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A sailing story in five chapters

2019 March 1

Sailors usually have more stories than their nonsailing friends have the patience to hear. Surround a sailor with sailing friends and liquid refreshments and colorful and unforgettable tales will flow unabated. Here is one told by a favorite salt, re-written as close to word-for-word as allowable by proper publishing norms:

“The heavyset skipper went below in rough weather, stripped his top layers and pin-balled into the head and closed the door. Minutes later, on a big wave, the door crashed open as he was ejected ass over teakettle and landed upside down in a port-side wet locker; bibs around his ankles and holding the unfurled roll of TP on a thumb. The driver reported witnessing a large naked man flying across the cabin with a comet’s tail of double-ply and shouting expletives. The skipper wasn’t hurt, but the foredeck crew who didn’t divert their eyes while pulling him out by his boots still suffer PTSD.”

We could retell (and embellish or tone-down) outlandish sailing events endlessly. Instead, let’s broaden our focus to the story of a lifetime of sailing, by breaking that lifetime into five chapters. One or more may feel familiar to you.

The Chapters of a Sailing Lifetime:

1. Seat of the Pants

2. Art and Science

3. The Campaign

4. Stretching Limits

5. Paying it Forward

A sailing life can start very young and end with old age, or start in middle age and end, again, with old age. No matter when it starts, a person who identifies as a lifelong sailor transitions through similar chapters, in roughly the same order.

Do you recall your first sailboat ride? Mine was on a waterlogged summer-camp C-scow when I was 7 or 8. The noise, speed, off-balance, spray and excitement are etched into memory. Initially, the idea that motion can come from wind and water seems like magic. So for months or years after a first experience, we sail by the seat of our pants, testing the limits of heel and pointing, waves and wind velocity, and gradually learning that things on a sailboat work in a certain way, but not necessarily understanding why. Seat of the pants sailing is sensory.

With enough basic experiences, a sailor starts to see patterns that nonsailors can’t see and to explain them with numbers or shapes and in an all new vocabulary. For example, no newbie can distinguish a well-trimmed mainsail from an over-trimmed one. A sailor grasping the art and the science learns to talk in terms of geometries—lines, curves and angles—and physics—energy, mass and weight. It’s a language that helps describe the sensations felt while seat of the pants sailing, but in a way that can be shared with other sailors, creating a new opportunity.

With that fluency, a sailor teams with others to stack rich communal experiences; sometimes on a race course or on weekend excursions to favorite destinations. Call this chapter “The Campaign,” because instead of being about one sailboat or one event, it is a multiyear social contract with a common goal to perform or advance or reach something not reachable alone. The campaign is where the deepest sailing friendships are forged and is often the fodder for tall tales, like the one about the somersaulting skipper.

Then, to stretch the limits, sailors ask: What else can we do with these skills? Where else can we go? Who else can we involve? Sailors who reach this chapter are more likely to use sailing for outreach: sometimes to head for a distant shore, but more often, to actively involve non-sailors wherever they are. It’s a time of satisfying progress, where we confirm that sailing isn’t just about weekends or races, but about building community.

Finally, we all know sailors who are paying it forward by volunteering at their local school to transfer skills by building or repairing boats, or teaching learn-to-sail programs, or who bequeath a boat or a nest-egg to a worthy sailing not-for-profit. Raise a glass to them. Theirs is the sailing that makes all other sailing possible.

Every sailing story is one of living in our time. May yours not need to include the phrase “ass over teakettle.”