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Messin about with boats

By G.D. Maxwell If you spend any time around boats larger than, say, a canoe, one thing becomes painfully clear: Murphy was a sailor.

By G.D. Maxwell

If you spend any time around boats larger than, say, a canoe, one thing becomes painfully clear: Murphy was a sailor. Come to think of it, the first time I embarked on a canoe trip of longer than an hour, the canoe I was paddling, a serially-abused, oft-hammered Grumman aluminum workhorse, started leaking along the center seam. Being at that moment ‘of boats’ – a condition having nothing whatsoever to do with experience and everything to do with being at the mercy of the damn things to get you where you’re going – I improvised. I heated the hull with a camp stove, applied duct tape, let the whole thing cool down and launched it, fingers crossed. It worked; no leak… but then a seat broke.

It was Murphy who, of course, famously postulated what can go wrong will go wrong. On boats, what can go wrong will go wrong, often and repeatedly, and what can’t possibly go wrong will go fabulously wrong, defying, if necessary, the laws of physics, thermodynamics and, in a pinch, even gravity if necessary.

Sailors learn to roll with such punches like they learn to roll with the waves. Almost hourly around a marina you hear someone say something like, "I’ll be damned. I didn’t even know this boat had a framitz stabilizer let alone that it was broken." This is generally said to a guy who fixes boats for a living and who knows for a fact that having been lucky enough to be around the marina to take the call, he’s going to be able to afford to put his children through college. After a long and painful conversation, even the most reluctant boat owner will decide to fix –lots of time and money – or replace – even more time and money and the new one won’t be exactly like the old one, requiring extensive modifications that’ll cause a cascading failure of every device upstream and downstream – the damn framitz stabilizer.

Smart sailors, also referred to around marinas as ex-sailors, will say, "Sell this f*!#in’ boat before I torch it for the insurance." Boat insurance, quite understandably, contains a clause that simply assumes any fire that breaks out on a boat that can’t be traced back to clear evidence of deep frying fish and chips is a ‘suspect’ fire and coverage is excluded unless the boat owner can provide three eyewitnesses, two of whom belong to the clergy or an order of nuns, who will testify he didn’t set the fire himself… in which case they’ll call it an act of God and still refuse coverage.

For a pastime that keeps participants out of houses of worship and on their boat during both of the days generally recognized as Sabbath days, Saturday and Sunday, boating seems to invoke God or gods to a degree far greater than any other human endeavour most participants consider a quality leisure pursuit. I’m not referring to the oft-heard epithet, "I don’t know what compelled me to buy this goddamn boat!" I’m talking about invoking deities, both pagan and mainstream, in a hopeless attempt to ensure good weather, calm seas, safe passages, unbroken framitz stabilizers and eventual arrival at whatever destination weekend sailors thought they had a chance in hell at reaching when they set out.

In the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, there were 287 gods and goddesses of relatively higher and lower stature. Of those, fully 239 seemed to have something to do with getting from one place to another over a body of water without being eaten by a sea monster, drowned in a boiling whirlpool, blown to faraway lands, having your ship fall apart underneath you, or being shipwrecked on an unknown island and having a bad television sitcom made about the experience. Even Odysseus – also known as Ulysses depending on whether you’re reading a translation of the Greek or Latin versions of Homer’s epic tale – who has the daughter of the big cheese of all the gods working on his side, still takes 20 years to get from Troy back to Ithaca. Why? Because he’s pissed off every god that has something to do with boat travel. It should be noted, Odysseus didn’t even have a framitz stabilizer on his ship.

Of course, Odysseus didn’t know about Murphy. Neither did the old-timey sailors who invented all the sea gods, goddesses and monsters. All they knew was what every modern day sailor knows. What, I hear you ask, is that? It’s simply this: From the moment you set foot on a boat, even the most stalwart atheist will come to feel so personally persecuted by powers unknown and unknowable that the only rational explanation is the gods have it in for you.

Say you’re traveling south one day. For the preceding 3,491 days the wind might have been blowing south, a condition sailors refer to as a following breeze. Sailors, unless they’re boasting, always refer to wind as a breeze. If they’re boasting, they refer to it as a gale. But I digress. It doesn’t matter that the wind has blown south for as long as history has been recorded. The day you decide to head south, the wind will turn around and blow right in your face, a condition sailors refer to as taking it on the nose. Most anyone who wasn’t a sailor would refer to it as taking it up some other, more posterior anatomical feature but that’s neither here nor there. Taking wind on the nose is the most miserable place to take it because it means the boat is pounding into oncoming waves, the wind is tousling your hair and, sure as the sun rises in the east – which it sometimes doesn’t when you’re on a boat, meaning you’re lost and your compass isn’t working any more – your framitz stabilizer is going to break, leaving you unstable in high seas.

Being a sailor, and therefore delusional, you fight on. Everybody on board has bad hair and a touchy tummy. But there’s hope on the horizon. There’s hope because in another 15 knots – a unit of measure unknown on land and irrelevant on water because there aren’t any signposts letting you know there’s a McDonald’s in 15 knots in case you have to go to the bathroom, which is a head on a boat, a term stripped of anatomical relevance since if you’re on a boat you clearly aren’t using yours anyway – you’re going to turn around and go, say, north. Don’t ask why you’re going to turn around and go the opposite direction you were just traveling; that’s the way things happen on boats.

As soon as you turn north, basking in the knowledge you aren’t going to be taking the wind on the nose any more, the wind will change and start blowing out of the north, a condition heretofore never recorded. That, and a broken framitz stabilizer, is the only thing you can be absolutely certain of when you get anywhere near a boat.

Are we there yet?