Issue: November 2006
OFF THE CHARTS: When Pigsticks Fly



Sometimes it takes just a single look at one of these appurtenances to know you're in big trouble. The thing instantly conjures any number of scenes from The Exorcist; even before installation you can tell it is possessed by the devil. Yet you must have it for your boat.

When we joined the Sailing Club of the Chesapeake a few years ago that's what we decided about the pigstick--we just had to have it. SCC is a venerable club of serious yachtsmen, its tradition instilled in the Clarke side of the family. For this reason, we would need a proper club burgee--the only one Luna had ever flown--displayed in the appropriately yachtsmanlike manner. From a pigstick, that is.

Go ahead, look it up. I did. Some words--especially nautical ones--beg etymology. In my doorstop Webster's there's no nautical definition, just one for a method of killing wild boar from horseback with a spear. Online, Wikipedia informed me that a pigstick is a tool used to disable explosive devices. Finally I found what I was looking for in an online dictionary called "MariSafe," which defined a pigstick as "a small masthead staff from which a burgee, house flag or commission pennant is flown."

This last bit sounded perfectly reasonable and safely unrelated to wild pigs or bombs. Using this method the burgee would snappily wave well above the Windex wind vane and assorted other expensive, pain-in-the-arse equipage at the masthead. What could be yachtier than that?

Our first glimpse of the pigstick's demonic possession came when we were simply trying to get it up the mast with the burgee on it; the thing was about four feet long, dangling from two strings (aka the halyard) run though two brass eyes set in the stick well apart (to provide the necessary angle to both hold the stick up and keep it snug) with a bright red-and-white burgee whapping around one end. Weaseling it up the mast without tangling one or any of its parts in the shrouds, spreaders, backstay or headstay was like threading a needle with a happy Labrador retriever. After several tries and numerous expletives, though, we succeeded. It looked terrific.

We're not sure exactly when it had its way with the Windex, but sometime during that first sail to the SCC's July 4 rendezvous we looked up and realized that something was amiss. The burgee was still snapping away, the pigstick looked jaunty, but the Windex (a far more important and expensive pain in the arse than the pigstick) looked distinctly mangled, as if a toddler had gotten hold of it. Suffice to say it wasn't performing its intended and necessary function; instead of swinging with the breeze to reveal wind direction, it just sat there, pranged in one spot.

Obviously the pigstick was to blame; in a gust, it must have lost some of its, um, erection and let the burgee tilt enough to thrash the bejesus out of the Windex. Down it came (and that was almost as much fun as putting it up) to be replaced with an even longer version, which took even more time and expletives to erect--but approximately the same amount of time to violate the brand-new Windex.

Now, two Windexes and two pigsticks into the project, it was getting personal. Johnny procured the longest damned pigstick he could find, wrestled it up the rig and said, "Hah!" Which, as anyone knows, you never say to demonically possessed objects or nautical appendages; it took a little longer, but the Windex lost again. Finally, last Sunday, at about 4 a.m., the pigstick won the war. Tapping briskly in a fresh breeze at anchor, even after we had tied the halyard away from the mast, it woke us up relentlessly until we staggered on deck, cut the halyard with a really big knife and yanked the thing down for good.

So. Anyone for wild-boar hunting?