December 2, 2008

Couch-potato sailors

AT THIS VERY moment more than 20 singlehanded sailboats are plunging hell-for-leather into the wild Southern Ocean. In one of the world's toughest and most enduring competitions, they're racing non-stop around the globe. Each skipper is alone, crashing through huge frigid swells at speeds of 15 knots or more, in a 60-foot sloop.

This is one of the roughest, most remote, and most desolate regions on earth. Several entrants have dropped out already. And the racing rules state that no one can accept outside help, even if it were possible to get aid to them. This is the Vendée Globe[1].

There is no greater challenge in the sailing world; perhaps none in the human world. It takes physical fitness, mental toughness, superhuman tenacity, and sheer guts, lots of guts, just to take part in this race, never mind to win. And where do nearly all of these sailing superstars come from? France.

There was one lone American among the 30 starters, several Brits, and a handful of other assorted nationalities. The great majority are French. The whole thing is organized by the French.

Why should this be? What has happened to the great nation that won the America's Cup for the first time all those years ago and beat off all competition for so long? Why is there only one U.S. entry in this most challenging and prestigious of all sailing contests?

I posed that question recently on a bulletin board run by owners of Cape Dory yachts[2], one of the most intelligent and most useful of all the Internet sailing forums. It drew the following response from John Ring, an accountant living in Beverly, Mass.

"I'm afraid you have it all wrong … There are, in fact, many Americans in the Vendée Globe, albeit in a form we may not be accustomed to.

"You must understand the sailing environment for Americans has changed tremendously over the years. American sailors are under pressures the great sailors of old could never imagine, let alone shape a course for. With expensive yacht insurance policies terminating beyond 50 miles off the coast, priceless medical insurance terminating beyond 50 aspirin, and enough lawyers in the water to drive the largest sharks away, certain change has to come to sailing. The icecaps are melting, sea levels are rising, and zebra mussels are clogging our intellectual uptake.

"Gone are the days when sailors would meet at the local yacht club and discuss the day’s watery action with a glistening of salt on their brow. This much needed social recap has been replaced by fine message boards … Chart and compass have been replaced by a black box, and the word 'sextant' is no longer appropriate in mixed company.

"Actual marinas and mooring fields have been replaced by cyber slips, and the America’s Cup is held by a landlocked nation. We now live in a world where cruising rallies sail into the paths of hurricanes knowing S.A.R. is just one beep of an EPIRB away. It’s enough to make Captain Slocum roll in his watery grave.

"Call it the heart of digital darkness if you like, but amid this bold new future of sailing, American sailors are adapting. And, in this world that is not real, the Vendée Globe now has well over 100,000 skippers thrashing through a winedark virtual sea. Yes, the Vendée Globe has joined the ranks of video poker and fantasy football, and gone virtual[3]. Now each and every one of us can skipper an Open 60 past the great capes and dodge the icebergs of Antarctica without fear of medical emergencies, navigational errors, catastrophic mechanical failures, lawsuits, or running out of coffee."

Well, John, I don't want to believe we've become a nation of pasty-faced, flabby-gutted, bug-eyed couch potatoes staring at computer screens. But if our pathetic participation in the Vendée Globe is anything to judge by, I guess that description is not far off the mark. I sure hope Mr. Obama is going to do something about it.

[1]The real Vendée Globe:
[2]The Cape Dory board:
[3]The virtual Vendée Globe online:

Today's Thought
Observe the prudent; they in silence sit,
Display no learning, and affect no wit;
They hazard nothing, nothing they assume,
But know the useful art of acting dumb.
--George Crabbe, Tales: The Patron, 1. 315.

Did you hear about the poor clergyman who bought a very old used car?
It was such a pity — he just didn’t have the vocabulary to run it.

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