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Show your boat a little love—she just might return the favor

2010 December 29

A word of warning. Everything you are about to read is absolutely true. You may choose not to believe it, to raise your eyebrows askance, to scoff at the validity of such a concept. I am not here to argue with you or try to sell you an unproven theory. I know this works. Believe it or not.

When She Who Must Be Obeyed came into my life the second time around (we were high school sweethearts who parted and didn't return to our senses for 30 years when we married), she brought a lifetime of baggage. Not just the physical possessions (which, I will say in my application for sainthood, filled seven storerooms), but mental presets as well.

Some were a little, ahem, odd. Like keeping a Christmas tree up all year, with the decorations rotating through a half-dozen holidays from Valentine's Day through Thanksgiving. But the one to which this column is dedicated has to do with naming her cars. Every car she has ever owned has had a name. There was Red, her yacht-sized red Cadillac convertible. There was Darth, a huge black SUV. And then there was Aquanetta, which is a fine example for this concept.
Aquanetta was a Chevy station wagon from the 1980s, when full-sized should have been spelled FULL-SIZED. Her name came from the fact that she had been repainted by someone with a sense of humor: she was the exact iridescent blue of a can of Aqua Net hair spray. Go figure. Nevertheless, Aquanetta was a stalwart companion early in our relationship, and she carried us tens of thousands of miles across the country to regattas and yacht clubs, back and forth to West Marine, to boatyards and launching ramps. All without a problem.

And that's the point here. She Who Must Be Obeyed always spoke to Aquanetta as if she were a living creature. She would pat her on the dashboard in the morning, talk to her while washing her windows, and see that she was fed regularly at the gas pump. And here's the weird thing: Aquanetta responded to her.

There was the time when we found ourselves 50 miles from the nearest gas station with about 20 miles of gas left (I am notorious for not paying attention to the fuel gauge). SWMBO patted Aquanetta on the dashboard and spoke quietly to her as we plodded onwards, hoping against hope to even get close enough to civilization to call Auto Club.
And Aquanetta got us to a Rob-All 7-11 store with a gas pump. There was the time that we hit a huge chunk of ragged metal at full tilt on a crowded freeway and, instead of having a catastrophic blow-out, Aquanetta simply went soft on one corner and got us to an off-ramp. Even the auto club mechanic shook his head on that one, wondering how air stayed in a tire with a five-inch slash. Thank you, Aquanetta.

Now, lest you start wondering if Caswell has totally lost his mind and forgotten that this is a sailing magazine … no, make that The SAILING Magazine, let me say that I have learned this also applies to boats as well. After thinking about SWMBO's dictum that cars treated as equals will take care of you as well, I realized that I have done this with boats too. Back in the day, I raced a gorgeous mahogany Flying Dutchman. She hadn't been gorgeous when I bought her: she was tired and rotted and covered with white house paint. But I spent every evening and weekend for one winter stripping and patching and laying on a dozen coats of loving varnish. And then I christened her Sabre, as in the dueling sword.

And so I found myself on the starting line one day having made an immense mistake: I thought I could port tack the entire fleet and, about one second after the gun, realized I couldn't make it. But I patted the varnished deck and, to this day, my crew says I was begging, "Oh, please, Sabre, help me here, help me." And I crossed the entire fleet.
So how did that happen? Was it a last minute shift that I didn't notice? Was it a fleet of hackers? Was it a bunch of people who took mercy on an obvious half-wit and ducked my stern?

No, I think it was Sabre, sailing high and fast to pay me back for those endless sheets of sandpaper and cans of varnish. Another time, I was about to depart the harbor aboard my little ketch Royalty on a blustery day. I was sitting by the mizzen when, ping! I heard something hit the deck next to my foot. Looking down, I saw a cotter pin lying by the caprail. It had to come from somewhere, so I gave the nearest shroud a good shake. And it came loose in my hand! With the pin gone, the shroud was in place only by habit and, within minutes of hitting the first sea, the whole tree would have come down. But Royalty warned me beforehand. I could go on and on with examples of how a boat saved my sorry rear, but the point is a simple one. We all name our boats, or most of us do, anyway. If you don't, it's time to get with the program. But more important, you need to talk to your boats as a friend. Make sure they know you care. Wash them and polish them and patch their sails and paint their bottoms. Because you never know when you will need them to give you something impossible. Something unattainable. You can trust She Who Must Be Obeyed on this one: boats (and cars) listen to you and will respond to your affections.