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Can a sailboat outrun angst? It's a good time to find out

2009 June 9
I saw an ad in the New York Times placed by the motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson and it made me think of one of the worst weeks of my business life and one of the best weeks of my sailing life.

The ad was a two-page spread featuring bold capital letters on the blue and red stripes of a stylized American flag. It was Harley's response to a Times business story that reported motorcycle sales were slumping because in the fraught economy "few are in a mood to shell out up to $20,000 or more for what is essentially a big toy."

The ad's defiant message started with, "You can file our obit where the sun don't shine," and ended with what is now Harley's corporate motto: "Screw it. Let's ride."

It got me thinking about the times I've said, "Screw it. Let's sail."

During the bad week mentioned above I was besieged by tax auditors. Not IRS agents, but state revenue men, a pair so zealous they made their federal brethren, at least the ones I've had the (ahem) pleasure of working with, seem like generous and sensitive public servants.

The state auditors put me through the wringer slowly. For days they questioned everything and, it seemed, believed nothing, and then it was Friday, the day the First Mate and I and our two young children were to leave, bright and early, for a weeklong cruise on our C&C 33.

The kids had their duffel bags packed and were as excited as children always are when an adventure is in the offing. The boat was provisioned. The weather was perfect. And I was in the office undergoing another session of financial waterboarding.

It got worse. Toward the end of the day my torturers informed me they would be back on Monday and I could look forward to their company for another week. That was when I phoned the First Mate and said, "Screw it. Let's sail."

All right, I didn't use the biker term literally. But what I said had exactly the same meaning: "To hell with this. We're going sailing."

Having fairly keen survival skills even back then, I didn't say "screw it" to the tax men either. I simply informed them I had an important matter to attend to and would be out of the office the following week. They would have to make other plans.

The sun was poised for a gaudy descent into the western treeline when we left the dock. Soon it was dusk and the sea breeze was giving way to the soft, warm shore wind that would carry through the night. The kids crawled into their sleeping bags early and never stirred. The First Mate slipped into the quarterberth for a couple of off-watch snoozes. But I was too stimulated by the perfection of the night to be interested in sleeping.

Boats under sail are never quite silent, but the small sounds they make in gentle conditions somehow magnify an unearthly quiet. The murmur of disturbed water from the bow, a muted bubbling beneath the transom and the squeak of a misbehaving block on the mainsail traveler were but whispers in the universe. Even the wind seemed to come on tiptoes, virtually calm on deck but insistent enough aloft to heel the boat to a comfortable angle as it glided past the distant shore at 5 or 6 knots.

With an infinity of stars to steer by, my eyes could roam the black and white canopy overhead without the distraction of the lighted compass. Our course was essentially north, so Polaris was a handy reference, though a dim pinprick among a cluster of more brilliant but anonymous stars.

The seafaring novelist Patrick O'Brian wrote, in reference to the financial tribulations his lead character, Capt. Jack Aubrey, had left on shore, that "no ship could outrun care." Well, that night, and for the following week, our little ship Freelance did indeed outrun care as I sailed away from worry about the tax sharks on land.

The good vibes I brought home with me might even have affected the revenue agents. Or maybe it was just my improved attitude. Anyway, they seemed less inclined to inflict pain and wrapped up their work in a couple of days. I've forgotten the details of the modest bill they left for some tax-paying oversights, but I remember clearly how a little sailing made everything better.
It seems to me that putting into action the sailing version of the bikers' motto is right for these times. The collapse of the economy, after all, has played out with all of the angst of an endless tax audit. What better time to outrun care by going sailing?

The Harley-Davidson ad tried to say something like that in motorcycle speak, declaring that the response to "times like these" should be to "seize the throttle and give it a fearless twist forward." In other words, have fun with those expensive toys. And, by the way, please buy more of them.
Sailors can relate to that. Sure, our toys are expensive, but right now they're looking like pretty good investments. They've held their value better than the stock market, and they pay dividends-dividends in enjoyment, in escape from doubt and pessimism. Times like these are times to go sailing.

I wish Harley well. It's hurting, but it's a well-run company that has given us a true American icon. Its headquarters are located a scant 35 minutes from SAILING's headquarters (less if you're aboard a Harley Fatboy and you give the throttle a really fearless twist). The proximity means its products are ubiquitous around here in summer. Because part of the enjoyment of Harley riding is measured in decibels, many of us non-riders get to share the aural part of the experience a bit more than we'd like to.

No problem. I know how to escape the racket of those detonating Harley exhaust pipes. I just say, "Screw it. Let's sail."