November 9, 2008

Call me Captain Bligh

SCOTT Sanchez commented the other day on my column “Are you smart enough?” Those of you with good working brains will recall that the column contained a paragraph of mis-spelled words, words whose letters had been arranged in the wrong order.

“Too funny,” said Scott. “I was reading along and knew something was strange but just read on. To me that's sracy. Maybe I should try sailing backwards.Thanks for the laughs.”

Well, Scott, it certainly is an interesting phenomenon that the well-honed human mind can read words whose letters are all jumbled up just as if they were correctly spelled. Apparently it’s because we tend to read words as a whole, not letter by letter – although I have to tell you there are some people who move their lips when they read, which means they’re sounding out the letters. Even some librarians do it, I’m told.

This makes me wonder why we spend years in school learning to spell, beginning with teh cta sta on teh mta. Why do we bother? And of what practical use to us is Spellcheck? We dno’t ndee no daenmd Spelcchelk.

But aside from that, I was interested in Scott’s remark that perhaps he should sail backwards. This might strike some of you as an off-the-wall statement, something that might have flown out of the mouth of an Alaskan governor during a Katie Couric interview. But no, hang on. Not so fast. There’s sense in what Scott said.

Years ago, when I was an active dinghy racer I learned to sail a Mirror dinghy backwards. It was very simple. You just luff up dead into the wind until all way is off. Then you hold out the main boom to one side and the tiller to the other. Et voila! Suddenly, m’sieur, you are sailing backwards; what’s more, you’ll find that you can steer in any direction normal to a sailboat.

This turned out to be very useful on race days. Just before the start gun, I would luff up close to the line near the committe boat and start sailing backwards, yelling “Starboard!” very loudly and waving my arms. This little tactic sowed panic among the tightly packed Mirror fleet heading for the line. In the heat of the moment, with 10 seconds to the gun, they couldn’t decide whether I was on port tack or starboard.

Assuming that I had right of way, some went about, some jibed, and some lost their heads completely and hit the committee boat. All scattered as if I were flying the bubonic plague flag. And while they did that, I sheeted in the mainsail on the correct side and started sprinting forward toward the line. As the start gun went, I would find myself all alone in a nice big hole, with a clear wind and the next boat five lengths behind.

You might regard this as bad sportsmanship. Well, I didn’t say it was a good thing. I’m not proud of it. I just can’t help it. My character changes when I’m racing. My wife, June, who crewed for me, started off calling me Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. She ended up calling me Captain Bligh.

I had to give up racing in the end. Illegally luffed too many boats that were overtaking me to windward. But I am unrepentant. They asked for it. Damn fools should have known you don’t overtake John Vigor to windward (even if the rules say you can) without suffering the consequences. Sheesh, who do they think they are?

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