June 9, 2011

Evolution of yacht people

YACHTING IS A SPORT or pastime involving about 10,000,000 Americans. They represent the highest form of life: people who love and understand boats and use them for pleasure. Yet, surprisingly, little attention has been paid to the origin and evolution of the Yachting Species.

Charles Robert Darwin, (1809-82), the English naturalist, placed mankind in the class of Mammalia: warm-blooded, usually hairy, vertebrates whose offspring are fed with milk secreted by the female mammary glands. Similarly, man’s order is Primata -- mammals such as man, apes, monkeys, and lemurs, characterized especially by flexible hands and feet, each with five digits.

After the Class, Order, Family, and Genus, comes the Species, of course. And the interesting thing about the species is that its members can breed together, which is what yachting people (especially the younger ones) try to do all the time.

Now Darwin’s great breakthrough was to announce that the earth had not been created in a week, and certainly not in the year 4004 BC, as was commonly bruited about in his day. It was, he held, inconceivably older than this. It had changed out of all recognition and was still changing. All living creatures had changed as well, and man, far from being made in God's image, may have begun as something much more primitive. A primeval yachtsman, perhaps.

There is no doubt that yachting people are descended from a long line of famous sailors, including Gilgamesh (the original ark), Moses (a coracle sailor), Noah (the copycat ark), Jason and his Argonauts, Cleopatra (naked in her barge), Columbus, Erik the Red, Magellan, Drake, Ann Bonnie (the woman pirate), and Captains Cook, Bligh, Vancouver, and Slocum, as well as Darwin himself (on the Beagle).

This is not to mention the Polynesians, Vasco da Gama, the Phoenicians and the Chinese who explored in their junks long before Columbus missed America.

How did sailors evolve over this long period? What were the physical changes through the ages? Well, you may have noticed that successful racing sailors have grown hair on the back of neck, the better to judge wind direction. Dinghy sailors have evolved webbed feet, the better to swim back to their capsized boats. Crack helmsmen now have slimmer heads, and smaller ears and noses, to lessen wind resistance. Sinews in the neck have lengthened to allow a sailor to sit sideways and look straight ahead. Backsides have become heavier to lower a person’s center of gravity while being seasick over the rail. And all owners of yachts have developed deep pockets, not lined with teats to feed their young as marsupials do, but filled with checkbooks and credit cards to pay for gas and boat parts.

All this adds up to an ingenious species. Like the Portuguese man-of-war and other lowly invertebrates, yachting persons have evolved a way to travel away from trouble and toward a more favorable environment by using the wind. Over eons they developed a crude wing akin to a bird's, although neither as cunningly engineered nor as effective. It is, however, unique in the world of natural science in that it is held vertically, conveying advantages unknown to the Portuguese man-of-war, which is destined forever to drift downwind. The yachtsman's wing, like a bird's, develops what aeronautical engineers call "lift" -- a partial vacuum that sucks the boat forward and allows it even to sail against the wind. Thus, wherever the wind blows and the water is warm and sufficiently deep, yachtsmen abound.

The Yachting Species is of abiding interest to scientists because of what seem to be regressive tendencies – yachting, after all, involves going nowhere slowly at great expense while feeling frightened and miserable.

Other groups of humans have designed bikes, cars, buses, trains, aircraft, and luxury liners, all of which will transport a human being more cheaply, more quickly, and in much greater comfort than a sailing yacht does. The dogged insistence of the yachtsman on suffering is of great interest to any naturalist trained in the mold of Darwin.

Is this where the theory of natural selection breaks down? Are yachtsmen a temporary aberration in Nature's scheme of things, doomed to follow the Dodo into extinction? Or could they be living proof that Darwin’s theory of natural selection was wrong? After all, they do seem to be surviving. A recent investigation of increasing sales of infant cradles shaped like boats, by Rundelfender et al, Cordyne University, indicates that their breeding rate is increasing. Thus a greater proportion of human beings will be genetically disposed to enjoy suffering on the water. Scientists naturally find this puzzling, if not disturbing. It will be interesting to see what Fox News makes of it.

Today’s Thought
When you were a tadpole and I was a fish,
In the Paleozoic time,
And side by side on the ebbing tides,
We sprawled through the ooze and slime, ...
My heart was rife with the joy of life,
For I loved you even then.
--Langdon Smith, Evolution.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #207
How much is the upkeep per year? “Not many owners will tell you,” says Francis S. Kinney in Skene’s Elements of Yacht Design. “They don’t want their wives to know.” Nevertheless, he offers a couple of well-informed guesses, based on the original cost of the boat:
Wooden and steel boats, 5 to 12 percent;
Aluminum and fiberglass boats, 2 to 5 percent.

“Dad, what’s horse sense?”
“It’s one of Nature’s little safeguards, son. It’s what keeps a horse from betting on people.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

To quote a San Diego based sailing retailer's ad:
"Some people say we came from the sea.
I say we never left."