The Purist & the Pragmatist

28 Sep

Way back in the dark ages of the early 1980s, when I first happened upon a skipper foolish enough to take me offshore, there were few labor saving devices on your typical cruising sailboat. In fact, I was one of them.  There was no roller furling on that particular 47ft cutter, just a seemingly bottomless stack of hanked-on sails that lived in a dank lazarette reeking of mildew, turpentine and diesel, the kind of cocktail that only wooden-boat lovers find intoxicating.

The boat was “handraulic,” as the skipper loved to say, and a heavy beast she was to work, too; we toted sailbags back and forth like ants, unbagged, hanked, hoisted, dropped, unhanked and flaked sails, and dreaded the call for the giant spinnaker—fun to set but, oh, what a drag to drop, capture and bag. The huge anchor, which I can only assume had been misappropriated from some derelict ferry, hung on the end of a cable or two of chain that was dealt with by an equally massive manual windlass. Back and forth, back and forth on the 4ft handle we would go, retrieving a half-dozen links at a time, cursing like, well, like sailors until we ran out of breath. In deeper anchorages we’d still be taking turns at the damned handle as the boat was drifting out to sea, the skipper sighing dramatically and drumming his fingers on the wheel. How I detested that windlass.

Belowdecks, the only manual labor we had to do aside from peeling potatoes and washing dishes was operating the winch for the bronze centerboard, which took exactly 119 turns of the handle from go to whoa. Since the board was often used as an elementary depth gauge, we grew amazingly adept at cranking it up, hands a blur of motion, the moment it struck bottom.

Who needs steroids when you have fear?

Naturally enough, I loved all of this, the sweat and pain and fatigue and fear and toil and joy of working a demanding boat in everything from flat calms to ocean gales with a deep passion that burns as brightly as ever. I couldn’t have dreamed of a better introduction to ocean sailing, and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. I’ve talked to many other sailors who say much the same thing.

Would that my physical capabilities burned as brightly today, but even if they did, I suspect I would still take advantage of the labor-saving devices with which technology has so kindly endowed us. I’ve happily traded the elemental joy of hauling down a flogging sail on a pitching foredeck for the ease of taking a few rolls in a genoa. The stone-axe dependability of a manual windlass? Don’t make me laugh. I’ll gleefully press that up-switch and let the batteries, not my back, take the strain. Spinnaker? No problem. It’s on a furler, and I can set it and retrieve it from the cockpit without breaking a sweat. Every time I sail a boat equipped with electric genoa winches, I’m grinning from ear to ear.

I know how to be a purist, but I choose not to be. The way I see it, using technology to take care of physically draining grunt work is the seamanlike thing to do. The skill in trimming a sail is not in grinding in the sheet, it’s knowing when to stop (or start) grinding.  If you are alone on board and your anchor starts dragging, wouldn’t you rather push a button than haul it in by hand, a few links at a time, as your boat drags towards the shore? Simplicity may be a virtue, but on a sailboat, efficiency is an even greater one.


October 2015


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