Issue: June 2007
OFF THE CHARTS: Live (Sail) and Learn

Supposing is good," Mark Twain said, "but finding out is better." I doubt he was talking about marine toilets or deck washdown pumps, but I think it applies just the same. Education has a certain consistency. On boats, as in life, it's often humiliating, sometimes frightening, frequently exhilarating--but always necessary.

We have gone from a 34-foot production fiberglass ex-racing sloop to a 45-foot semi-custom steel-hull cutter that's already been around the world. Everything about her asks: I'm ready for anything, are you?

So you can see how the learning curve might resemble an Olympic ski jump. Sometimes we nail the landing, other times . . . the agony of defeat. That we have to point our skis down the hill, though, is irrefutable. Which is why it made perfect sense to go sailing last weekend, despite dire predictions of record cold, snow in April and wind blowing half a gale.

We'd been working on the boat all winter, making obvious upgrades, figuring out what systems worked and what didn't. We knew we had heat, refrigeration, a working stove, a fine-running engine and happily charged batteries. Despite our initial terror at a plumbing system with no fewer than five Y-valves and several dangerous looking 90-degree angles, Johnny had spent several hours communing with the system and at last understood its mysteries. So we had a working head. And, after a three-hour chess game with the Bimini and the dodger one Sunday afternoon, we had shelter from the spray and cold.

We were still only supposing, though, that it would all come together, and that the boat would sail as well and would be as comfortable as we'd hoped. Finding out would be better.

Take-off was a little dicey; first of all, there were two inches of fresh snow, which did give one pause. Then there was a great deal of enthusiastic swearing up forward as Johnny went 10 rounds with the bow light fixture, which needed a new bulb ("Now I see why they wire-tied it in place," he grumbled after a half-hour battle with a recalcitrant gasket on the fixture); we had to figure out why the propane solenoid suddenly kept shutting off (too small a fuse) and why the galley sink was suddenly leaking like Scooter Libby (loose hose clamps and yet another uncooperative gasket); and we had to time our launch from the slip in a lull--when it was blowing 15 rather than 25. But finally, whoosh, there we were, airborne. We unfurled the smaller of the jibs, and after a brief but exciting few moments when the diesel heater shut itself down with a great gout of nasty smoke (evidently, despite the manufacturer's cheery claims to the contrary, the stove cannot tolerate a heeling angle up to 15 degrees), we were flying, headed for Thomas Point and the Rhode River.

Like a nervous hen I kept checking the bilges and through-hulls, figuring that the best surprise is no surprise, but after a while I realized that inasmuch as an inanimate object can transmit a feeling, this boat was as happy to be away from the dock as we were. She romped on a tight reach in 25 to 30 knots of wind, and we leaned back and let ourselves smile at the cold spring sun, at the rare sight of gannets so far from the sea, gliding on their black-tipped wings, and at our good fortune to be right there.

It is true that the mercury fell to the 20s that night, a record that day in April. The stars glittered more than shone, although it was too cold on deck to spend much time contemplating the difference. The next day, when the learning curve started all over again, we managed to pull up several pounds of Rhode River mud with the anchor chain as we discovered that, despite its physical presence, the deck washdown was there only in spirit.

None of that seemed to matter too much, though. We may not have nailed a perfect jump, but sometimes perfection is just a tyrant; it can make you stay stuck in the slip forever just thinking about its demands. Learning lies in something less than perfect, in the trying. That's what I suppose, anyway. Finding out will be better.