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Just tell Capt. Bligh to have a nice day on the water

2011 March 25

Civility is (pardon the expression) all the rage. In politics, that is. Elsewhere, not so much.

I'll know civility has returned when store clerks start saying "thank you" again, instead of today's default response, "have a nice day." Nothing wrong with that sentiment, but it hardly conveys gratitude for parting with some of your hard-earned cash. Besides, being a civil person, I have a hard time resisting the impulse to respond by saying thank you when I'm wished a nice day, which has the perverse result of me thanking someone for accepting my money.

Never mind, I'm writing about civility in sailing, of which we could use more to replace the incivility of shouting. It's odd that there is so much of that in an activity that is about the appreciation of things that are usually quiet, like a boat slipping through the water
under wind power.

I'm not referring to interboat civility. There's no problem there. Sailors are as civil as can be to sailors on other boats. They'd give them the shirt off their backs, a cold beer or, above all, a tow or even a life-saving rescue when they're in trouble.

Civility aboard a boat is another matter. For example, you invite a couple of acquaintances new to sailing aboard for a low-key club race to give them a feel for friendly sailing competition. It's a fine day and the fleet is a pretty sight on the flat water ruffled by the first stirrings of the afternoon sea breeze. Then, like the squawks of a frenzied flock of feeding seagulls, the expletives come flying across the water from a boat whose spinnaker has assumed the dreaded shape of the number 8.

You have to explain to your guests, whose eyes are rolling, that there is a lot of stress in certain sailing maneuvers and that the preferred remedy for a spinnaker hoist gone bad is yelling-skipper yelling at crew, crew yelling at crew, everyone yelling at the $%!C#! spinnaker.
All right, we can show our civility by forgiving racers for going hyper in the throes of competition and giving excessive voice to their stress. It's hard, though, to be equally generous to those who think yelling is a fit part of ordinary sailing for the fun of it.

My theory is that some sailors, regardless of their experience or the size of their boats, have no natural immunity to Capt. Bligh syndrome.

I don't know if it has been statistically proven that women are more frequently the target of these martinets at sea, but I do know that a women's sailing organization once distributed T-shirts to its members printed with the plea-or warning-"Don't yell at me!" on the back. 

      I've heard stories of good friends who have chartered boats together for a cruise in a tropical paradise, only to find that paradise was lost when the friend who was appointed to or assumed the position of skipper started kicking butts, taking names and yelling.

Harbors may be the most fertile water for yelling, or maybe it just seems that way because there are so many witnesses around to hear and the view the incivility. Or maybe it just proves that docking is the most terrifying part of sailing.

You've all seen it. A cruising sailboat is approaching the dock with a couple on board, he at the helm, she on the foredeck, dockline in one hand, boathook in the other. The landing doesn't go well and, oh my goodness, the things you hear. These are actual quotes recorded by this scribe, sanitized in the interest of civility:

"Don't play with it, cleat the (expletive deleted) thing!"

"Throw it! Throw it! Not the (expletive deleted) spring line, the bow line."

"Hold off! Push harder! Jeez, get your (expletive deleted) foot out of there."

Or in a rare turnabout, from the bowperson to the helmsperson-"Stop the (expletive deleted) boat! Reverse! What part of backward don't you understand?"

The antidote to sailing incivility, besides reading Mutiny on the Bounty, is to master the requisite skills, which, let's face it, are only slightly more demanding than those of, say, curling, so that basic maneuvers can be performed without excessive drama, which should eliminate the need to yell.

Meanwhile, if someone does yell at you, the best way to disarm the yeller might be to reply, "Have a nice day."