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Technology can get the best of sailors, even if it’s a duffel bag

2009 May 1
My wife slid out of her chair, clutching her sides and gasping for air. No, I didn't think I should call 911. I was actually thinking about saying something caustic to her, because she wasn't having a seizure and wasn't about to die.

She was in the throes of uncontrollable, hysterical laughter.

I was trying on my 100th pair of sunglasses and it only took one look to put her into this convulsive state.

"You look….," she said, before relapsing into laughter. "You look…," she tried again. "Just like Ben Franklin, right after the kite thing."

"No, wait, you're David Crosby before the new kidney and after a bad night."

Like so many things, it started innocently. I sat on my favorite pair of sunglasses. These were from the Blues Brothers era, I think, although youngsters assumed that I was copying Men in Black. Either way, they were largish, very dark and very comfortable. Most important was that they gave these sailors' eyes a break from glare.

We were in one of those super sporting goods stores, where there were about a zillion choices in sunglasses. She had settled into a chair while I approached the counter. I asked where the polarized lenses were and the clerk asked, "How technical do you want?"

I must have looked puzzled, because she attempted to educate an imbecile: "You know, do you want vents, side panels, automatic lenses, colors for skiing or bass fishing, polycarb or nylon, anti-fog, spring hinges?"

Most of my experience shopping for sunglasses was at a corner drugstore, on a wire rack where the most expensive shades were 10 bucks. These ran into the hundreds.

"Uh, how about those?" I said, pointing. She Who Must Be Obeyed said I looked like Yoko Ono. And so it went, until I finally slunk out, sunglassless and defeated.

I still had a good pair of dark polarized lenses, "my charter shades," which I used when navigating through reefs. They were intended for mountain climbers and I fancied I looked like Sir Edmund Hillary, although I probably looked more like one of his Sherpas. They would have to do until I could get to a drugstore.

Fast forward a couple of months. I was heading off to sea and even I had to admit that the great duffel bag I'd bought from Baxter & Cicero about four decades ago was ready for Duffel Heaven. It probably had a hundred thousand sea miles on it, and didn't look like it wanted more.

I presented myself at The Big Marine Hardware Store, asking the clerk as I walked in, "Where are the duffel bags?"

"How technical do you want?" he asked innocently.

"Ummmm," I replied definitively.

Once again, explanations for the complete dolt. "Well, your choices will be polyester or coated PVC, inner liners, mesh for drying wet clothes, roller wheels or handles, dry sacks, backpacks, waterproof or water-resistant …," his voice trailed off.

My mind flashed to the time when I was sitting in one of those inter-island puddlejumper airplanes, en route to a charter somewhere. Looking out the window, I saw the baggage crew run for shelter as a tropical downpour engulfed them. I also saw my duffel bag sitting on the tarmac. It was acting like a sponge to dry the runway, in the process soaking all my clothes, the spy novel I'd brought for reading, and filling my shaving kit with water.

"Waterproof," I said, emphatically.

But after looking at shelves full of choices in a multitude of colors, shapes and sizes, while trying to decide between inconvenient but watertight roll-down closures or sort-of-watertight zippers, I gave up. My old duffel was getting a death row reprieve.

Not long afterward, I was again in the Big Box Marine Hardware Store. This time it was a foul weather jacket. My personal Dr. Kildare has put me on some medication that makes me so hungry my wife checks in the morning to see if I've eaten the cat. I've puffed up like the Michelin Man. I am the nautical Pillsbury Dough Boy. And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get the Velcro hooks to reach the Velcro loops on my old jacket. Sigh.

I found the racks of foulies and a helpful clerk stopped and asked … wait for it … "How technical do you want?"

This time, the choices seemed to be if I wanted to retain water or shed sweat, keep warm or stay cool, hoods, storm collars, built-in harnesses, hydrophilic or microporous, and more. Once again, I was clearly over my head. I decided to keep the old jacket and just learn to live with a wet racing stripe down the front of my T-shirt.

After buying a new computer last summer, I took a junior college class to learn how to use some of the software. I was surrounded by a sea of 18-year-olds who understood everything with great clarity, while I floundered helplessly.

I clearly need a junior college course in technical. I just don't get it.