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It’s the unexpected that makes the sailing sweeter

2007 July 17
Let me tell you a little about reflections. There is an indefinable moment in your life when you have a mental shifting of gears and you start to reflect on the past. It comes to some people earlier than others, and it has come to me.

Perhaps it has to do with wisdom: I'd like to think that reflecting on the past will help me navigate the future. Good judgment is based on experience, which is often the result of bad judgment. I'm the poster boy for that adage.

Now before you start getting out the Hallmark cards for me, this doesn't mean that I'm no longer buying green bananas. It just means that occasionally something happens that reminds me of a moment in my past. When you're young, there isn't enough past and too much of the present to bother with such thoughts, but I have more time on my hands now.

In any case, I was having lunch with some contemporaries at the yacht club, and the subject turned to "our best day on the water." When there are so many to choose from, it's hard to pick just one.
There were the beautiful days, with a sky so blue it made my heart ache and just the right number of puffy white clouds. There were sunsets over faraway islands, the rattle of the anchor dropping in untouched coves, the quiet mornings with dew on the deck.

There were the days when, having hit every shift with flawless tactics, we crossed the finish line first knowing that we'd sailed better than ever before, and perhaps ever again.

But as I flipped through my mental Rolodex of days, behind the G-for-Great tab (not C for Cold or W for Windy or B for Becalmed), I realized that many of the best days were the ones that didn't go at all as planned.

Take Caswell's Wild Ride, for example. We had taken my Flying Dutchman out for some practice on a fairly breezy day. We'd been getting hammered during windy regattas, and so we thought that we might put in some time honing our skills in a blow.

We slogged out the channel with the genoa furled. When we hit open water, the jib was unrolled, Denny swung out on the trapeze, I hiked as hard as I could, and we were off upwind. We also realized that it was blowing a lot harder than it had seemed when we were standing in the lee of the clubhouse. Duh.

We were underwater half the time, with the bow firehosing sheets of spray into our eyes and down our collars, the bailers were slurping full time to empty the bilge, and it was, of course, great fun.

But after a half hour of tinkering with the mainsail draft and the mast bend and other tuning that would hopefully move us up in the fleet on windy days, it was time to crack off and reach.

Bam! It was like being launched out of a watery shotgun. We were skipping like a hard-flung stone across the waves, the rudder had a high-pitched whine I'd never heard before, and our flexible mast had a bend that was a bit scary to watch. We were trucking like never before but, to our surprise, we were quite stable. In fact, it seemed that the faster we went, the less squirrely we became.

In no time at all, we were past the harbor entrance but we thought we should practice a bit further. To be perfectly honest, we were just having too much fun, hooting and hollering on this liquid freight train. I have no idea how fast we were going, but it soon became apparent that we were going to have a really long and really ugly slog to windward back to the harbor entrance.

We were young and certainly foolish, so we simply kept going. A dozen miles down the coast was another harbor and, in no time, we were squishing wetly up the dock of another yacht club. In the phone booth, I made a rather awkward call to my mother.

"Hi. Umm, we're down here but we left the trailer up there and, um, we need someone to come and get us." By the time she arrived with the trailer, she had calmed down and even listened to our chatter about the wild ride.

Back at the lunch table 40 years later, I realized that this had been a great day on the water simply because it had been so unexpected and so unplanned. And that's one of the best things about sailing.
We live in a 9-to-5 world, our calendars and appointment books are filled with scribbled must-dos and don't-forgets, and we have little time that isn't scheduled.

But on the water, the wind may encourage you to do something completely different than you had intended. A wind shift can make that planned anchorage hard to reach and so, as we did on our screaming plane, you end up someplace else.

Not many sailors keep logbooks anymore (more likely, they have a blog on some Web site) but, when they did, most of them would write "bound for" when they set out on a cruise. That's infinitely different than "going to," and it leaves enough slack so that they could end up anywhere without feeling bad about it.

As I reflected on it, some of my best sails have been those that were a complete surprise. I've wound up in places I never would have found except by chance, and that has made the adventure all the sweeter. Just sailing out of the harbor and, on the whim of the moment choosing to go left or right, is to create an unplanned voyage. If you don't get where you thought you were going, don't worry: you weren't meant to get there.

The sheer vagaries of sailing are a refreshing and much-needed change from our regimented world. Cast your fate to the wind.