Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | January 13, 2010

Dark and Stormy

Those familiar with a Dark and Stormy will know the ingredients may be hard to come by, but it blows away the Old Fashioned. Hard part is coming up with the right Ginger Beer to mix with your Dark Rum… but like the weather, it requires less art as things tend to mix on their own.

What brings this to mind is my chancing upon the photo below from the Sailing Anarchy website. From a race off the coast of Sardinia, it reminds me of the photos from the Boxing Day 1998 Sydney Hobart race where loss of life was relatively steep.

Rolex IMS World Championships – Porto Cervo, Sardinia. It was 8 knots, then the sky went green and we had 50 knots for 10 minutes, then 8 knots again. The water level rose 10ft for those 10 minutes leaving a 50ft yacht high on the rocks clear of the water (in an area of no tide!) Thanks to our pals at Kos Picture Source Ltd.

I’m not sure what it is, but there’s always been a streak within some of us that enjoys a balance between exhiliration and terror. As a kid, I remember running outside to feel the wind as the summer storms would come up on shore – not hesitating (much) even as major tree branches would drop nearby. When on the water, I loved those races back to the harbor as the winds stiffened and shifted as they do right before a squall leaving you to sail right up to the edge of a capsize. Gets your attention as it quickens the pulse.  Of course the truth is that most similar activities are were well within an easy range of safety… so whatever risks incurred were within a margin, and readily escaped when the margin vanishes.

Things are different on the open water, or anywhere you become more conscious of the risks involved, and your responsibilities to others. The fact that the man-in-charge is responsible for every guest 100% of the time until they disembark tends to  change your life. Think about what this would mean for us if we approached all our encounters with each other this way.  Makes you want to up your training, study and learn to evaluate and work your options, learn to gauge the weather, and constantly scour the horizon for changes and threats as they arise. But no matter how much you do and how much you prepare, you know only that you’ll never actually anticipate when you’ll be tested… or whether. But when that day comes, you also know you’ll be tried – if you’re tried at all – in every which way at once to the point of overwhelming your capacity to respond, your ability to think, your strength and everything you have.  Some as in the Sydney Hobart race – won’t come back no matter how well prepared and outfitted they may have been. Others who were neither will.

For some, sailing is only an excuse and a measure of training for larger races… like the race of life itself, or the race for salvation. Yes, there’s a starting sequence… but it went off long ago, probably before you were aware of it. And yes there’s also a final gun… but you probably won’t be in condition to be aware of that either. What matters is the course you set, how you respond to the elements, how you respond to that nasty habit of the Race Committee’s to keep resetting the marks, and whether you sail with Corinthian spirit. This last bit often gets lost among the newbies, but the old timers try to pass down the need to ignore the rules and whatever advantages you expect through the formal recourse of lodging a  “protest”… and simply outsail whoever fouls your course. Yes, you can and need to be that much better.. and it is only by actually doing better… not by merely alleging that you would have had someone not gotten in the way… that you will win the respect of the other you initially set out to win anyway. As a judge once famously responded to the endless protests of an America’s Cup challenge, “Settle it on the water.”

If only life were like a one design fleet: the boats would all be the same, and the racing even on this account. There might be some differences, but they would tend to balance out. College races run their series and switch boats between races anyway… just to be sure. So what differs is the nature, the skill, and experience of the skippers and the decisions they make. And we’re never even here because we are each in a different time and space, and changing the continuum around us. I don’t see how this is much different for us.

I’ve sailed with a number of guys who used to race with my Dad. Fact is, that’s often the start of an interesting conversation… and the pause while they gauge me and I gauge them in turn can be quite telling.  See, I’ve had the honor and good fortune of working with my Dad for 20 plus years prior to his retirement… and as the only guy to ever stick with him over a long period of time, I know the good, the bad and the ugly (Message to self: My kids know the same!)… so I generally let them say their piece. They think what they think, and they’re entitled to their thoughts. Some , he’s saved their lives and are thankful; others less so, and others almost cost him his life, too. There’s always some backstory involved… and some reason to pause as to whether the comments were in fact  directed more at the listener…or at the absent subject.

But after one wet, nasty stinking cold November win, a fellow said, “You know… your Dad was one heckuva S.O.B. out there… he used language I’d never… but you know the most maddening thing… was he was right. Heckuva sailor back then.” And I’d add you never ever once doubted whose interest he was fighting for: it was always your interest he put first. And yes, it’s maddening when you can’t see your own best interest… but that’s the way of so many things for so many of us (self included) sometimes. Some of us have to try every wrong way we can before we’re willing to try the right way someone else points out to us. It’s not necessarily the way of things… but it is the way of kids, and the way of so much of life. Heck, I’d even venture some of us have to try every wrong church… try some of them until they literally burn them down…. until we come to the right place. But that’s probably over-doing it, and the truth is that coming to the right place under that sort of path ain’t exactly worth kudos, huh? I mean… I came… but we won’t go there.

Anyway, you know you’ve grown up and grown close to someone when you catch yourself telling their jokes about the foibles and inability to claim credit for what goes right,  and when their humility such as it is, becomes one you appeal to because there’s no escaping it’s humility earned through the same errors you’re making too, and when no matter how much or whatever it is they throw at you, and they throw a lot trying to drive you off into an easier line of work… you can keep at it, keep working together, keep focused, and keep loving each other… because at the end of the day… that’s what it is about.  So sure there were easier ways to make a living, but they’re lonelier. And sure there are better paid ways out there, but maybe you’d rather make the compromises you’re comfortable with rather than the ones you’re not. And all the rest… the good and  the bad is simply a fancy excuse to keep a stupid roof over your stupid head… when you’d both rather be on the water… wet or dry.

So sailing has its problems… whether its at a desk or on the water… but mostly its sailors who have these, and not the sport. And yes there are indeed Vanderbilts, Ellisons, Disneys and the like who sail, so you’re free to “dis” the whole of it if you want. But for the most part, the wealth and privilege thing is long gone, and what’s left is that no matter who you think you are, on the water and before the wind, we’re all the same. Big folks and small folks, smart and not so… and all have their places and critical roles to fill. Balance is important and with time it gets easier to set. Of course, youth helps too, and most sailors are in their twenties and early thirties, but very, very few actually own a boat. Those that do, usually have something simple that began as a “project” they fixed up. And now whether it’s a Laser, Sunfish, Hobie Cat or something else it’s still not fancy. As my wife says, some are no more than “locker rooms that float”, and while others set their sights on the Taj Mahal… but at the end of the day, even the “Taj” is only one storm away from a shambles. With today’s innovation, if you’re thinking “boring as watching the grass grow or paint peel” you need to look again. In the UK, it’s even a spectator sport to come out and watch the B49’s capsize. Sure, plenty of suntanning moments still happen, and they lull many into thinking this is sooo easy… which it is… until shattered by one of those ten minute interludes of stark raving terror. But that’s what keeps us going.

And that would be my point too: We’ll wait our whole lives for that moment when all this Church business matters. We might even become Orthodox for the ascetic training. And yet as that begins to wear in, even here we might start to think we’ll never be tested and can slack off. And yet I’d bet that no matter whether we’re hierarchs, fancy or plain old folks… we will in fact be tested… even if it’s just a matter of whether we brought lotion with a high enough SPF. And yes, our very own ten minutes are coming. Don’t let them find you a fair weather sailor.


  1. Awesome. I once rowed a 12 foot aluminum boat across a lake in a headwind and choppy water. That’s my “Tale of the Ancient Mariner” and I’m sure it has its own metaphor-for-life too.

  2. Bravo SP…those 12 foot aluminum boats have no skeg… and the wind will take it every which way but the way you wanna go. So yeah… it’s a tale.

    Actually… I just liked the sky in the photo. The whole “Wrath Unredeemed Nature” thing. And isn’t that more Orthodox than “Wrath of God”??? I mean… we don’t do W-O-G, right? or am I confused?

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