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Sailing fun is priceless, even when it's only in your mind

2009 February 2
I suspect at least a few readers of this magazine have an acquaintance, as I do, who indulges in the annoying exercise of calculating the cost of his sailing habit down to pennies and minutes and sharing this worthless information ad nauseum.

The fellow I'm thinking about used to tally every imaginable expense deriving from the ownership of his 34-foot sloop, not just the obvious costs of commissioning, storage, upkeep, slip fees and new sails and equipment, but such trivial outlays as holding tank-compatible toilet paper, gas to drive to and from the marina, even the beer he occasionally provided for guests on afternoon sails.

True to his anal retentive nature, he logged every penny and every minute spent on the boat. At the end of the season, he added up these numbers, divided the total cost by the total usage time and came up with a cost per hour for his sailing pleasure. This resembled the hourly rate of a high-priced defense lawyer and gave my friend limitless fodder for grousing about the high cost of sailing, particularly in the northern latitudes where the sailing season is short.

If he lived in Florida, he once told me, he could sail at least twice as much and thus cut his hourly sailing cost in half.

I suggested that he move. Instead, he sold his boat. But a masochist needs to feel the pain, so he used the proceeds to buy a powerboat, timing the purchase to coincide perfectly with one of the fuel price spikes. I can imagine the moaning to his new powerboat buddies after he computed the hourly cost of operating his floating gas-guzzler.

Trying to put a dollar value on sailing enjoyment is a fool's errand. Some things truly are priceless, and I consider the joy of sailing one of them. What's more, the notion that the short season handicaps the enjoyment of sailing in the northern regions is dubious.

Of course the sailing season is short above, say, 40 degrees north. Here at latitude 43 degrees north, we are lucky to get four and a half months of decent sailing weather. But there are compensations.

For one, the pinched season causes northerners to put a premium on making good use of the sailing days that are available. Walk the docks of a marina here on a beautiful Saturday in July, and you'll find most of the sailboat slips empty, their occupants out where they should be, in the wind and waves.
Do the same thing on a beautiful Saturday in February in Marina del Rey in Los Angeles, and, judging from my visits there, you're likely to find most slips filled, their occupants looking lonely with no owners in sight, the luxuriant growth on more than a few bottoms suggesting some have been ignored for a long time.

When your sailing days are limited to a precious few, well, you treat them as precious.

Contrary to what folks in year-around sailing climates might think, days in the sailing off-season are not wasted. In fact, they are key to an intense enjoyment of sailing, for these are the times when we think about sailing. The enjoyment of anything is enhanced by anticipation. We fortunate dwellers of the frigid regions have more than six months to anticipate sailing.

All this thinking about sailing has the side benefit of making winters, and just about anything else that is unpleasant, pass by faster. My morning run, for instance. (Masochism takes many forms.)

While pounding the pavement or the beach, on most winter days into a wicked wind on either the outbound or the inbound leg that freezes my breath and turns my mustache into a bratwurst-shaped cylinder of ice, I have cruised to exotic destinations in glorious sailing conditions. I have won races, often in heroic fashion, surfing across the finish line with everything flying, our arch rival an insect-sized dot on the horizon behind us. I have bought boats.

Yes, bought boats. During one awful winter I fantasized my next boat so powerfully that by the time the ice in the harbor melted I owned it. I assured the First Mate it was our last boat. That was three boats ago. I didn't mean to mislead her. I just hadn't reckoned with the power of winter musing over sailing.
The current winter has been a doozy. It dropped the hammer on us only a few weeks after the boat was put into the boatyard shed, and since then it's been all snowstorms and cold snaps, alternating in a way that provides variety but not relief. In short, it's been a great winter for head sailing.

The beach, though, is no longer suitable for running, resembling, as it does, a region of the moon's surface sculpted by a volcanic eruption. Great chunks of ice, looking like lava rocks, or in some cases boulders, tossed far from the water's edge by a gale that brought one of the snowstorms, are frozen in place in ice banks formed by flash frozen breaking waves. Pinnacles of ice stand next to blowholes through which waves send up geysers.

Snowshoeing through this lunar landscape the other day, I replayed last year's Chicago-Mackinac Race, every nuance of wind and weather, every strategic triumph and disaster, every encounter with other boats, in fact every detail of the race retained in my brain except its last six hours, the memory of which has been erased by one of the body's amazing defense mechanisms. Mercifully lost in the black memory hole were the agonizing hours it took us to crawl the last eight miles through a windless puddle as other boats in our class rose over the horizon astern, sailing in a robust breeze, growing larger by the minute.

That's the nice thing about head sailing. You can skip the unpleasant parts. Among the unpleasant things I don't think about is the cost of my sailing fun.
That and my 401(k) balance.