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Clothes make the sailor, but beware of impostors

2008 August 17

Fifty years ago, I belonged to a brotherhood that consisted solely of Porsche owners. In the late 1950s and into the mid-'60s, owning a Porsche was a form of masochism never mentioned in psychology texts, but we were a small group bonded together by this little imported car.

We had all struggled to find service in small hamlets across America, we kept a list of owners in towns that we might pass on trips because they could help us find help before there was a Porsche dealership on every corner, and we even had a secret recognition sign.

As you drove along, if you spotted an oncoming Porsche, you'd flash your headlights as a salute to someone else's insanity. Porsches only acknowledged other Porsches and would never think of flashing headlights at something like a Triumph or an MG, even though those owners were going through the same travails of owning a foreign car in a land dominated by giant boatmobiles.

Of course, that insider's club evaporated once the Porsche became the car of choice for every plastic surgeon and divorce lawyer in America. With parts and service readily available, some of the joy went out of Porsche ownership and, though the cars are still great fun, it just wasn't the same when everyone had one. I mean, my wife's closest friend is thinking about getting a Porsche after a lifetime in automatic transmission landyachts because she thinks she'd look cute in it. It's no wonder the jokes abound.

"What's the difference between a porcupine and two lawyers in a Porsche? With a porcupine, the pricks are on the outside."

This was a rather lengthy intro to the real subject, which is another brotherhood to which I belong that is gradually having the same transition to the masses.

There was a time, and really not that long ago, when a pair of salt-stained and well-worn Topsiders was a lot like Porsche ownership. You didn't flash your headlights at each other, but those aged Sperrys were as good as the secret decoder ring from a Cheerios box at identifying people who sail.

Until I got married, I never actually threw away a pair of old Topsiders. They sort of slid down the respectability ladder, going from embarrassingly new to comfortably broken in to the perfect level of well-worn. If they were a wine, they would be described as "insouciant, a bit salty, with the faintest hints of teak, varnish and bottom paint."

I don't know how Sperry survived, because I could make a Topsider last almost indefinitely. Once it reached a point where it was even too weary to be worn on the street, it became a boatyard shoe that acquired a patina of blue Interlux bottom paint and varnish. After that, it was relegated to fiberglass repairs, adding drips of resin and perhaps even threads of fiberglass cloth to the look.

When my wife took over my closet (along with every other closet in the house), she emerged holding my pair of boatyard Topsiders between her fingers the same way you might hold a dead skunk by the tail. "And these are….?" she asked.

It was a bit hard to explain, especially since I'd forgotten that one shoe had a wrapping of duct tape around the toe where the sole had pulled loose. Needless to say, they were goners.

But it was only a temporary setback, because I had a couple of other pairs of Topsiders at varying stages of the break-in process and so I was able to fill the void quickly.

It wasn't the first time I'd faced a battle over Topsiders. When I took over the editorship of a boating magazine, I continued to wear my Topsiders to work, because I never knew when I was going to be stepping onto a boat.
The powers at CBS, which owned the magazine, felt that the shoes had to go and even issued a dress-code memoranda to that end. Luckily, People Magazine that week had just run a photograph of Dan Rather, the highest paid newsman at CBS, lounging in his office with his feet up on the desk, clad in a pair of weary Topsiders that made mine look new. And, he wasn't wearing socks, either! I forwarded the photo clipped to the dress code memo and never heard another word about it.

But it's not just Topsiders, anymore. Clothing formerly reserved for offshore sailors is popping up on the fashion pages every day. I stood next to a guy in the grocery line wearing a very expensive Henri Lloyd foul weather jacket but, when I asked him what kind of boat he had, he looked at me as though I'd asked when he got back from the moon.
Nautica has a whole line of sweaters and jackets emblazoned with faux sail numbers. Paul & Shark, whose supercool sweaters and sailing clothing was once the province of European skippers, now has a retail outlet in New Jersey. And every shoe manufacturer with a sole (yipes!) has a knock-off of the original Sperry Topsider leather moccasin.

Foul weather jackets once carried an esprit that I don't think you'll find anymore, either. Years ago, I arrived by boat with sailing friends at the Royal Cork Yacht Club in Ireland, only to find that while I had pants and tie, a jacket was required as well for dinner.

"Aye, to be sure," said the aged maitre'd, "a foulie jacket is always appropriate and I'm thinkin' you'll be having one of those?"

I put on my bright orange foulie with my tie and had a lovely meal.

I was on an airliner recently when a fellow arrived at my row with a carry-on duffel bag made from Kevlar sailcloth with the patch from an international sailmaker. He tossed it in the overhead and settled in. I decided to play it cool and asked him what it was made of.

"I dunno," he said with zero interest, "my wife got it for me."

End of conversation.

So here's the deal. You can't trust anyone. Just because someone is wearing aged Topsiders, has a foul weather jacket and a deepwater tan, don't automatically assume they know how to trim a jib or throw a bowline.

P.S. Pray for me, mates. She's been eying my oldest pair of Topsiders and I'm fearing the worst.