big, poofy spinnakers, work on the same principle as flying a kite – fill the thing with air and go with the wind. It’s the only concise thing about the whole damn sport.


You can’t just stab it and steer, you need finesse, even style. A sailor knows the boat, studies the surface of the lake, finds puffs of wind, and then figures out how to apply it, knowing full well that all the variables, and therefore strategy is in constant flux.


Just shy of the last course marker, we were bearing down on what looked like a big turtle sitting in the water. With apologies to St. Brendan, it was the underside of a boat. This is less of a disaster than you might think. A capsized small boat is easy to right: Dive underwater, loose the sails, climb up on the exposed underside and stand on the centerboard. Your weight will be greater than the water pressure and the rig will flip back upright – devoid of any loose items that were once in the bilge (read: the bottom of the boat). After that, just get the thing moving again because Lightnings are self-bailing and fairly hard to sink. You, on the other hand, are a different matter.


Every sport has its outward and inward components. Sailing in dinghies or the big boats, will force you to combine fully physical skill, some courage, intelligence, team dynamic, and an understanding of both nature and technology combined into a competitive strategy. Then it forces you to execute it. Which is not a bad day out.


We gave the turtle a wide berth and zipped alongside a big red Catalina 30. Three men scrambled about: reefing and other nautical maneuvers I don’t know. At the aft were two women, relaxing with cocktails. I reckon they were listed as crew per class regatta regulations, but they couldn’t have cared less about the race.


This, I realized, was the only way I’d ever get the Mrs. M on a sailboat.