A three hour tour.

For those of you just tuning in, for the last 9 years I've been building a boat with my father, and it's finally done. You can go here to see the original story of how I ended up building a sailboat when I have absolutely no idea how to sail.

Sailing people you meet at the boat launch are weird. They're a helpful and friendly bunch, but they sure like to talk about themselves a lot. I think I just haven't been indoctrinated into the club yet. So far, almost every conversation I've had at a launch began with "Well, I've been sailing for XX years, and I....blah, blah, blah..." and I have to stand there and listen to them tell stories and give advice when I really should be trying to prevent my boat from washing up on the shore and killing a dog or something.

I'm pretty sure that how long you've been doing something doesn't necessarily equate to how good you are at it, but I don't think sailors will admit this. I've been playing drums for a long time, and I reached a certain skill level that I never surpassed -- it became a limitation of both my time and talent. In reality, as much as they won't admit it, sailing is like sex. When you first start doing it, you suck at it, and your goal is to not kill or embarrass yourself. After you get the basics down, you practice up and get better and learn a few tricks and eventually you spend a decade or two at the top of your game. After that, you begin the inevitable slide down the other side of that bell curve.* Sailors deny this slide, and eventually they just end up hanging around the public boat launch wearing a strap-on and telling lies.

Take knots, for instance. Apparently, they're more than just those annoying things you get in your shoelaces at the exact moment you're trying to romantically rip your pants off -- they are also some bullshit measure of speed you are forced to use when you become a sailor. Miles per hour isn't good enough for Sailors. Noooo, they have to have their own personal unit of measurement.

In fact, in the short time I've been doing this, I've learned that almost every single aspect of sailing has its own unique terminology. The first thing you are forced to do is learn some of it, because you'll need to be familiar with those terms in order to ask intelligent questions of other sailors. For example, you might need to know the correct terminology to be able to accurately describe exactly what was happening the instant before something hit you in the back of head and a wall of water came up to meet your face.

You can't say things like "It was really windy and there were some big-ass waves, and we were sailing kind of with the wind when the cable on the left side holding the mast snapped and my father let go of the rope and the sail went whipping out at a right angle and pulled all the rope out of the boom pulleys, and when it did, we took off like a bat out of hell. Then the other rope holding the top of the sail up came loose and the rope slid up the mast and the top of the sail collapsed. It was a total clusterfuck."

Instead, you have to say, "The wind was blowing at about 15 knots due north, kicking up a fresh breeze** and 3 foot seas. We were on a broad reach when the port shroud snapped off the chainplate and my first mate released the main sheet when she started to heel, and the sheet ran out of the boom blocks, and when it did, the mainsail hit the starboard shroud and we started running. Then the peak halyard sheet uncleated and ran up the mast and the sail spilled air and started flogging. It was a total clusterfuck."

OK, some of the terminology is the same.

And that's only half the problem. When you finally figure out the correct terms required to actually phrase your question, the experienced sailing person to whom you ask this question will generally give you an answer that contains 20 new terms that you're not familiar with.

"Yeah, you're gonna need some 17x9 SS, double-swaged to a 1/8" thimble. Throw a Harken double on the peak, pick up some sea dogs, and ditch those horns and get cams. The brass horns are pretty but they don't work for shit. Better yet, just get some fairleads and run the jibsheets back to the cockpit. And pick up a fitted gooseneck and maybe think about a boom vang. Oh, and with that gaff rig, a topping lift would definitely make your life easier."

Your job as a new sailor is to simply stand there and nod your head and pretend you understand what they are telling you, even though deep in your brain stem, you feel the same panicked, naked dread that you felt the first time you saw one of those math word problems with no numbers in it on the SAT.

Then you go home and look up 37 different things on Google.

A few weeks ago, we decided to take Constant Sun out because the weather report said the winds were going to be 5-10mph and we figured it would be another easy day of practice. (You can't just say "the boat" anymore either. You have to call it "her" or by her given name or the Sailboat Police will come to your house and tell you how long they've been sailing.)

Someone once told me "It's a good trip if you come home with all the big pieces" so technically this was a good trip. I'm a little short on time this week, and this post is far too long already, so I will tell you the tale of our adventure*** in my next post.

* so I've heard.
**on the Beaufort scale.
*** or, to use the correct nautical term, Total Clusterfuck.


  1. Yeah, I always appreciated the nautical term, clusterfuck. Sailing really gets interesting when you turtle the boat.


  2. Funny you should mention math, because I put this in the same category as how most statisticians don't understand random processes, and most accountants don't really understand math. Sailors think knowing all the terms for things equates to knowing how to sail. This is probably why they say, "I've been doing this for XX years." What they mean is that they've been doing it that many years and they are still alive.

  3. i always get sailor shamed for calling charts "maps".

  4. i get bitched out for referring to the "metal thingie", which is apparently a cleat, not knowing a genoa from salami, and drinking too much when i'm supposed to be doing something else.

    they tell me "Go to the high side, Railmeat!" and so long as i keep my beer in a coozie, tethered with a halfhitch to a cleat, i'm happy.

  5. Tell me true: is that Beaufort Scale for real? I read things like "large branches in motion, whistling in telegraph wires, umberellas used with difficulty" and I think I've been transported to a mystical JV sailing place where "wind raises dust and loose paper, small branches move." Are you supposed to keep this chart handy so that when the Coast Guard comes to your rescue you can accurately describe the "moderate waves of pronounced long form. Many whit horses, some spray?" Horses? Really?

    Never mind that whoever this Beaufort character is, he can't spell.

  6. I was in the Navy. I am familiar with knots. All kinds.

    I also know that only crazy people operate boats with sails.

    That's been true since Christopher Columbus and his hotel buddy, Howard Johnson, invented the outboard motor.

    1. er, that was Chris Craft and Ho Jo. Columbus and Johnson were not contemporaries.

  7. Fragrant, we narrowly avoided that, and it's a good thing. This boat will not unturtle. It's a bad design that way.

    Chris, you explained it better than I could. Just because you roll ten sixes in a row, it doesn't mean you're more or less likely to roll another six the eleventh time. It seems counterintuitive.

    Rowena, I like that term. Sailor-shamed. I'm stealing that.

    Daisy, I like the term railmeat too. As an aside, I'd rethink where you keep your beer.

    Jen, it's totally for real. Someone suggested I read up on it to understand why sailing a little unballasted boat when there are whitecaps with foam blowing off the top isn't a great idea.

    Ed, knots in rope are another whole thing. I paid thirty bucks for something called a "fid" and a hank of rope and I was supposed to be able to make a perfect eye splice with a bit of practice. What I was able to make was a lot of little pieces of rope. And I thought the outboard motor was invented by the Roman god Mercury.

  8. Anonymous12:33 AM

    "Does anyone here know what "knots" are?"

    A knot is a Nautical Mile per hour. A nautical mile is the length of 1 minute of latitude (approx 6070ft), vs the statute mile of 5280ft (1k paces of a Legionaire??).

  9. Anonymous, yes I know that. Now. And I'll admit it makes sense. Smartass. :)

  10. As a son of a sailor, I know exactly how you feel with all the terminology- It really is like another language. I've been on boats most of my life and as I was reading your paragraph in English I tried translating as best I could into nautical before reading what you translated it, and I didnt even get it all. Just remember, even if your no good at sailing, boats make great floating bars!

  11. kristina1:18 PM

    Someone once told me the measurement for speed in "knots" referred to the number of knots tied in a long piece of rope approximately 1 foot apart hanging from the stern showed above the water line while moving.

    Not being a sailor, I had no idea, but being a logical thinker, I wasn't sure really believe them...

    Glad you returned from your "Clusterfuck" in one piece!

  12. Anonymous5:43 PM

    You, Sir, are one hell of a funny man!



  13. I have a friend who is a sailor and everyone at her boat club is the same way. I think it's in their bloodlines..like saying "hey, I'm Protestant" or whatever.

  14. Anonymous3:44 PM

    This is too funny. I love sailing, but get to do so little. I learned as a boy.

    I read the proctology post, too, and together, they made my day!

    Good luck, fair winds!
    Jay in VA

  15. Aaaahhhhrrrrr....let the scuppers run red with blood....

    I noticed that comment was missing from this thread...

  16. Yeah, Glad you (and I) don't talk about ourselves like those other assholes on he dock!

  17. Well, you survived. That's a bonus right there.

  18. Knots and nautical miles are good things.

    A nautical mile is equal to one minute of latitude. So you don't need to use a separate scale to measure distance, the latitude marks on the chart will work fine for that.

  19. yeah, the boat thing's kinda lost on me. anything larger than a canoe and i'm technicolor yawning over the side. i still have nightmares about the ferry to martha's vineyard.

  20. I've no idea how I got here, but I'll BE BACK. I don't sail, I don't even FLY over the ocean if I can help it, but I DO love the scent and finger-satin of good lumber, and I could listen to the tide come in til the cows . . .

    And I do know good writing when I read it---this was absolutely wonderful.

    Can't wait to come back and dive into your archives. (That's one of the sea-going terms I DO know).


  21. After yet another spectacularly crappy day, I just read this and started laughing...Thank you!
    My dad was in the Navy and even now only reads books with boats (aaarrggghhh what am I saying? It's SHIPS not BOATS girl, get the terminology right...) on the cover. He's yearned to be a sailor all his life (and never made it), but boy, does that vocabularly make me blank out... I couldn't even read "Treasure Island" without skipping over the nautical-ly parts (ie most of it). Hardly surprising I never really "got" that book...

  22. Anonymous4:52 PM

    Well Gilligan got off the island..
    this is great Johnny.. wow, you and Dad built a boat.. damn, I never heard of that before.. Kewl..

    I heard there is the laymens nautical dictionary that uses words like "clusterfuck", "Big ass-Kicking waves", and "What the fuck" when the wind gets whipping ultra fast..

    enjoy every last minute on that water. I'm a beach baby from Va Beach and have sailed many times.. Bon Voyage (or in laymens terms, "get the damn boat amoving buddy")