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Saturday, July 19, 2014

When in command

The late General Norman Schwarzkopf commanded forces during the first Gulf War, and after his retirement from active service I had hired him as a motivational speaker for a corporate recognition event.

General Norman Schwarzkopf during the first Gulf War.

He was as dynamic a speaker as he was a military commander, and his speech covered what he called his “Fourteen Rules of Leadership.”

It was Rule 13 that he emphasized:

“When placed in command, take charge. Even if the decision is bad, it is better than being stagnant.”

But his message didn’t resonate with me until several years later, when I took ownership of a new sailboat, Copy Cat.

The first order of business was to get this 23-foot New England catboat from her birthplace in Amityville, New York, to her new home on Buzzards Bay, the body of water between mainland Massachusetts and Cape Cod.

As new to sailing as I was, the thought of single-handing my new boat for a five-day passage was too daunting. As Capt. Matt at BoatSafe.com says:

“No matter how long you have been boating there is always that tense feeling when you are out there on your own. If this feeling ever goes away, you should probably take up golf.”

So I enlisted my friend Chuck -- an audio engineer who works many of our company’s corporate multimedia events and a sailor since boyhood – to accompany me on the trip and provide some pointers about sailing.

At mid-morning on the foggy third day of our passage -- off the town of Orient-by- the-Sea at the eastern tip of Long Island -- the motor suddenly died. It took only a moment to realize the boat’s 12-gallon fuel tank was dry.

Chuck immediately called for me to raise sail as fast as I could in order to regain control of the boat, because we were within shouting distance of the rocky shore.

With the sail up, we were able to heave-to (like "parking" the boat) while I radioed Sea Tow. Then Chuck and I waited in silence. I was humiliated. Chuck was angry.

In minutes, the Sea Tow boat appeared through the fog and threw us a line that we wrapped around our mast. Copy Cat was dragged to Orient-by-the-Sea Marina like a reluctant puppy on a leash. 

At the fuel dock, Chuck primed and bled the diesel and the motor came back to life. He was proud of how adept he had been in getting the motor going and suggested lunch in the marina restaurant.

As we wolfed down curried chicken wraps, Chuck and I exchanged words about the fuel disaster.

“They told me the tank was full,” I said, shifting blame to the boatyard that had handed me the keys to Copy Cat.

“You’re the skipper,” Chuck shot back. “You can’t take somebody else’s word about your boat.”

With this, I realized, sailing had taught me the same life lesson that General Schwarzkopf had tried to: It was nobody’s fault but mine -- as skipper -- that we had run out of fuel.

If advice from a military man sounds too strident for you, here’s J. K. Rowling, the authorial “mother” of Harry Potter:

“There is an expiration date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.”

In my next blog, “Privacy, pornography, paradox.”

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The fat guy in the fat boat

“One thing about being at sea is that you don’t really get to stop. Until you arrive in port, you’re stuck, and conditions can always worsen, the boat can always break in new ways, whether you’re prepared or not. Even in port, you can slip anchor, blow against other anchored boats in crosswinds and currents, or run aground. A boat simply does not allow for genuine rest. Its essential nature is peril, held in check only through enormous effort and expense.”

A Mile Down; The True Story of a Disastrous Career at Sea
David Vann, 2005

So why would anybody in their right mind want to own a boat? Especially a sailboat?

I'll tell you why.

I grew up the son of a cop in the oil refining and heavy industrial City of Perth Amboy, New Jersey. The town’s greatest endowment was its prominent location at the confluence of the Kill Van Kull, the oily channel separating Staten Island from New Jersey, and the Raritan River, which spills out of the Garden State’s famous truck farming region into Raritan Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Hence Perth Amboy’s moniker of “Queen City of the Raritan Bay Area.”

On Dad’s infrequent days off from patrol duty and moonlighting as an ironworker, a favorite family pastime was to spend the afternoon at the beautifully peaceful park and boardwalk that edged the city’s waterfront like the lacey hem of a pretty girl’s slip.

It was there that I fell in love with the graceful sailboats that danced en pointe on the shimmering waters of the bay -- toy ballerinas on a mirrored music box.

The Perth Amboy, NJ, waterfront.

In the seemingly endless sunshine of a young boy’s summer afternoons, I never guessed back then that there would be no boats in my life for another half-century.

So it's significant for me that this week, Copy Cat, my 23-foot New England catboat, was taken from winter storage and is at her mooring off Buzzards Bay. 

Copy Cat was designed by Bill Menger and fabricated in his boatworks on New York's Great South Bay.

The Menger catboat.

A catboat is not a catamaran, the twin-hulled sailboats most landlubbers are familiar with. Nor is it a sloop, the sleek, two-sail boat you frequently see heeled over to the point of capsizing. A catboat is a traditional working boat that was used by fishermen and lobstermen. It is low-slung, half as wide as it is long, and has only a single, large sail attached to a mast at the very front of the vessel. During the 19th and early 20th century, catboats were everywhere.

“Menger Cats” are unique among the breed because his 23-footer is equivalent to a 27-foot sloop. It can achieve a speedy seven knots, and it has enough headroom below decks for a six-foot-two man to stand tall.

What I did not know when I ordered my boat was that cancer would soon claim Bill … and that I had just ordered the last Menger Cat to come off the line.

I was turned on to catboats by Chuck Westfall, an audio engineer who works many of our company's corporate multimedia events. There’s only a single sail to worry about, Chuck explained to me, a hugely broad beam for almost unsinkable stability, and a big cockpit for entertaining guests. A cat was eminently easy to sail, he assured me.

Chuck Westfall, protector of refreshing rum drinks.

“On a catboat,” Chuck smiled, “it's practically impossible to do anything that might spill your refreshing rum drink.”

So I read up about catboats, and sure enough, Chuck was right. I fell in love with the looks and legends of a cat.

“You’ll be the fat guy in the fat boat,” he grinned when I told him I was going to buy one.

So here I am, another summer season of the “essential peril” of a boat – especially a sailboat in Buzzards Bay.

Buzzards Bay – the body of water between Cape Cod and mainland Massachusetts -- got its ridiculous name from colonists who misidentified a large bird they saw near its shores. It was actually an osprey, but the irreversible naming damage had already been done.

Buzzards Bay always makes the Top Ten lists of “Most Challenging” bodies of water in which to sail. The reason, I understand, is that in addition to brisk winds in the funnel-shaped Bay, there is frequently contrary interplay between tides and winds on the uniformly shallow waters – fewer than 50 feet on average.

Still, so many recreational boaters are drawn to it -- just as, from earliest times, our ancient ancestors clustered their dwelling places near bodies of water. As a species, we come from water and are so much composed of water that we instinctively regard it as our natural habitat.

Copy Cat brings my wife and me closer to our natural habitat.

In her memoir, Paris France, Gertrude Stein wrote:

“Writers have two countries. The one where they belong and the one in which they live really. The second one is romantic. It is not real but it is really there.”

I’d say this is true for not only writers, but for sailors, too. 

So, then ... this is why we buy boats.

In my next blog: “When in command”


Friday, July 4, 2014

Food fight


Homo sapiens is the only animal that cooks. Cooking a meal is almost a sacred symbol of our humanity.
It is also a profoundly social pastime. Primitive peoples, like the Flintstones, might have shared meals with one another and with strangers as a way to show that they were not going to fight them for food. A meal was a pact of friendship and security.
And let’s not forget how central the devotional meal is to many religions – Seder, for instance, and Holy Eucharist, which harken back to the urge to share a meal with God.

Food is almost always shared. Meals are – at least until the advent of career-minded parents and pervasive after-school activities -- events when the whole family or community comes together.

So how did something as sacrosanct as the shared meal become so commercialized?

Wayside taverns were a feature of civilizations from Romans to Victorians. But eating in these was not what we’d think of today as a “meal.” It was more like “feeding.”

Aside from travelers, for whom eating out was first invented, few people – even today -- dine out from necessity.

It is the French who are at fault for where we are today.

In the 18th century, they successfully sold the idea that cooking is an art, and that enjoying food is an aesthetic experience worth paying for. (It was in Paris, after all, that the word restaurant was first recorded in 1765 – rooted in the verb "to restore.")

Because of the French, today’s romantic dinners, birthday dinners, anniversary dinners, retirement dinners and all such communal celebrations are taken out of the home and made into public ritual.

But how often do we have a truly “aesthetic experience” worth paying for?

It seems that whenever my wife and I go out to a restaurant for some discretionary dining, we discover when the check arrives that we could have brought along a third person as our guest.

For example, two nights ago my wife took a friend out for a birthday dinner in Manhattan. Each of them ordered the $30 prix fixe, which included appetizer, entrĂ©e and dessert. Here’s the catch: each had a cocktail to start, at $17 per. For the $34 drink tab, my wife could have treated two friends to dinner.

How about the lobster roll in Providence for which I paid $25?

Here on Cape Cod, I can buy an entire lobster for five or six dollars a pound. So why are restaurants marking up the price by three, four or five times – and serving you far less than a pound? On a hot dog bun.

So on this Fourth of July weekend, I am declaring my own Declaration of Independence. From the tyranny of restaurants. From roadside eateries that charge white-tablecloth prices for meals served with plastic utensils. From shelling out the price of the bottle for a single shot of vodka.

Yes, I am picking a food fight. No more discretionary dining out. From now on, it’s restaurant-free feeding for me. (As soon as I sell my wife on this, my latest lunacy.)

We might be coming full circle, though. At my bed-and-breakfast on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, we have offered with great success a gourmet tasting menu open to the public.

An example of people going out to eat – but actually eating in.

Maybe I will just join them at my own table and pretend I’m eating out.

In my next blog: “The Fat Guy in the Fat Boat”