Editorial January 1, 2003 Issue

Sea Stories

Here's a theory of existence: When you go Aloft, they check you for stories. They want to know what you've tried, noticed, and learned on the old planet. They find out whether you've wiled away your years in a lounger (in which case you have to go back as a telemarketer) or challenged yourself. You get credit not just for achievement, but for effort, and for the degree of difficulty of things attempted, and for knowing the difference between adventures (which are calculated risks) and harebrained schemes.

You notice, as you're standing there waiting for the ethereal being with the clipboard, that the old saying was absolutely correct - you didn't bring a single thing with you. Your car is behind you. Your clothes and your dishes are behind you. Your new plasma-screen TV, your Palm Pilot, and even your beloved boat is back there. All those things that seemed important are not with you. All you have is the stories you can tell. In your case and mine these will include some sea stories. If we're lucky, our interlocutor will be a sailor, too: "Well, now, me bucko, spin us a yarn of your voyage."

As a rule, sailing adventurers are a joy to be with, because they are repositories of such great stories. I don't think I've ever met a devoted sailor, offshore or coastwise, who was fearful of taking on a challenge on land or sea, lazy about handling it, or reticent about it afterwards. Still, we all have our limits. I, for one, am not interested in sailing too near ice, unless it's surrounded by bourbon in a mug.

Al Hatch told me a couple of stories the other day. He's an instructor for the Blue Water Sailing School. In the offshore programs, he takes people, as you would suspect, out to sea. They gulp, as we all do, when the land drops under the horizon and they find themselves in a very big place on a small boat. They gulp again when the sun sets on their first night at sea. They keep heading offshore. They settle into the watch rotation. Al turns off all the electronics for long periods of time, making everyone keep a DR plot. This settles some people down, but it increases the gulping sensation in others, who never get over that feeling of near-panic while they're out there. Al says that maybe half the people who head offshore decide (some very quickly) that being offshore is not for them. And that's OK, because at least they know what it's like. They've seen it first-hand. They've had an adventure, and now they have a story that will stay with them forever. Chalk up a point. It has to look good on the Curriculum Vitae.

There are many levels of heaviness in sea stories, ranging from the hilarious to the horrifying, but really, at the heart of all sea stories are the elements of difficulty and risk. Whatever you're doing, whether it's changing a joker valve in 100 heat or changing headsails in mid-ocean while trying not to be swept off the deck, you're doing things that will always stick in your mind because they're apart from the ordinary. And who knows - these may be the stories that will get you into some sort of Advanced Program.

One of our best sea-storytellers is John Rousmaniere, who would be the first to tell you that much of his adult life has been shaped by his experience in the 1979 Fastnet Race. His latest book, After the Storm, is a collection of what might be called further case-studies in marine emergency, but with the perspective of nearly two dozen post-Fastnet years spent sailing and paying attention. The stories are as much about where people turn mentally and spiritually in extreme circumstances as about the thirst for experience and the seamanship skills that play a role in how they approach their fate. Extreme as the stories are, John tells them in an anti-macho way, the way you would if you'd been there, which he has. No matter what they conjure up for you, though, they're good reminders that (to paraphrase Bob Dylan) if you don't try nothin', you'll have nothin' to say.

- Doug Logan

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