SAILING is an art which I had watched from an ignorant distance until I became abruptly and damply sophisticated. As a guest at a beach house, I suddenly found myself on a Sunday afternoon the unwilling skipper of a small boat on Narragansett Bay. The wind, I am convinced to this day, was rapidly approaching hurricane force, and the bay was a mass of enormous waves. The boat developed an alarming tendency to turn upside down.
The rudder, an ingenious folding affair, unfolded and hung tantalizingly just out of the water where it did no good at all, but somehow I managed to beach the monster, all seven feet of it; and with the sail flapping cheerfully overhead, I pushed the damn thing a rocky half mile back to the cottage. My hosts looked startled, but tactfully refused to laugh themselves sick.
That day, the virus was planted, sturdily reinforced by the realization that, in New England, yachting is a social asset, a conversational gold mine, and an acceptable reason for not listening to the ball games on Saturday afternoon. But I was really sold when I saw how easily I could build a reputation as a yachtsman with nothing more tangible to offer than subscriptions to several impressive salt spray magazines.
First I learned to talk boats, casually sprinkling magic names like Bolero, Baruna, and Katuna through my conversation. I found that rattling off the names of the Bermuda Race winners from l928 on had a wonderful effect. Then, to cap the effect, I would idly take a strand of well-tarred marline from my pocket and tie bowlines around the stems of the cocktail glasses. As a result, it was no time at all before I was asked to join a yacht club. I began spending Saturday afternoons in the better boatyards, looking over likely craft. I was sure to be in uniform: baggy flannels, a knife for poking rotten timbers, and in spring a very battered pair of canvas shoes.
The actual technique of looking for a boat boils down to a standard protocol divisible into two sections: outdoor and indoor. I found indoor boat hunting the easier. It would start the day the postman delivered my copy of Sail Ho! I turned to the brokers’ listings immediately. Very likely the first one that struck my eye was suitable for a four-year cruise in the Antarctic, complete with a hold full of dynamite for blasting ice packs, and with spare black ties for the penguins. I am sure that my enthusiastic letter of inquiry was joined by three hundred others just like it, all from people who had no more intention of buying t han I did.
After posting a number of these letters, however, I would have a generous pile of snapshots covering every conceivable type of boat. These made a powerful impression on guests who came in for cocktails. I generally swept the whole mess to the floor with a carefully modulated chuckle.
“I’ve been trying to find the right boat, but these brokers can’t seem to find what I want.” And I sighed as I reached for another round. Whether my guests chose to believe this or not did not matter. I knew my future as a yachtsman depended on giving the impression that I would buy the Baruna tomor row if Henry Taylor offered it at the right price.
The outdoor search for just the right boat is a more energetic undertaking, but the same principles hold. The uniform and a car are operating essentials. At the boatyards, I learned to slant a critical eye at a boat’s lines and murmur with scornful decision, “Hogged.” I learned to say it before I quite knew what it meant. Any owner within earshot shuddered at the word, looked on me as an expert, and wondered if it was possible that his boat sagged at both ends.
My complete repertoire included diving under the boat and examining the hull with myopic scrutiny. As I jabbed viciously with my knife, I would whisper hoarsely, “ Notice how the garboard is pulling away there. ˮ
This was sure-fire. In nine boats out of ten it probably had happened. Even if I was challenged, I could quiet the owner with a superior, knowing look that made him worry for the rest of the season.
But at this point in my program, serious drawbacks began to develop. As a nautical expert, I was beginning to get a flood of invitations from people with boats. Not wanting to wreck my new reputation after lavishing so much hard work on it, I studied nights, lashing down radiators, securing coffee tables against the danger of high seas, and soaking my white ducks in a heavy salt solution. I learned whole passages of Joshua Slocum by heart and baffled the neighbors by hoarsely shouting “Back the jib!ˮ “Hard alee!” and “Stand by for a line!” As a final touch, I dribbled paint on a pair of carefully bleached dungarees. The whole process, I might add, was a tremendous success.
It couldn’t last. I had become so nautical that everyone wanted to see my boat. I held them off for a while, but the concerted effort was too great; I was forced to buy a boat. There followed struggles with the brokers I had fooled for years, struggles with the owner with thinly veiled intimations of theft being the order of the day. There is more haggling over the sale of a boat in New England than of a Bokhara carpet in Baghdad.
Then, when I had finally bought my own boat, I suddenly discovered I was being victimized by my alter ego. Young men in baggy flannels and disreputable sneakers would pour out of convertibles to stick knives in the hull. They would exchange glances and make sympathetic clucking noises. Usually I could just make out their remarks, tactfully uttered in a stage whisper: my boat was hogged and the garboard was pulling away!
I finally did get my own boat in the water and ready to go. She is lying at the mooring right now, and if you’re willing to make me a decent offer, she’s yours. You see, I’m still crazy about yachting, but I want to regain my amateur standing.