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It’s a proven fact that the love of sailing is in the genes

2011 September 1

Over the years, She Who Must Be Obeyed has been a pretty good sport about my passion for sailing. She's endured not getting the lawn mowed because "today is perfect for sailing." She didn't get a granite kitchen counter, because the old sails on our racing dinghy weren't producing the desired results.

Her vacations have been a week on a bareboat charter instead of a week at the Golden Door Spa. Her Christmas gifts run more toward a new set of foul weather gear than a diamond bracelet. And she's endured weekends highlighted by sodden piles of salty clothes dumped in our laundry room.

Over the years, I've tried to justify my addiction to sailing with only limited success. It's hard to understand, but the idea of getting sunburned and windblown, having cold salt water trickle down her neck, building callouses on her hands from rough lines, and actually cranking a winch, hasn't quite captured her imagination. 

The excuse for my addiction that seems to work best (occasionally) is "Sailing is just in my blood." Another good excuse is "I inherited my love of sailing from my dad," which is running second only because she almost always responds, "If he was alive, I'd shoot him." 

But it turns out I was right all along. It is in my blood. It was inherited.

I was particularly weak in physical science classes in high school and college, which isn't surprising because I was pretty much weak in every subject, but damn, science was just incomprehensible. I'm someone who can't even remember his own blood type, let alone understand the complexities of the human body. 

Adding to the problem were those textbooks (for which I paid a fortune) filled with gobbledygook that might as well have been written in Urdu. Here's an actual example: "The variable number tandem repeats polymorphism in exon III of the human dopamine D4 receptor gene (DRD4) has been correlated with behavioral phenotypes."
So what does this have to do with sailing?
Well, it's not just possible, but more than likely that a passion for sailing can be directly linked to your DNA. DNA, for those of you as science-challenged as this writer, is the molecular chain that determines who you are. It gives you red hair (or no hair, darn it), makes you short or tall, boy or girl, polar bear or Brad Pitt.

I know you'll appreciate the fact that I have waded through a lot of scientific mumbo-jumbo to bring you the news of a legitimate excuse that you can now use to explain your sailing passion. No, no, hold your applause until the end.

Here's the essence. As researchers probe the workings of DNA, they've started uncovering its effects on human behavior. Certainly the most publicized discovery in recent years was the so-called "warrior gene," which creates individuals with higher levels of aggression in response to provocation. You know, Navy SEALs, Green Berets, soccer fans. 

For the scientific among you, the gene is monoamine oxidase A or, as those in the research community refer to it, MAOA. It's been linked to all manner of aggressive behavior: interpersonal, decision-making and political. It's even been used as a defense in a murder trial.

But wait, there's more. Other researchers found that the HTR2B gene, known affectionately to the research community as HTR2B, seems to be responsible for impulsive or violent behavior under the influence of alcohol. This is being used to explain why usually peaceful people turn impulsive and aggressive after a few beers, and accounts for your friend who kicks over newspaper boxes outside the bar.

But all this study of genes isn't new and, in 1919, Charles Davenport, director of the Department of Experimental Evolution at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, wrote a monograph titled Naval Officers: Their Heredity and Development. In this treatise, he identified a male recessive gene that creates seafarers and he even coined a name for their common trait: thalassophilia. 

In his study, which he wrote just after World War I to help the U.S. Navy identify officers who would become superior captains and line officers, he considered sea-craving sailors from Decatur to Dewey to Farragut, and even included John Paul Jones. 

He concluded, as you and I well know, that there are some who have a "genuine mania" for sailing and the sea. These are people who just can't stay ashore. Especially on good sailing days.

I'm not a genetic researcher, but having distinguished myself with a solid C-minus in biology, I will make this prediction. As we continue to explore the mysteries of DNA, we will discover even more varieties of that sailing gene. I expect that a mutant variation of the MAOA aggressive gene will be used to explain the inexplicable: a hopeless port tack start in a big racing fleet. 

Mark my words, there will be a variation of the HTR2B impulsive gene that can be used to explain to a protest committee why you tried to shove your bow inside at the mark at the very last moment. There will be genetic explanations of why some sailors always anchor out, why some love wooden boats, why some prefer dinghies. 

In the meantime, I've discovered a new excuse for leaving the house on those sunny, breezy weekends.

"I'm sorry, honey.  I wish I could help myself," I will say to She Who Must Be Obeyed on my way out the door with a sail bag over my shoulder.
"But I'm a thalassophiliac."