For the third time in the past half-century,
I found myself in close proximity to sailing boat people. Or
more specifically, people who talk about sailing boats, design
sailing boats, build sailing boats, dream about sailing boats,
and, I imagine, some even find time to sail sailing boats. The
encounter was a by-product of choosing to attend the spring
messabout on Lake Conroe. Before we continue, let me make one
thing perfectly clear (I always wanted to say that!), I don't
dislike any of the above people for any of the above reasons
or any other reason I can think of. So, if you are expecting
some kind of sailing boat people bashing (is yottie bastards
PC?) you won’t get it here. Anyway, as I was saying, this
was the third time I have been in proximity of sailing boat
people; I still remember the other two “encounters”.
Though far away in both time
and space, I vividly remember the first time I was close enough
to sailing boat people to speak. It was 1980; Jenny and I were
paddling a heavy old Coleman Scanoe down the Panama Canal. I
had two paddles held together with 10 yards of dock line, tied
with the famous boa constrictor knot, and Jenny was expertly
providing ballast. We were returning from camping on one of
the many small islands created when the canal was flooded and
were still six or seven miles from any sort of “civilization”.
Alert for ship traffic, (getting passed in a loaded canoe by
a giant container vessel making eight knots is…interesting)
I spotted what I remember to be a fairly large sailing boat
slowly overtaking us from the stern.
I was young and strong in those
days, so it took a while for the sailing boat to come along
side. It made very little wake; I remember a man and a woman
were lounging on the aft deck in brightly colored tropical clothing.
They were sipping something (champagne?) that looked cool and
refreshing. I was dirty from a couple of days of primitive camping
and was deeply tanned from two years of endless summers in Panama.
I wasn’t too surprised when the lady spied us and exclaimed,
“Oh look, natives!” But, she was certainly surprised
when I responded in my version of English, “No ma’am,
I’m not from around here. I’m from Clute, Texas!”
We had a brief exchange, easily
talking over the quiet thump of their little diesel inboard
as it pushed the beautiful 40-foot yacht down the canal. The
usual, how did you get here, how long were you staying - you
know, just regular stuff. I’m not ashamed to admit I did
admire the lady a bit as she moved by – I mean I’m
only a handful of generations out of the trees, so I can’t
help it. My memory says she looked like a smaller version of
the schooners you see in old paintings. She was dressed to kill
with dark blue sides, maroon stripe with white accent at the
waterline, and bone white decks. The roomy cabin had several
ports and even a RV air conditioner. There was lots and lots
of varnished wood – but, I think the masts were aluminum
– so she was modern. There were sails, big ones, I guess
they were up for effect, because it was dead calm. But I’m
not a sailing boat person – there are things I don’t
understand, so let’s leave it at that.
Fast forward, June 2001, Rend Lake Illinois. I had been working
on Jetfish since December ’99, and she was ready to be
admired by commoners. Realizing that about the only people who
truly appreciated homebuilt boats were homebuilt boat builders,
I hauled her up to Illinois on a homemade trailer. And there
I had my second encounter with sailing boat people and sailing
I was so absorbed, lost in my
own world, with testing Jetfish (she had only been wet twice
before), that I pretty much forgot that I was in “their
camp” – the sailing boat people I mean. I do remember
Chuck and Sandra’s Caprice – she was shiny new and
had this neat little sail on the back. Chuck let me go aboard.
He was talking in some language I didn’t know. I think
I blew my cover, but I’m not sure – you got to keep
an eye on sailing boat people – some of them are smart.
Anyway, Caprice was the first sailing boat I ever actually touched!
April 2003, this time Jetfish
was done – I gave rides to Gavin and others who trusted
my work more than they should have. This time I wasn’t
distracted from the mission. Finally, I was in a position to
closely observe sailing boat people from inside the group! I
got in because Jetfish just happened to be designed by the guest
of great celebrity, Gavin Atkin (while he was well into a few
pints of IRN BLU, no doubt). Getting in was so easy!
For whatever reason, I was able
to move freely among the crowds of sailing boat people. Who
knows what “they” were really talking about - just
out of earshot as they were. It looked like they were innocently
talking about sailing boats, but that could have been a trick.
Even so, I was able to quietly observe behavior I don’t
think has ever been documented – even on late night PBS!
The sailing boat people became enormously agitated each time
a new sailing boat arrived – mulling about in a frenzy
and talking in secretive codes about what kind of rig she had,
what famous (in their world) fellow drew her lines, and what
special design features let her slip through the water with
hardly a ripple.
If only I had had the foresight
to bring a tape recorder (or even a lawn chair!) I could share
some of the conversations with you. These people were talking
to me – right there in the sailing boat marina, their
words, my ears! On more than one occasion I was shocked when
someone nearby would point out a stick of varnished wood, or
a strange thing on a hull and make a meaningless comment directly
to me. I had to answer! I didn’t want the sailing boat
people to find me out. (Did you hear? Gavin let an idiot build
In desperation I fell back to
the old “TV nod”, a skill keenly honed over years
and years of trying to watch important TV shows like “Survivor”,
while my wife chattered endlessly about stuff too important
to wait until commercial breaks. Reacting to the sailing boat
people’s non-verbals, I either furrowed my brows or shook
my head sadly, or smiled and nodded in complete approval of
the obvious brilliance of the strange object before me. I managed
a weak “uh huh” now and then, and one brave moment
even said, “Yes, I see what you mean”.
And then there was the three-dollar
plastic tarp from Wal-Mart that turned out to be a masterfully
crafted sail of great interest (which also had an alien name).
Now, that was a close one - very nearly blew my cover. Fortunately,
I was able mask my ignorance by quickly stuffing a whole mustard
coated hot-dog into my mouth – taking full advantage of
sailing boat people’s propensity not to disturb someone
when they are feeding. Just as I began to worry that I would
have to spend the afternoon eating whole hotdogs every time
someone looked in my direction, Chuck asked for a ride in Jetfish
to take pictures of sailing boat people in sailing boats.
In the wild I never venture too
close to people in their sailing boats. Never had a reason to
– sailing boats seem to prefer the open water while the
fish I seek seem to prefer the shallow coves and small creeks.
So, with me hoping Jetfish’s polyester seams would hold
up against the white caps on Lake Conroe (don’t know what
Chuck was thinking), we set out to photograph sailing boat people
and their sailing boats.
I vaguely recall that one of
the boats Chuck photographed was called Bobber. It was a short
little thing that had an orange junker sail. It was living up
to its name out there in the rough water, bobbing up and down
and side-to-side. The skipper seemed happy enough as he pulled
this and that rope for no apparent reason, none of which made
a change that I could see.
Next we circled the Sultana a
few times. A much larger sailing boat, she carried about six
people. They too seemed happy, leaning forward as she made her
best tacking speed, no doubt I was the only one who noticed
we were barely moving fast enough to steer Jetfish. I have to
say; even struggling against the wind, she was a proud sailing
boat with fine lines that even I could appreciate.
I tried to see more than can
be seen with eyes – why sailing boat people do such things
in their sailing boats, why they work so hard pulling ropes
and such, when a throttle is so easy to move. But it was lost
to me, and soon enough we headed back to the Conroe Yacht Club,
where all the oohing and aahing processes were repeated as each
sailing boat was loaded onto her trailer.
Before I knew it, it was
time for Jenny and me to leave as well. It was a good day, my
best encounter yet with sailing boat people. And I’m not
saying that just because Jetfish behaved, and my belly was pleasantly
distended with mustard coated hot-dogs. It was a good day because
I spent it with good people, doing what made them happy. And
what could possibly be better than that?