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You can tell a crack racing crew from the thunder down below

2008 February 17
Blessed be the snorers. These grunters, snorters, groaners, huffers and whistlers are annoying. Let me modify that-they are obnoxious, particularly when they broadcast their unbearable cacophony in the cramped confines of a sailboat cabin. But they have my respect. In fact, I envy them. These creatures are perfectly adapted to sailing. Creatures like me, on the other hand, must have a link missing in the evolutionary chain stretching back to that eureka moment when man or another primate first launched a raft and raised a mammoth skin or whatever to catch the wind: We can't sleep on a sailboat.

My last sound sleep on a sailboat occurred some time in the last quarter of the 20th century, at the dock, after a three-day race during which I did not close my eyes, following a hearty Mount Gay breakfast. This contrasts with the snorers whom I envy-they get a sound sleep every minute they're off watch.

No matter how appalling the sleeping conditions-insane motion, pounding noise, funky atmosphere including noxious odors, soaking berths, paralyzing cold, excruciating heat, swarming flies-they are asleep the instant they assume the prone position, unconsciously boasting about it with their thundering snores, refreshing themselves in dreamland until vigorously shaken by a crewmate at the time of a watch change or all-hands-on-deck event.

The ability to sleep at will on a boat is a remarkable gift. Years of observing it have convinced me it belongs only to those who snore.
I don't. The First Mate begs to differ, but that's another story. Snoring on dry land doesn't count. I think my problem dates to my first adventures as a skipper in offshore races. My crew was-shall we say?-learning. After the time I went below to try to get some shut-eye, dozed a bit before waking in a strange state of disorientation and rushed on deck to find the boat sailing nicely but exactly 180 degrees off course-making progress toward the starting line instead of the finish-I seemed to have lost the ability to sleep. Traumatic experiences will do that.

I have long since rid myself of the conceit that I'm indispensable on deck. The veteran sailors in the crew now certainly don't need my around-the-clock presence. Still, there's that unreasonable but nagging thought that something bad will happen if I leave my post. Like, for example, that jibe I think would be a big mistake but the watch captain is certain would be a master tactical stroke. I'm pretty sure the minute I duck below it will be . . . jibe-oh!

Captains have been obsessing forever about giving up control of their ship. That's why the telltale compass was invented. I never had one of those over my berth, but I will admit to thinking of taking a handheld GPS to bed with me. The COG and SOG functions would speak volumes about what's happening on deck.

The fact is, though, you don't need these instruments to know what's going on on one of today's high-performance boats, even when you're below trying to sleep. The boat will tell you. These thin-skinned vessels not only telegraph sounds, they amplify them. In the owner's berth under the cockpit, not even the snores reverberating from the main cabin can muffle the messages from the boat. And I wonder why I can't sleep?

A one-inch trim of the genoa sheet generates a clicking and clanking of winch pawls and gears that resembles the din released by opening a door to a machine shop. A tack is an aural replay of the storming the Bastille. Voices pass through the laminate like the proverbial hot knife through butter. So I hear the debate leading up to maneuvers like that dubious jibe. More often than not, when I rush on deck to weigh in, I arrive just in time to duck under the boom crossing the cockpit.

There is one boat noise, however, that is not jarring, but soothing, and is in fact the best sound a sailboat can make-the resonance of the hull passing through water. To an experienced ear, it is a reliable speedometer.
If you could accurately describe the particular sounds of the water heard through the hull at various velocities, you could create a scale of boat speed akin to the Beaufort Scale of wind speed. Force 1 might be 2 to 4 knots, the burble of a gently flowing stream; Force 10-15 to 20 knots, the sustained roar of a massive waterfall.

It's more difficult to explain my inability to sleep while cruising. The pressure's off, it's time to relax. In theory, yes, but there's still plenty on a skipper's mind, not just while sailing, but at anchor too. Especially at anchor. Anyone who can sleep more than two hours at a time while at anchor possesses either battleship-worthy ground tackle or a lot more confidence in anchoring skills than I have. It helps too if they haven't had the experience, as I have, of waking up anchored in a different place than you were when you hit your bunk.
All this wakefulness takes a toll. I'm pretty much wasted toward the end of any race that lasts more than 36 hours. The snorers, on the other hand, are chipper as can be, energetic trimmers and tailers in the last miles, the life of the party after the finish.

So here's a tip. If you're putting together a racing crew, do your due diligence, find out who among the candidates are snorers, and sign them up.