Set­ting Sail


When are la­bor-sav­ing gad­gets good for sail­ing?

Larry Cheek’s es­say on not giv­ing up sail­ing (page 12) will strike a chord with any of us who are look­ing back at 60. Like it or not, there comes a time when, as Leonard Co­hen put it, you “ache in the places where you used to play.” That’s no rea­son to quit, though. Sail­boats, no mat­ter their size, have never been eas­ier to han­dle than they are now. Spars are lighter than ever and with mod­ern fibers, so are ropes. Sails roll away in min­utes. Sheets can be trimmed at the press of a but­ton. Ground tackle that would give a cir­cus strong­man a her­nia is lifted from the sea bed by a whirring elec­tric mo­tor. It is pos­si­ble to sail long dis­tances with a min­i­mum of ex­er­tion.

Which kind of de­feats the pur­pose, to my mind any­way. The ef­fort in­volved in sail­ing a boat is good for you. Fresh air and ex­er­cise, a lit­tle work­out ev­ery time you take the boat out—if you want to do noth­ing, buy a power­boat, right? Then again, if they keep you on the wa­ter for a few more sea­sons, there is noth­ing wrong with avail­ing your­self of all the la­bor-sav­ing good­ies you can af­ford.

I once scorned all such frip­peries as be­ing un­wor­thy of a true sailor back in the days when I had a big cut­ter with han­ked-on sails and spent as much time wrestling Dacron on the fore­deck with sail ties flut­ter­ing in my jaws as I did at the helm—prob­a­bly more, since I had no shame about us­ing the au­topi­lot 24 hours a day. I’d crank away at the big man­ual wind­lass, rais­ing the hook a cou­ple of inches with ev­ery stroke and wish­ing de­voutly I’d an­chored in shal­lower wa­ter. It’s

hard to say ex­actly when the rot set in. But by the time I char­tered a boat in the Caribbean that—joy of joys—had both elec­tric winches and a furl­ing main­sail, I had al­ready supped the devil’s brew and dropped any pre­tense at purism. There’s no deny­ing the se­duc­tive call of an easy life.

It’s a good thing my own boats have had none of those lux­u­ries, ex­cept for an elec­tric wind­lass, else I’d be good for noth­ing ex­cept re­clin­ing in a ham­mock and watch­ing the sun­set while be­ing em­bar­rassed by sto­ries of much older sailors do­ing re­mark­able things on boats, prob­a­bly with nary an elec­tric winch or furl­ing main­sail in sight—as with my cur­rent role model, 73-year-old JeanLuc van den Heede, lead­ing the Golden Globe race (see page 18) at time of writ­ing. When the time comes, though, you can bet I’ll be push­ing but­tons with the best of them. s

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