Sailing on Bulletproof

While I’m an avid boater, I’m no sailor. It’s one of those things that I sort of inherently know about myself, yet still find the need to prove.

My first experiences with sailing did little to change my gut-level feeling on this matter. Many years ago, a friend of mine invited my then-girlfriend and I to go sailing on his Hobie Cat catamaran sail boat. I don’t remember much about the trip except that it was pretty crowded and I was relegated to lying flat on my stomach beneath the sail while we went really, really fast and I hung on for dear life to avoid being slung overboard.

My second experience was on a dive club trip when one of the woman divers offered to show me how to windsurf. With me clinging to the back of the board, she sailed us out to deep water where she got off the board and began instructing me on how to sail.

For the next few minutes, I repeatedly climbed on top of the board, attempted to stand up, and then immediately fell over. It soon became obvious that I was not windsurfing material, and we returned to shore. Once again, I was lying on my stomach clinging to the board as the non-skid surface removed most of the skin from my chest during the humiliating sail back to shore.

My third exposure to sailing happened when we were returning to the marina in a power boat after a day of having fun in the sun on the Mississippi Barrier Islands. I was running the boat when I spotted a person in the water just ahead. Since we were a mile or two away from the beach, I thought it might be a good idea to see if the person needed help or was just plain stupid.

“Want a ride?” I asked as we approached.

“Please,” he replied. Once aboard our small motor-powered craft, he explained that he had been sailing on his very own Hobie Cat when he jibed. This is a technical sailing  term referring to the maneuver in which the helmsman turns the boat in such a manner as to cause the boom (another sailing term) to go careening to the opposite side of the boat, typically striking at least one person in the head and/or knocking them over the side.

I nodded, and then asked the obvious question, “So where’s your boat?”

He pointed, and in the distance I saw a Hobie Cat with a woman sitting peacefully in the stern, sailing off into the sunset. “She doesn’t know how to sail,” the man said.

We approached the boat and the woman sort of waved, seeming to still be enjoying her sail. Had I have been him, I would have been in the market for a new girlfriend.

As I have made clear, I’m no sailor. But had I been in her situation, I would have found some way to stop the boat–either by using that long stick thing in the back, or by dropping the sail. What I would not have done was to remain seated while continuing on my journey, and leaving my partner floating in my wake.

My next sailing experience was in the big leagues. My buddy, Randy, invited me to sail on this 36-foot Catalina named Bulletproof, which was owned by Capt. Don. While I didn’t know much about sailing, I did know that Don was very serious about sailboat racing. He allowed no women on the boat or any drinking while racing was underway, and which represented a serious sacrifice on the part of his crew.

“Man, I don’t know how to sail,” I told Randy.

“No problem. We’ll show you everything you need to know. Besides, what can you screw up?” he asked. My mind flashed back to the canoe that I had reformed into a u-shape, but he finally succeeded in talking me into it.

Bulletproof 2

It was exciting as we first got underway. That is, until I made my very first big-boat sailing mistake. I forgot and left the winch handle in place, and then a few moments later it went spinning into the salty brine. Don struggled not to let his irritation show at my novice mistake.

As I looked at the fleet of boats, I had no idea what was going on. “How are we doing?” I asked.

Don looked at me with a slight grin, “We’re kicking butt.” To me it looked like a herd of cats running in random directions, but I took his word.

The second time that I was invited, I managed to get one of the very important lines on the wrong side of the stanchion (that’s another technical sailing term for those metal posts that hold the lifelines and are, in theory, supposed to stand up straight), and managed to bend it about 30 degrees.

On my third sail, Don decided that he would give me a job that was so simple that even a moron couldn’t screw it up. “This is a staggered start. When I tell you, start this stopwatch and let me know when two minutes and thirteen seconds have elapsed,” he said, speaking slowly as if he was speaking to someone who had lost half of their brain in a car accident.

I replied, “Aye, aye.” (That’s more nautical lingo.)

I took the watch from his hand, and was absolutely determined to do the best job of stop-watching ever. I imagined that they would be talking about my precision for many years to come. As the second hand finally approached the twelve, I yelled, “Go!” and then watched as Don steered us across the starting line, and off we went. But a few seconds later, I heard the sound of a gun firing.

“What was that?” I asked.

Don looked at me with a somber look of resignation. “They fire that gun when a boat is disqualified for starting too early.”

You see, I’m an engineer. And engineers typically round things off. As such, I had timed the two minute part down to a nano-second, but in my nervous attempt not to screw up, I had completely forgotten about the other thirteen seconds. We were disqualified.

Of course, this meant that I got to spend the entire trip with everyone glaring at the person responsible for ruining the whole race for our team. The trip seemed to last for days. When we finally reached the finish line, I gathered my things and then hastily departed. My sailing days had come to an end.

I guess I could have offered to serve as ballast but would probably have found a way to screw that up too. In any case, I was never invited back. There’s little doubt that this was a good thing.

Disclaimer: Frank Wilem is an author, speaker, and all around funny and entertaining guy. On this blog, his stories are based on his real life experiences, often with a satirical twist.

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