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Imagine what you might miss on a weekend left unsailed

2009 February 2
As the 2008 holiday travel crunch drifted into memory (or into nightmares for those who endured the blizzards and ice storms that swept the nation) and millions of travelers laden with gifts struggled through airports to get home, I was reminded of a truism.

There is a saying in the airline industry that a seat unsold is a seat lost. Once the crew slams the door and pushes back from the gate, any empty seat is gone forever as revenue. There is simply no way to turn an airline seat into income unless someone has their tush planted in it.

It is, for want of a better phrase, a perishable commodity. The same is true of a cabin on a cruise ship: unfilled staterooms at departure mean no revenue.
There are, however, so many things in life with a "shelf life" that we sometimes take everything for granted. Yesterday's bananas can become banana bread. When I come home with a pocket full of change (yes, all guys hate loose change in their pockets), I can toss it into a bowl for my wife to claim as her own. Buy a six-pack of beer and drink four, well, you'll have a couple of beers cold in the fridge for future use.

But sailing days, I've come to realize, are as perishable as airplane seats. Once unused, they're gone forever. A weekend unsailed can't be refrigerated until you need it. When you don't sail on a sunny afternoon with a good breeze, it doesn't go into some celestial savings account to gather interest until you're ready to cast off.

As I grow older, I've realized that these "lost weekends" don't come from a bottomless well. For each of us, there are a finite number of sailing weekends-52 a year to be precise, unless you live somewhere so cold that you only get a fourth of those. Multiply that by the number of years you expect to hang around, and there you've got it: your personal allotment of sailing weekends.

When I was young, missing a weekend of sailing wasn't really a crisis, because the rest of my life stretched off into a haze of future, and besides, we all think we're immortal when we're young. Missing a day or two of sailing when you're young is like losing a watch in Switzerland: there are plenty of replacements.

As a guess, I figure I've had somewhere around 2,500 sailing weekends available for my pleasure. That's not counting the beer can races on summer evenings or the charters in the islands or even the commitment to a weeklong regatta once or twice a year. No, this is just the number of regular weekends I've had on my calendar since I learned to sail.

Sadly, I didn't sail every one of them. There was one year I can remember when I used every weekend for either racing or cruising or practicing or simply fooling around on the water. But that was just one year out of 50.

As you look back, there are a lot of really good excuses for not going sailing. Earning a living seems to get in the way, as do family commitments to everything from soccer games to birthday parties. School plays, recitals, graduations and weddings are all scheduled by non-sailors to conflict with our pleasure.

But I now realize that many of my non-sailing weekends were frittered away by "musts" that really weren't. It's often said that no one engraves on their tombstone, "I wish I'd spent more time at work." The same can be said for everything from mowing the front lawn to washing the car, painting the shutters to dusting the bookshelf.

My mother, who was ready to go sailing at the drop of a hint, had a saying that, when she was learning calligraphy, she turned into a lovely framed epigram that I now keep on my bookcase: "No one ever died from an unmade bed." Good advice.

As I was considering the number of perfectly great sailing days that I'd squandered over the years, I realized that two of my most important sailing days almost didn't happen.

My college buddy, Eric, and I were going to race a borrowed 28-footer in a one-day regatta but we needed to ferry the boat down the coast. At first, we were just going to get it down during the previous week and then we decided to make an evening of it, inviting a couple of ladies to accompany us on our voyage.

It was only 20 miles or so, but it was a warm evening with a mild breeze. My date amazed me by volunteering to cook, which meant heating up the can of Dinty Moore beef stew and pouring plastic glasses full of Red Mountain or some similar plonk. She further intrigued me by adding a splash of the red wine to the Dinty Moore. It was a great meal, and she has been in my life as She Who Must Be Obeyed for more than four decades. Eric? He married his date, too. Not a weekend sail to have missed for either of us.

A few years later, as a hot young ad agency exec, I had planned to crew in a Snipe Nationals hosted by my yacht club, but had begged off because I had "too much work."

At the last minute, perhaps encouraged by the knowledge that the Snipe class throws great parties, I volunteered to run one of the Boston Whaler rescue boats for the series. It was a grueling regatta for sailors and rescue boats alike: gobs of wind and big seas that didn't sit well with many of the Snipers more used to lake sailing.

Tired and muscle-weary from righting capsized Snipes, I found myself at the club bar after the trophy presentation chatting with a natty out-of-towner who seemed interested by my freelance writing efforts. "You ought to write for us," he said, handing me the business card of Knowles Pittman, publisher of the newly launched One-Design Yachtsman magazine.

It was to be my first job in boating journalism and, like that first sail with She Who Must Be Obeyed, it has led to more than four decades of sheer pleasure.
Just goes to show you: you only have so many sailing weekends. Let one get away, and you never know what you'll miss.