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A cautionary tale of the perils of wanton boat lust

2017 March 1

You’re supposed to learn from your mistakes.

What I learned from my biggest sailing mistake was that boat lust can lead a sailor astray just as surely and quickly as the other kind of lust.

You shouldn’t dwell on your mistakes. I try to forget this one, but it comes back every time I hear the sound that means you’re just about dead in the water—the slap-slap-slap of wavelets tapping the transom of a boat that has stopped moving.


Why would any owner go to great expense to replace a perfectly good boat that was fast, good looking and fun to sail with a new one that was impressive in a gaudy sort of way but untried? Wanton lust, of course.

The temptation began at the Annapolis sailboat show. I was just doing my job, checking out the new boats for the magazine, when I found myself aboard a 44-footer that was the sexiest production-built sailboat I’d ever seen.

In my besotted state, high on the inhaled aroma of fresh fiberglass, which is known to be a dangerous chemical narcotic, everything about the boat was perfect. The towering three-spreader rig. The heroic, sharply angled bow. The broad but shapely transom. The beefy winches. The lavish interior with two heads and a private aft cabin sporting a queen-size bed. The pedigree of its famed designer and builder that ensured it would be a race winner.

The high wore off on the plane going home. I looked reality in the face and told myself it would be irresponsible to squander family savings on a new boat with college bills looming for two kids. Besides, I already had a perfectly good boat. Besides, two heads and a queen-size bed are utterly ridiculous on boat used mainly for racing.

If my boat lust wasn’t quite extinguished, the First Mate took care of that decisively when I confessed my infatuation. Employing the word “irresponsible” with a strong modifier, she added, “Besides we already have a perfectly good boat. Besides, two heads and a queen-size bed are utterly ridiculous on a boat used mainly for racing.” Occasionally we think alike.

The case was closed, the bullet dodged.

Until a boat dealer called with startling news: He had hull No. 2 of my dream boat on his floor. It had been rejected by the would-be buyer because it came in the wrong color. I could have it for a song or something close. What’s more, he would paint the mousy brown topsides any color I wanted. What’s more, he had a buyer for my boat at a good price.

I caved instantly. It took a bit longer for the First Mate, but she got on board after I gave her my pledge that this boat, being so terrific, would be the last boat we would ever want to buy. We named it Flash in recognition of its assured quickness.

The early hours of the new boat’s first race, a 70-mile overnighter, were auspicious. With the wind piping to 20 knots, the buxom sloop was fast on a close reach, shaking off puffs and rising seas with barely a shiver. Then, a few miles from the finish, the wind petered to a 3-knot zephyr. Boats in our division ghosted by on the still viable breeze. Flash coasted to a semi-stop, announced by the slap-slap-slap tattoo of leftover waves on the transom.

The rock-star sailmaker on board for the boat’s debut said what everyone else on board was thinking but was afraid to say: “She seems heavy and sticky in light air.” It became a familiar refrain, accompanied by that slap-slap-slap.

It was a trying summer. Light air prevailed. Racing sailors are wont to mock competing boats in a good-natured way with creative pronunciations of their names. I overheard a couple of guys in our fleet calling my dream boat Flush. 

It was hard to pinpoint the boat’s problem. The hull was fuller in the aft sections than earlier boats by the same designer. Maybe there was too much wetted surface. Maybe the boat was heavier than claimed in the specs, two heads and a queen-size bed being ridiculous on a boat used mainly for racing.

The mystery persisted until I donned scuba gear for the first bottom cleaning. When I saw the keel, I almost swallowed my regulator.

I had never seen the boat out of the water and had only a two-dimensional look at it in drawings. I was used to the delta-shaped keels on my previous boats, streamlined, faired objects with smooth, gentle radiuses.

The thing I encountered on my bottom-scrubbing mission was a rectangular mass, as wide on the deep end as on the top, with a flat bottom and hard edges. I tried to process the idea of a light breeze pushing this 10,000-pound blunt instrument through the water efficiently. I couldn’t. 

Cynical sailors sometimes describe inelegantly designed features of a boat as agricultural in nature. The nature of this keel was more in the realm of the military-industrial complex, suggesting a chunk of armament cut from a missile silo.

I will interrupt this litany of boat-lust folly to report that the vessel redeemed itself somewhat as an excellent cruiser. With that sturdy keel, there were no worries about grounding in a thin-water cove—the ground would get the worst of it. And you can’t beat two heads and a queen-size bed for family cruising.

There were a few racing successes (OK, near successes) as well, all in heavy air, including one in a record-breaking Chicago-Mackinac Race that featured an average wind speed around 25 knots and sustained blasts of 40 to 50 knots.

The boat’s creditable finish was a surprise because it was a downwind race made to order for light, surfing boats. This boat didn’t surf. It moved water. The quarter wave it dragged up the lake looked like a tsunami big enough to flood downtown Mackinac Island at the finish.

Of course, I broke my pledge and bought another boat. The First Mate approved. She’d had it with slap-slap-slap.