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Practicing the art of self-deception

2009 June 5
When I was a kid we wrote school research papers using the Encyclopedia Britannica. My Aunt Stella had them on a shelf in her parlor, but the update editions hadn't been included in the purchase price so our information was usually a bit stale.

That really didn't matter in the pre-Information Age, and today remains much the same if you're looking up a subject that doesn't change with every twist in technology. So I decided to see what Wikipedia-the online version of those old leather volumes-had to say about sailing.

Here's the 2009 definition.

"Sailing is the art of controlling a boat with large (usually fabric) foils called sails. By changing the rigging, rudder, and dagger or centerboard, a sailor manages the force of the wind on the sails in order to change the direction and speed of a boat. Mastery of the skill requires experience in varying wind and sea conditons, as well as knowledge concerning sailboats."

I think it was the mastery of skills part that struck me hardest. The rest sounded like pure science. The phrase made me look back over a life framed by sailing-the good, the bad and the ugly. Had I mastered the art? Or was I simply among the ranks of those who've mastered nothing but the art of self-deception, fashioning themselves brash sailors when in truth, they don't leave the harbor if it's blowing over 10 knots?

Learning to sail for me came the hard way. Without mentors, I depended on a book aptly titled 'Learn to Sail' as I boarded my Cape Dory Typhoon. After getting whacked in the head with the boom a few times, I figured out if the wind is coming from the left, you put the boom on the right, and vice versa. I was a fool to think that was everything a sailor needed to know.

Learning to read the weather was a great lesson. My son, Zack, was about five when we sailed through a monster squall, me wearing a black trash bag because I'd left my fancy foul-weather gear at home. Two lessons: listen to the forecast before setting sail and pay attention to the clouds once out on the water. Take inventory of the gear aboard.

Thinking back, religion has also played a role in our family's sailing adventures. Just off Marblehead, Massachuestts, I hoisted a spinnaker that I'd bought earlier in the day from a down-and-out sailor in Boston. The sail was pretty-all red,white and black swirls. But within seconds it hour-glassed around the forestay and one of the sheets let loose, fouling the prop and stalling the engine. We drifted toward the rocks. My wife prayed even though she isn't very religious. Her outward fear set the kids off like horses in a barn fire. They also prayed. My wife insisted I cut the spinnaker, but I'd only owned it for a matter of hours and wasn't about to do that.
Ultimately the winches helped bring down the rebellious sail, enabling me to hoist the main and save us from the rocks. The lesson: Don't test out new sails with the family aboard and have some idea what you're doing before you do it.

My wife still reminds me of the day in the Boston Harbor Islands when, ghosting along, a commuter boat sent us within two feet of Devil's Back, a treacherous shoal on the edge of North Channel. The lesson: Be prepared to skull with your rudder in case the engine doesn't start, which it didn't.

But not every sail has brought an emergency, a beat to quarters. Some have been simply spectacular, like sailing within view of nine lighthouses in the same afternoon off the Massachusetts coast, anchoring for picnics on abandoned islands, playing with the booby birds on the barrier reefs of Belize, sailing along Italy's Amalfi coast under the shadow of ancient castles, racing up Drake Channel in the BVI to swim at Virgin Gordon before the tourists arrive, tacking in the lee of Charleston's Fort Sumpter, cruising Florida's sugar-white Emerald Coast, reefing a mainsail in the dark under shooting stars while passaging to Bermuda.

Some people, land lubbers for certain, ask what is it that draws us back to the sea each season. Are we arguably insane to find joy laying on our backs, sanding and painting a hull, caulking, varnishing, fixing broken center board cables or, as happened earlier this month, sending my feather-weight wife to the top of the mast to replace a broken topping lift block?

Yes, I admit it. In the rush to make the shakedown sail of the season a reality here in chilly New England, I was pressed get the boom off the deck. It had crashed the day after we launched the boat and friends called to tell me.

Christine, ever willing to push her limits to discover a part of herself she didn't know existed, slapped on a bicycle helmet, clipped the main and foresail halyards to the bosun's chair, and ascended in a rolling sea. My friend Tom and I each tended a line, and soon the block was replaced, the topping lift line rethreaded. We were back in business, ready to sail.

The next day was warm and sunny. We packed two sandwiches, water bottles and a few beers. Within minutes of leaving the mooring we were headed toward The Graves, a lighthouse that marks the outer reaches of Boston Harbor. The new "used" mainsail that I had purchased from Bacon Sails in Annapolis, Maryland, looked amazingly clean, white and stiff, compared to the aging tissue paper I'd been flying for too many years.

We set off on a sun tack, meaning there was no destination, the only goal being to flood the cockpit with warmth as the boat slices through the water. Things were going well. We felt like the Kennedys, royalty even-until the slides began popping out of the mast track like a machine gun­-pop, pop pop pop … pop pop.

With only the headboard and tack still connected to the mast, the new sail flogged noisily. We wrestled for 10 minutes to get it down, and since the foresail doesn't have roller furling, we repeated the effort with the Genoa. The new "used" sail had five-eighth-inch slides instead of three-quarter inch.

Ahh, what a difference a fraction makes.

It took a week to get the correct size slides in hand, screw them into place and wait for a cooperative day that might offer the prospect of a sun tack-Christine's favorite.

Sure enough, the sail caught wind magnificently, and Wind Dance, our Bristol 27, was pulled along faster than she had been in years. If boats could talk, I swear she would have giggled with joy and let out a rebel yell. It was a great experience, which is what it truly breaks down to when we look at the art of sailing.

No matter whether it's a bluewater adventure across a foreign sea or a race round the cans on the weekend, it's all about the experience, the chasing after it. That's why we're out there instead of sitting on the couch watching TV-just in case anybody asks.