Call me Ishmael

This weekend, I was invited to sail in the Spring Regatta aboard Veritas, a 1962 ketch competing in the Classics Division.

I’m not a very experienced sailor, and I hadn’t participated in a regatta in a couple of years.

But Veritas captain Todd Patterson assured me that wouldn’t be a problem.

“We’ll tell you what you need to do,” he said with a grin when I showed up on Saturday morning.

I had seen a similar grin before — specifically, the last time I competed in a regatta — and I knew what it meant. So I was a little nervous.

Shortly after we left the Nanny Cay dock, I realised I’d forgotten most of the sailing terminology I used to know.

This was unfortunate, because it meant I had no idea what anyone was talking about.

For example, here is a transcript of an actual conversation that I recorded on Veritas this weekend:

“So if we pull out the asem and work the DDW to the opposite side of the main, … then you’re covering this whole area.”

“That’s nice, and then maybe put a preventer on the main.”

“If we have to, yeah. Also remember we’ll have the staysail up, which will also act as a preventer. If we jibe suddenly, at least that’ll stop the force, and if it blows it blows.”

I would provide a translation of this conversation, but doing so would require years of study.

Sailors speak an entirely different language, which linguists believe to be far more difficult to learn than Swahili, Cantonese and Hungarian put together.

Fortunately, I did remember the most important rule of sailor lingo: Never, ever say “rope.”

The various ropes on a sailboat are called  “sheet,” “halyard,” “line” and so on. And an ancient sailing tradition dictates that anyone who says the R-word is automatically tossed overboard.

But I wasn’t sure if this bit of trivia would be enough to get me through the day.

Quick action

I needn’t have worried.

As soon as it was time to raise the sails, the techniques I had learned in the past started coming back to me.

Once we started racing, other crewmembers began shouting instructions. Somehow, I knew exactly what to do.

I was assigned to help out on the foredeck, which is sailor lingo for the front of the boat. Almost automatically, I  performed a manoeuvre known in technical sailing jargon as “Slipping and Sliding Across the Foredeck on Your Rear while Trying Desperately Not to Slide into the Ocean.”

I repeated this several times throughout the day. And each time I did, I became more graceful.

Later, as the boat heeled, another similar technique came in handy: “Hanging on for Dear Life.”

In some respects, I realised, sailing is like riding a bicycle: You never forget how to do it.


Other techniques took a little longer to remember.

At one point on Saturday, crewmembers started yelling something like, “Raise the jib! Raise the jib!”

After a few moments, I realised they were talking to me.

I knew then that I should pull on a rope — err, sheet — but I had no idea which one. So I froze, and stood in confused silence next to the mast. The shouts got louder.

Suddenly, I remembered a time-tested system known as “Yanking Every Rope in Sight Until Everyone Stops Yelling ‘NO’ and Starts Yelling ‘HEAVE.’”

After yanking three different sheets (halyards?), I found the right one.

“HEAVE! HEAVE! HEAVE!” the sailors yelled, and I did.

Later, I was entrusted with helping to pull down a sail.

Again, I wasn’t sure exactly how to proceed. But in the heat of the moment, I remembered another forgotten skill: “Running Back and Forth Like a Chicken with its Head Cut Off.”

This worked wonders: Pretty soon, another sailor rushed from the back of the boat and started doing stuff. Within minutes, we were sailing smoothly again.

New techniques

I even learned some new techniques on Saturday.

At one point, something must have gone a little wrong, because a sail started flapping wildly in front of me. Improvising, I stuck my head toward it, and briefly broke its momentum with my face. Simultaneously, I was able to make the boat lighter by losing my hat overboard.

Thanks to my quick actions, the sail filled with wind seconds later.

I don’t mean to brag when I say that I must have played a major part in the boat’s second-place finish in its division.

On Sunday, I went out on Veritas again. This time, Captain Patterson said I wouldn’t need to help sail: I could spend the day taking photographs.

No one said as much, but I’m pretty sure he made this decision because he wanted his competitors to have a fighting chance.