Saturday, October 31, 2009

Class Act

Today, I was the member of a five-person team in a sailboat race on Lake Maumelle. I showed up early, having missed the "meet the crew" dinner the night before because Mike was on call and I was with the kids. It was chilly, and I was glad they were handing out gloves to the participants, but the last day in October promised to be one of the few wonderful ones. The sun was shining, finally.

Myself, my Uncle Chuck, and my Conway partner Amy were the three completely inexperienced participants benefiting from a donation made by my group to join two seasoned boaters in a morning and afternoon race. Our skipper, John Class, was originally from Holland, and had begun his boating experience in the 40's as a member of the Sea Scouts, an aquatic equivalent of our Boy Scouts in America. He participated in the Olympics in the 80's; missed out when we boycotted Moscow, but was sailing in California and Canada. He was clearly an esteemed member of the club, and assured Amy at the Friday dinner that he usually won the races. I found it difficult, upon meeting him, to imagine this boast: he was a man of few words, unless he was instructing us. He had a heavy Dutch accent, and his widely spaced teeth and sun-weathered, distinguished face gave the assurance of safety. We were in good hands.

When I agreed, three weeks earlier, to participate in the races, I imagined myself sitting on a sailboat in glorious weather like today, gazing at the water and trees, in a relaxed state of semi-participation, occasionally lending a hand and learning a little terminology. So I was just as surprised as my uncle and Amy, that it was constant work. And we were expected to be fully engaged. Not a bad thing - wonderful and rewarding, but shocking nonetheless.

There are numerous ropes, pulleys, and wenches on a sailboat, each with about six synonymous names, requiring repetitive releasing, pulling, and clenching, in order to race the boat. There are three sails: The main, the jib, and the spinnaker; the last needs hoisting and taking down. I used all my strength, pressed against the side of the boat, to pull ropes. But the funniest aspect of the whole experience, was the fact that Chuck, Amy and I knew nothing of boat anatomy. Whenever the skipper's language failed to generate action our part, he was frustratingly reduced to simple terms. "That black round thing! Over there! Now! Grab that rope! The one with the tiny green dots! No! Not the blue one! Hurry! Pull as hard as you can!"

The two races were each over an hour, briefly interrupted by a catered lunch. We thought, after the first race, we had the important parts down - the tucking and jibing (sp?), raising and lowering the spinnaker. But we were wrong. Problems arose on the second race - our spinnaker was stuck because we failed to release it from the front of the boat - we tried to release it from below the deck, and it got hung up on another sail. When we tried to pull the spinnaker in, it fell into the water, and we had to drag it out. Our speed suffered. We learned that the term for this was "shrimping." Not a complimentary term.

While all of this was happening, I imagined pulling our captain and his mate into the autopsy suite. With no knowledge of human anatomy, they would flounder. I would try to instruct them: "Now! Follow the stomach along the greater curvature down to the pyloric valve. The muscle is thicker there, you will need strong scissors!" As they cluelessly picked up the gallbladder, I might yell, "No! not the green bag, the beige one! The bigger sack! The one that looks like a leather water bottle! No! Don't cut that! Not yet! We haven't run the bowel yet! That will make a tremendous mess!" Or better yet - get them behind a microscope. "Now! Count the mitoses! That will determine how aggressive the cancer is. Count! We have to grade this cancer! NO! That is not a mitosis, that's an apoptotic cell! Here, it looks like this!"

That is what it was like - being thrust into a new situation with no prior knowledge on which to operate, and having to act quickly. But it was fun. And it was a glorious day. I learned how to watch the horizon, and steer the ship. I learned how to watch the water, to look at the color, in order to see an approaching wind. The water is darker, under a wind, and you can see it moving toward you and predict the precise moment it will fill your sails and affect your course. I learned to avoid the swing of the main sail when tucking, and how to wrap the ropes around a wench, clockwise. I am sure I am screwing up all this terminology, but having the experience inspired me to research it. Someday. After I get over the soreness and bumps and bruises, from the boat. Anyone who thinks sailing is a lazy sport, needs to go out and try it.

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