Originally published in February 2009 issue
Winter is biting deep now, and there isn’t a lot of sailing to be had in my local creek. It’s a grim scene in business too, so all I can say is thank goodness for the swinging oil lamp and the yarns that stand in for that stiff, cleansing beat to windward those of us in the north are missing so badly.
Last weekend I was a guest at the annual Snowstorm dinner of an internationally famous yacht club. I don’t know about you, but I always view these functions with some trepidation. Will I be placed next to the secretary’s beautiful and witty daughter, or is my neighbor to be the local mayor who will spend the evening describing the deck he has just built beside his barbecue?
Whoever arranged the seating plan spared the young lady my company and did me the favor of keeping me well clear of the visiting dignitary. Instead, I dined with an elderly yachtsman who had been well known as a race navigator back in the days when the sport was still truly Corinthian.
I don’t recall much about the food, but the old boy made sure the wine flowed like a spring tide. By the time the port came around he was reminiscing in grand style. Like the reminiscences of all real sailors, few of his tales recalled the big seas and great gales of his youth. Instead, they concentrated on people, sailboats, and how the former behave when aboard the latter. One incident proved relevant to us all in a way that I don’t believe he’d considered. As a respectable reporter, I’ll change the names to protect the manifestly guilty. We’ll call my new friend Freddy.
Freddy is still a mighty man. He weighs in at 240 pounds even today, and, as he pointed out, he wasn’t much daintier back in the 1960s. On the night in question, he’d been piloting an ocean racer of around 50 feet; the crew had done well in a tough event, and the boat was in the silver. After the finish, the boats began rafting up and the crews clattered ashore for the awards, a bite to eat, and a few drinks. Like the rest, Freddy was experiencing that release from tension that comes after the finish gun, and he joined in with relish as his skipper filled and refilled their trophy with champagne. One thing led to another, and, as so often happens to the dedicated funsters of this world, he was one of the last on the general retreat back to the waterfront.
Aboard the boat, darkness reigned, but not silence. Creeping below to his pilotberth, he was greeted by the sonorous tones of his captain on the settee below it. In the dim light filtering through the scuttles, he sized up his chances, and the more he peered, the worse they looked. In order to clamber up to his sleeping bag, he’d have to risk stepping on the skipper. This worthy had not only paid for the party, he’d also worked harder than anyone for the three days and nights they’d been racing; he deserved his sleep, so Freddy decided to do the decent thing. He tiptoed back out into the night, padded up to the foredeck, opened the large hatch to the sail locker, dropped down, and kicked his way into a bag containing the 1-ounce spinnaker, which he reported to be as soft and warm as his high-mountain special. Fueled by Napa Valley’s finest, he was soon in the Land of Nod.
He’d no idea how long he’d been asleep when he awoke to the sound of footfalls above his head. There was something shifty about them, and in a second he was as awake as if the boat had gybed all-standing. Next he heard whispering, then a distinct female giggle. Ah well, he thought, good luck to them, and was about to turn over when two heads appeared in the hatchway, silhouetted against the stars.
“We’ll be okay on the sailbags,” whispered the male voice, and down the ladder he came, followed by the unmistakable form of a woman.
At this point in his tale, Freddy broke off the narrative. “Put yourself in my place,” he said. “By this time I’d recognized their voices, and, if you follow me, they had different surnames. They were both flag officers, and they hadn’t come down for an extraordinary committee meeting. It was as black as the inside of a cow in that fo’csle, and they hadn’t seen me. For all they knew, I was just another of the sailbags they were rearranging for their comfort and convenience.”
“So what did you do?” I asked, aghast at his appalling predicament.
“If I was going to declare myself, it had to be then and there,” he replied. “I suppose I could have turned over and started snoring to pretend I hadn’t been aware, but I’ve got to tell you I didn’t think of that. So I opted to lie doggo, wrestle my head into the sailbag, and pretend to be a spinnaker.”
Following this bold decision, Freddy did his best to play the sportsman and shut off his ears while the sprightly pair made the most of their opportunity. Just before dawn, they left. He poked his head out through his drawstring, rubbed his bruises, and thought no more about it until both protagonists turned up on board from different boats as guests for breakfast, looking as though the proverbial butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths.
As you might imagine, I was tickled by this tale from a freer, naughtier world, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more respect it has given me for Freddy. Young he may have been, but the sea had already taught him one of its most important lessons. Decisions come in all forms. They’re usually the predictable quandaries about collision situations, tricky piloting, and whether or not to change sail in the dark. We’re ready for these. It’s the urgent ones nobody can predict that test our mettle.
Whenever a dilemma demands what seems an instantaneous response, it’s always worth taking a deep breath to consider whether doing nothing might be better than acting without a fully fledged plan. This is not to be confused with the classic tendency so many of us have to freeze in a crisis. Freddy certainly didn’t freeze. He weighed his options, kept his head, then stuck it as far down the spinnaker bag as he could. From the perspective of forty years, we can see his decision was the right one, so long as he held his peace in the aftermath. The measure of his gentlemanly conduct is that even with two of the three souls concerned dead and buried, this great sailor still maintains silence about who it was that got lucky on the night after the big race.