I Was Once a Sailor (True Story).


It’s 1985 and my 13 year old limbs strain to push open the heavy door.  Not that I’m weak, it’s just that this door represents a class line between the sprawling Beachwood Yacht Club foyer and its garage, a space reeking of damp wood, intestines of the sailing world.

A hint of AC pipes in from the gap between the closed door and floor.  I feel it on my ankles.  Other than that I’m enveloped in waves of choking summertime heat.  I check the list of upcoming activities, on my left, randomly tacked to the cork board–Six Flags Great Adventure on Thursday, Hot Dog Race on Friday.  I don’t look forward to Friday (we’ll get to that).  Stepping down from the wooden landing, 6 crackling footfalls, I walk amongst the few remaining centerboards, rudders, tillers and life preservers.  My sandals begin collecting the ubiquitous beige grains brought up from the beach, igniting a pleasant friction against my skin.  A steady hum from the 2 vending machines beckon the loose change in my bathing suit pocket, 50¢ for Crunchy Cheese Doodles, 75¢ for a 12oz can of Black Cherry Soda.

Not long ago we all huddled in here, rain preventing us from sailing, to watch Hardware Wars (1977) on reel-to-reel.  I wasn’t prepared for how ridiculous this Star Wars (1977) parody would be, starring a demonstrative Fluke Starbucker and Ham Salad, whose shred of resemblance to Harrison Ford existed only in vest form.  This screenshot should give you a pretty good idea.  And what’s up with Chewie’s eyes?

Safely in the garage, I see Lasers, Sunfish and Prams lining the beach, spars in place, sails waiting on the main sheet.

Sailors, crew and instructors buzz with last-minute preparations.  They’re ready to hit the river, head over to Golf Course Cove, tack across to Pine Beach, compete against one another in a series of races, then leisurely head downwind, back to shore for lunch.  Sounds great, doesn’t it?  Sure, all except the racing part.  I hate racing.  My passage is personally plotted.  Rounding those arbitrary buoys is for sheep. 

Ok, truth be told, I’m not much of a sailor, so I hide in the garage, which leads to an altogether different opportunity: speaking with the press.  While everyone is out on the water I’m on dry land communicating with members of the Asbury Park Press.  I escort them around the Club, an ambassador of sorts.  I pose for pictures, am quoted in the newspaper multiple times, the most notorious of which was my casual reference to the Club’s most famous member, Gary Jobson, who, as Tactician, won the ridiculously prestigious America’s Cup in 1977.

Yeah.  He’s pretty good.  There’s a bunch of stuff about’em over there on the wall.”

The kid who can’t race calls Jobson “pretty good.”

But I wasn’t always on land, schmoozing the press.  My 14′ Sunfish, named Great White, while the oldest in the fleet, was respectably fit, if not a bit heavy from water retained in her hull.  If we were on the water during race time, the shrieking airhorn immediately sent us in the opposite direction, away from the action, aquatic rebels.

So I didn’t race, but I did develop a critical sailing skill: capsizing at will.  I could put Great White on her side, hop over the port rail and stand on the centerboard, triumphant in controlled calamity.  I was even asked by Club instructors to show younger sailors how to capsize properly, which I did, effortlessly.  It’s my claim to sailing fame.

My sailing career ends in 1987, marked by typically bizarre fanfare.  That year, the  Awards Ceremony Committee sees fit to give me the Hard Luck Trophy, a formally intact trophy, its vessel mauled and glued together for effect.

The trophy is awarded with good reason–our last season is a real doozy.  Of the many tragedies, perhaps one of the worst, unfurls like an accident in slow motion.

Lolling in the Committee Boat.

We’re anchored.  The engine isn’t running, tiny lapping waves our only soundtrack.  Forced from peace, we jerk our necks starboard, responding to the obnoxious chainsaw grind of a 30′ cigarette boat ripping past.  Our comparative dinghies, daisy chained to the Committee Boat, begin swelling in the enormous wake.  Caught in the flow, and first in line, Great White’s bow rises up and down, edging ever closer to the Committee Boat’s 100 Horsepower Evinrude.  The timing is perfect–Great White’s bow dips underneath the fully exposed outboard engine, penetrating her with such force it reverberates across the river’s surface.  Great White looks as if she needs an Orthodontist.  I shove a life vest into her gaping maw and we manage to get to shore.

The final blow occurs at the end of the season, solidifying our uncontested Hard Luck Trophy berth.

Freak Thunderstorm.

String lightening peals through dark cloud cover, striking an antennae only a few miles away.  I swear it glows for a second.  Sailors scream, knowing full well we’re sitting inside pieces of fiberglass, whose sail is attached to what can only be, in this situation, a lightening rod.  Get ashore!

We lash our vessels together and seek shelter up the beach.  From the enclosure I see rough seas gaining on Great White.  The storm gets so intense we actually knock on a stranger’s door in order to escape this biblical fury.  Eventually returning to her, I can see her mast is gone.  Hard to sail without that.

When formally awarded the Hard Luck Trophy, I treat the dishonor as if I’ve won an Academy Award®.  My acceptance speech is brief and intentionally vacuous.  I step away from the podium and do my best pratfall.  The Club is in stitches.  I couldn’t be happier.

Looking back, I don’t regret a thing.  I had a great time, both in and out of the water.  I do wish I could have another go on the water, though.  I’d like to capsize again, just to show off my, albeit limited, skill set.

Any sailor’s out there?

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