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Nothing says you’re a sailor like a scruffy, well-worn duffel

2020 February 1

To be a real sailor is more than knowing your knots and how to trim sails for the conditions. It’s also looking the part. Just as Boy Scouts have merit badges, so too do sailors have their status symbols, and there are a number of items that not only establish your credentials as a sailor, but make it easy for others to spot them.

In my last column, I discussed the issue of clothing, suggesting that paying more than $10 for a sailing outfit is going overboard to use a sailing term. Buying the most expensive technical sailing clothing is almost a sure sign of a poseur. Real sailors wear well-worn, comfy and disposable. 

Other items that display your ranking as a sailor include sailing hats, bo’sun’s knives, deck shoes, sailing gloves and sunglasses. But there’s more to it than just walking into a marine hardware store and buying one of everything. Fear not, all these symbols will be discussed in future columns. For now, I’m going to examine the first sailing badge that others see—the duffel bag. It’s right there in full view as you stroll out on the dock, and much more visible than the hole in your shorts or the salt on your deck shoes.

In all modesty, I speak as a Master Duffeler and this was brought home to me by She Who Must Be Obeyed last weekend. I hadn’t noticed it on
my calendar, but apparently it was “Thin Out the Duffel
Herd” weekend. 

SWMBO had been in what I used to think of as my closet, emerging with a duffel bag more than a half-century old, held delicately between forefinger and thumb. If any gesture could say “Ewwwww,” it was this one. A rat held by its tail had nothing on my poor duffel. “Isn’t it about time …” she said, leaving the remainder of the sentence to my imagination. 

“To throw this out?” I thought. “To burn this?” “To call in a hazmat team?”

I admit it. I’m an inveterate duffel collector. I don’t think I really have the “dozens and dozens of them” that SWMBO claimed I had, but I do think my collection is close to qualifying for the Smithsonian. 

I have duffels dating back to 1963, my last year in high school, when I worked in a marine hardware store. But the pride of my collection are the collectible duffels.  

Collectable duffels are used in the same way athletes might wear their Super Bowl or World Series rings. They are kept in locked vaults and removed only when you want to impress the holy crap out of someone.

My collectible duffels include one from Raul Gardini’s 1992 America’s Cup campaign that is embroidered in gold with the Venetian lion, a couple of stylish ones from the Olympics, and a Tag Heuer dark green one, probably from the America’s Cup in Australia. These collectibles are never actually taken aboard a boat, because they might get scuffed, just as true collectors never remove Barbie Dolls from their boxes for fear of damage. Barbiephiles even have a term for it: NRFB (Never Removed From Box) is the highest accolade of perfection. I have a gloriously, stupidly expensive duffel from Italian clothier Paul & Shark that I would never take anywhere except the Yacht Club d’ Monaco. Definitely NRFB.

A lot of my duffels have clearly seen better years, because I think airline baggage handlers take a special delight in mishandling them, or perhaps they view duffels as a personal challenge to their talents. I’m absolutely sure that a couple of my duffels never made it into the baggage hold of the aircraft, but were dragged along the entire runway during landing and take-off. Perhaps they were lashed to the landing gear. You get the picture. Nasty.

Still, my collection starts with a vintage Baxter & Cicero Sailmakers bag from Southern California circa 1963 that has seen more Mexico races than I even remember. More current versions from Harken, North Sails, Lands’ End and Gill pad out the compilation. 

Just as postage stamps grow in rarity with changes in the world, such as when Siam became Thailand or Burma became Myanmar, the same holds true for duffels. I have two colorful duffels from Albury’s Sail Shop on Man-o-War Cay in the Bahamas, which was trashed by Hurricane Dorian last year. While I know that Albury’s will spring back soon, my pre-Dorian duffels have soared in value.

Side note: Dorian blew the roof and sides off Albury’s shop and the entire island was dotted with brightly colored duffels, totes and other sewn goodies. On the beaches, in the remaining trees, under piles of trash. In a lovely touch, islanders gathered up all the Albury bags they could find and presented them to rescuers helping restore their island. 

Some thoughts about duffeling (who knew it was a verb?). First, the more pockets and pouches on the exterior the better. These don’t have to be filled, but even if you just put one sock in each, it gives the appearance of important “sailing gear” inside.

Size is important, as in everything, but it depends on what you’re doing. It seems obvious that you’d need a bigger duffel for an Around the World Race than for an afternoon daysail, while a Transpac race would fall somewhere in between. I have one from L.L. Bean that is so big you could probably stuff one or two stowaways inside in comfort. 

A duffel was originally a large bag thrown over a sailor’s shoulder as they trudged up a square-rigger gangplank. Made of a canvaslike fabric with a drawstring around the top, sailors from Lord Nelson’s time onwards have kept all their belongings and treasures in their duffel, which sailors and marines sometimes called a sea bag.

Ever wonder about where the odd word “duffel” came from? The word comes from Duffel, a town near Flanders in Belgium, that made the thick cloth for the original duffels in the 17th century. This was a coarse woven cloth with a thick nap, and it was also the basis for the duffel coat popular with sailors to this day.

The duffel has been embraced by a new generation, who like to call it a gym bag, for getting sweaty workout clothes home from yoga class. As a result, there are a number of modifications that have taken place in duffels over the years. 

The original intent was to have soft-sided luggage that could be tucked into any nook or cranny on a boat, unlike hard-sided luggage that was unmanageable on anything short of a megayacht. Duffels are practically required equipment for bareboat charters, and woe betide any bareboater who asks the charter company if they can store their suitcase in the office during a charter. 

Other additions to the traditional duffel include hard bottoms (to slow the baggage handlers down a bit) and wheels to help you roll your duffel from Gate 1 to Gate 427 as you change planes. Zippers and Velcro have replaced the old-fashioned drawstring, which never had to face a baggage carousel. 

Materials, oh my! My 1963 duffel was made from the same material that the sailmaker used to make covers for my early racing dinghies, meaning it was tough, ugly and canvaslike. 

Modern duffels make use of even tougher sailmaking fabrics such as Kevlar (a bulletproof duffel?) and ballistic nylons. They also have inside pockets for everything from wet bathing suits to laptop computers to shoes, and you need a map to find all the zippers.

One bit of wisdom about duffels that I can pass along is to make sure they are waterproof. It isn’t that I came up with this all by myself. As I was sitting in an inter-island puddle jumper en route to a bareboat charter, I saw my duffel bag sitting on the runway in the pouring rain. So, if you want that trashy spy novel tucked in your duffel to be readable during your charter and not a mushy lump, go waterproof.

SWMBO and I did weed out a couple of duffels that clearly had exceeded their sail-by date: ancient brass zippers corroded into frozenness, handles half-torn off (thank you American Airlines), and only a faint vestige of their original color showing through the grime and grease. SWMBO grudgingly gave up on tossing any more, but I’m penciling in D-Day (Duffel Day) on my calendar in 12 months. 

In the meantime, I’ve been trying to think up a way to point out that she has never used a Louis Vuitton America’s Cup bag that was given to her by Bruno Troublé, who headed up the America’s Cup Louis Vuitton Challenge Series for years. 

I expect to learn a great deal from how she handles it.