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Let’s bring back the seamanship race—I have the perfect trophy

2010 August 1

I have a modest proposal to make. I was in the Pacific Northwest recently to look at some boats, and I found myself on Bainbridge Island in a sweet little harbor called Port Madison. It's a world apart from Florida, and I was reveling in the cool weather and gorgeous scenery. As I poked through Port Madison aboard a friend's Whaler, I realized the cove was sort of a time warp: there were lovely clas-sic sailboats tied to piers and on moorings everywhere I looked. But here's the zinger: they all looked brand new. Though more than four decades old, a Countess 44 ketch from Pearson seemed like it had just been launched, a Westsail 32 was as perfect as it had been in 1972 and, of all things, there were several immaculate 6-Meters to be seen as well. Judging by the homes on the waterfront, this isn't exactly a ghetto and the owners can clearly afford to keep their boats in Bristol condition, but there was something more: they were all sea-manlike.

The halyards were neatly coiled, fenders were properly adjusted, and even the dock lines were flemished in coils. That isn't about money, it's about tradition and good seamanship. Bear with me here for a mo-mentary digression. I realized that, having switched to digital cameras, I've become a sloppy photogra-pher. Where I once took great care with lens settings and composi-tion, I now bang off several shots. I no longer have to wait a week to see the results and, because I'm not limited to just 36 photos on a roll, I can immediately discard bad shots and correct my settings accordingly. Ansel Adams, who spent hours setting up a single photograph, must be whirling in his grave. As I looked around Port Madi-son, I noticed there were newer boats coming into the harbor on this warm summer day and, unlike the boats that were permanent residents, these were uniformly sloppy. Fenders dragged in the water, lines hung over the rails, sails were crunched in lumps on the booms. And I realized that somewhere, somehow, many modern skippers have become sloppy. Sure, they can punch in waypoints on their GPS and get to where they want, but they no longer bother with paper charts or penciled fixes. They no longer calculate the effect of wind and current on their course. And that's part of the fun of being on the water.

Anchoring, for example, is becoming a lost art and, though many skippers alibi that they have a "floating anchor," they just don't know how to anchor properly. On any weekend, you see them toss-ing anchors over the bow like dis-cus throwers, letting out a fraction of the rode necessary, and then rushing to crank up the stereo. No wonder so many boats drag their hooks. I once heard from a BVI check-out skipper about the charter crew that requested a replacement anchor on their second day. Why? Because they simply cut the first one away, not knowing they had to raise it each day. Perhaps apocry-phal. Maybe not. Fenders are being left in place while underway rather than being used just when docking, and it should be no surprise that these skippers also refer to them as "bumpers." The art of neatly furling a mainsail to the boom has been replaced by self-furling mains and by sails that disappear into the mast itself. Many skippers have never actually hanked on a head-sail, and simply assume that every boat has roller furling.

Like my photography, it's easy to become complacent in an era of digital navigation, electric anchor windlasses and self-furling sails. Who cares if the fenders are dragging in the water or the jib sheets lie in piles? No one ap-parently, although these are the same skippers who have their cars washed regularly so they always look perfect. Years ago, a Southern California sailing club had an annual "sea-manship race" that was not only great fun, but a learning experience as well. In this race, all the yachts start-ed out at anchor, with the mainsail furled on the boom and the jib in a sailbag on the bow. At the gun, the crews not only had to hoist the main and jib, but they had to raise the anchor. Remember that this was long before boats had electric windlasses: at best, they might have a lever-actuated windlass that wasn't much of an advantage. The boats then sailed a triangu-lar course and returned to the fin-ish line, where they had to anchor and drop their sails. The event was not just a race, but an exercise in seamanship and boathandling. Knowing how to sail on and off your anchor was just as important as understanding the racing rules. Having a well-trained crew that could hank on a jib quickly or throw a smooth harbor furl into a mainsail was as critical as proper sail trim. I'd like to inspire some sail-ing clubs to resurrect such a seamanship event. It would be a delightful antidote to the usual around-the-marks daisy chain ev-ery weekend. It would be a fresh challenge. And it would carry great bragging rights.

Of course, in this era, you'd probably need separate classes for boats with electric windlasses, self-furling mainsails and roller-furling jibs. Since this is about seamanship, the race might require a man-overboard event during the race: on one leg, the crew has to toss a life cushion overboard and then retrieve it. Seems to me it would be a way of testing (and honing) some boating skills that don't get used during normal racing. The results might be surprising, too, because it wasn't necessarily the fastest yachts that won. Often it was a cruising boat with a well-trained crew and seamanlike rigging that was able to embarrass those yachts that usually took home the silverware. Speaking of silver, if you're wondering about a suitable trophy, I'd be happy (and She Who Must Be Obeyed would be ecstatic) to donate a pair of my worn Topsid-ers, complete with duct tape and salt stains, to be bronzed as the "Seamanship Perpetual Trophy." Any takers?