June 21, 2009

Cling like a monkey

I MENTIONED THE OTHER DAY that the waters of Puget Sound, together with the adjacent San Juan and Gulf Islands, are some of the best small-boat cruising grounds in the whole of the United States. But there is one drawback that visitors, in particular, should be aware of. Our waters are cold. They’re in the 40s and 50s Fahrenheit, even in summer. You’d be lucky to survive half an hour without protective gear in water that cold. So the Golden Rule around here is: Don’t fall overboard.

Most production sailboats come complete with deck stanchions and lifelines these days, but I’ve always been a bit skeptical about their efficiency. Most of them are so low that they’d catapult you overboard if you lurched hard against them at deck level. And when you’re on top of the cabin trunk, working at the base of the mast for example, you’re high enough to fall clean overboard without even touching the lifelines when the boat is well heeled over.

So maybe it would be wise go back in time a bit and take the advice of some of the old-time singlehanders who were sailing wooden boats across the oceans before the plastic revolution. They rarely had lifelines.

When I was a teenager, a young French colonial from Indo-China came sailing into my home port of Durban, South Africa. His tubby 27-foot ketch, Marie-Thérèse, had no lifelines, by design. Her owner, and sole skipper, didn’t believe in lifelines.

I asked him what he did to stay on board in rough weather while working on deck.

“You must learn to cling like a monkey,” he told me.

That man was Bernard Moitessier, who later became an icon of single-handed long-distance sailing and one of the most famous sailboat cruisers in the world.

Times have changed, and we now give greater respect to the question of safety (perhaps too much respect when it comes to advising others) but Moitessier’s advice is still very valid.

Regard your lifelines purely as backup. If you come adrift, they may save you; they may not. And even if you habitually wear a harness clipped onto a jackstay, make the Golden Rule and Moitessier’s mantra your absolute priorities: Don't fall overboard. Learn to cling like a monkey.

Today’s Thought
Who can hope to be safe? who sufficiently cautious?
Guard himself as he may, every moment’s an ambush.
—Horace, Odes

Paddy was crossing the fairway when a ball smacked him on the back of the head.
A golfer came up and said: “Why didn’t you get out of the way?”
“An’ why should I?” said Paddy angrily.
“Because I said ‘Fore!’ and that’s a sign to get out of the way.”
“Oh and is it now?” cried Paddy. “Well I’ve got news for you. When I say ‘Foive’ it’s a sign you’re going to be hit on the jaw. Foive!”

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