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Notice to declutterers: Sailing stuff is meant to be saved

2009 May 1
It may surprise you that the buzzword of this trying year is not "bailout" or "stimulus." No, it's "declutter."

The word signifies a nationwide movement bordering on revolution that inspires cultlike zealotry and has spawned businesses, best-selling books, television programs, Web sites and highly paid consultants, not to mention giving new focus to uncountable numbers of once aimless lives. Google it and you'll get millions of results.

Declutter means throwing stuff away.

I'm over simplifying, of course. Decluttering is not easy; it demands skill and discipline. That's why there are so many decluttering experts out there selling their advice. What's more, it's the antidote to the addiction of acquisition, which apparently is a widespread condition, because there is a 12-step program (I'm not making this up) to break the awful cycle of acquiring and cluttering.

I pride myself on being in the vanguard of popular trends. Granted, my record isn't perfect-I predicted the Internet would dry up and blow away into cyberspace a few months after Al Gore invented it. But I've always been on the leading edge of decluttering household possessions. In fact, I've been doing it since it was still called throwing stuff away.

Not only that, I've become somewhat of a decluttering evangelist. Just the other day I urged the First Mate to declutter what I like to call the Imelda Marcos wing of her clothes closet and shed some of her shoe collection. This was not well received. Her response (after editing) was something like this: You're a fine one to talk about decluttering! You've accumulated so much sailing clutter you had to build a special building to store it! It's your big manly man cave stuffed with sailboat junk! And don't you dare call my shoes clutter! (Exclamation points hers.)

Let me set the record straight. It's a multipurpose building, not a warehouse for sailing clutter. It's true that it features a fairly large space designated for the storage, display, maintenance and admiration of sailing equipment, fitted with oversize racks for bags of sails, rails for hanging running rigging, a foul-weather gear section, numerous shelves for hardware and other items and a workbench. But its contents are not clutter, which is why decluttering is not appropriate here. You don't declutter finely engineered tools of sailing, objects of utility and functional beauty collected in a lifetime of messing about in boats.

I don't keep these things out of nostalgic attachment. Well, in one case I do. I am a little sentimental about the 1970s radio direction finder that is on prominent display on one of the shelves. I treasure the memory of how we were usually able to find out where we were in spite of this ridiculous and misnamed device that rarely found radio signals, much less our position.

The other objects have intrinsic value. Consider this real-life example: My daughter and her husband asked a professional tree cutter to quote on the removal of several large trees on their property and received a bid that was beyond their budget. But then it turned out that the arborist was a sailor who was restoring an old boat and was willing to barter the tree work for some sailing hardware, including winch handles. My daughter knew exactly where to go to find this currency, and dad came through with two splendid handles, a lightweight aluminum model and a double-grip unit stamped with the Harken Barbarossa marque. The latter is both a collectible, dating to the time when Harken winches were made in the Barbarossa plant in Italy, and, as a massive implement made of chromed bronze, an example of the brute-force era of sailing hardware design. (The scrap value alone would probably pay for a few hours of chain saw work.) The deal was made, the trees are gone, the winch handles have a good home.

Note to self: Point out to the First Mate that another investment in sailing equipment has paid off handsomely.

Many of the items in my collection are no longer used for their primary purpose because they're too big-giants in the lilliputian world of today's elegantly slim sailboat hardware. But that doesn't mean these tools aren't useful.

Recently I was able to accomplish the removal of a disused basketball backboard and pole from the edge of our driveway-in itself a commendable act of decluttering, I would say-with the help of a hefty 40-year-old Schaefer bronze and rubber snatch block and a 7/16-inch Warpspeed Dyneema Double Braid mainsheet. The pole was deep in the ground, encased in concrete. Digging didn't loosen it. But I popped it out easily by hanging the block from an overhead tree branch (attached with several turns of 3/8-inch Kevlar, the core of an old genoa sheet) tying the mainsheet to the pole with a timber hitch, passing the bitter end through the block and connecting it to my truck. The mainsheet turned rigid as a steel bar under the load, but the line never wavered. Neither did the block, which was probably strong enough to lift the truck.

One of the attributes of my collection is that it is a tangible history of the evolution of sailing gear, which has been marked by progressive miniaturization. Among my most prized possessions are a pair of spreacher blocks, each of which is about the size and shape of a ukulele, but weighing, I'd guess, 10 or 15 times as much. Though not ancient, dating to the early 1990s, they seem prehistoric beside the tiny, light-as-air blocks that have replaced them. The spreachers were attached to the boat by sturdy stainless steel shackles with 5/16-inch pins. Their replacements are tied on with Spectra line. I wouldn't be surprised to hear it's stronger than the shackles.

No artifact better illustrates the shrinking phenomenon than one that keeps its place in my repository of sailing oddments purely for its educational value-my first GPS receiver. Several hundred thousand of today's GPS cell phone chips would fit in the space it occupies, which is approximately the same as a countertop microwave oven.

As for decluttering, it was a mistake to raise the subject with the First Mate. The other day she suggested I hold a garage sale to declutter my building constructively by giving others who appreciate fine sailing equipment an opportunity to possess these valuable pieces.

Terrific idea, but, sorry, I will never declutter my sailing stuff. I might, however, consider opening a museum.