How Sailing Changes Us

Alpha Carinae
Alpha Carinae, CYCA Winter Series 2013. Photo from the CYCA’s website

Learning a new skill often changes our perspective on things around us. A boxer once told me that when he was younger he would look at people while walking down the street and think of a strategy and a combination of punches to win a fight with the passers by who looked bigger and stronger than him.

A slightly less disturbing example is driving. A person who doesn’t know how to drive tends to trust the driver to get them from point A to B, at most giving directions if the driver is not familiar with the surroundings. There are people who can be perfect passengers even after they learn to drive. They are in the minority though. Most drivers, even while they are in the passenger seat, automatically notice cars around them going too slowly or braking too hard and some of them also can’t help thinking of real or perceived opportunities to go faster and overtake a few cars that the current driver might have missed. Sometimes passengers unconsciously push the floor in a futile attempt to slow down or give helpful advice to the driver about changing lanes. I usually tell taxi drivers which lane to be in. Surprisingly, I have never been punched by a cabbie – none of them has even given me a dirty look – but that’s probably because cabs in Australia are so expensive that customers are allowed to choose which lane to be in.

Sailing – and especially racing – also changes the way we look at things and the way we act. Here are the main changes that I have noticed and feel free to contribute if you think of more things:

1. Wind and weather in general

My non-sailing colleagues who go to lunch with me rarely check the weather forecast anymore, they just ask me about it. I usually look at the weather forecast for at least a few days in advance and I can tell them that the southerly is supposed to come at 6 pm tomorrow after which the weather is going to completely change. They stare blankly at me when I tell them that the wind is going to be over 20 knots so I convert it to kilometres per hour. After more blank stares I just say that it is going to be pretty windy and they tell me that I should have said so to begin with.

Sometimes I try to explain rain, fog and changes in temperature by looking at weather maps but I usually double check my predictions by looking at the forecast for the next few days. Once I am sure that my explanation of the weather maps is in full accordance with the official BOM predictions, I impress my coworkers with my spiel about areas of high and low pressure. OK, I don’t do it that much, I just felt like I had to do it a couple of times after my Day Skipper theory course.

I usually start checking wind for the weekend in the middle of the week in preparation for the upcoming races. This winter a few races were cancelled because of too much wind so I anxiously checked for official warnings before every Sunday. Unfortunately, sometimes clubs don’t tell you that the race is abandoned until you are half way there, driving through a thick rain that is almost horizontal. Still, knowing that it’s going to be pissing down all weekend can be useful.

And of course every time I walk around the Sydney Harbour Bridge I look up at the flags on top of it and check out the wind direction. Then I look at the boats moored around and check that they are all aligned according to the wind direction. Then I start looking at the water for gusts. Walking around the Sydney Harbour is great, it’s never boring!

2. Crossing paths

Sailors have to judge distances all the time to make sure their boat doesn’t collide with other boats. That is why when they are not sailing they still sometimes try to tell other people that they are on a collision course and that they need to tack. Or they might not say it but just think about it. Probably out loud. You are lucky if they don’t yell “Starboard!” to claim right of way.

3. Sailing gear

Let’s face it: wet weather gear for sailing is awesome. When it’s raining really hard and it’s windy and uncomfortable (even in the Sydney Harbour that is generally not a very cold place), foul weather gear is the best thing to keep you (mostly) sane. That is why it’s so tempting to wear it to events unrelated to sailing when it is raining. I entertained the thought of wearing my foulies to the office many a time. I have to walk for about 20 minutes to get to work and when it is both windy and raining, umbrellas don’t help much. Putting my red sailing pants over my business pants/skirt with my offshore jacket on top and my sailing boots on my feet seems like a brilliant idea, and I giggle every time I imagine the faces of all the office workers in the area staring at my outfit. Sadly, I have never had enough courage to do that so far. One day.

Sailors less conscious of other people’s opinions wear wet weather gear to sporting events of various kinds and they are often the most comfortable people in the audience.

Some crew shirts and jackets also make sailors stand out in a crowd. I used to sail on a boat called “Jessica Rabbit”. The crew jackets had the picture of the cartoon character on the back – and the crew members got whistled at when wearing the jacket outside the sailing club.

4. Knots

Sailors can get obsessed with knots. Some of them will practice tying a bowline with one hand or with their eyes closed and lots of them will give you advice on how to tie a parcel together.

5. Beer

Strictly speaking, this is not a skill directly related to sailing… but then it is. Sailors drink a lot of beer. And rum. But mostly beer – before, after or even during a race when it’s relatively calm (especially on a downwind leg). As a result, a lot of sailors can open a beer bottle with a winch handle or a lighter and they can also finish a bottle of beer really, really fast when required.

Can you think of anything else? Feel free to leave a comment.

P.S. Thanks to /u/GritsConQueso from /r/sailing who came up with the idea for this blog entry.