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Aboard a boat, a soundly educated engineer who would never think of building a house from the attic down will suffer a sudden sea change and hank a jib to a forestay starting at the top instead of the bottom. Intelligent men will hoist sails upside down, stuff long battens into short pockets, hold their heads high when a boom with the wallop of a ball bat comes sweeping across the cockpit and toss anchors overboard with no rode attached to them. On a boat a man who carefully secures his $5 watch against careless loss will casually leave a $50 winch handle lying on deck only slippery inches away from 30 fathoms of water.
One can, I suppose, read in a book about how not to do these things, but the best teachers are a kindly skipper's sudden maniac fury, an acre of loose sail taking charge in a puff of wind or a nearly cracked skull.
Thus we see the case for simple common sense. But other homely virtues are of almost equal importance. One of the simplest of these—particularly offshore—is tidiness. Carleton Mitchell, the three-time Bermuda race winner, insisted on keeping his trim little Finisterre as immaculate at all times as his Park Avenue apartment. Nobody knew better than Mitch how discouraging it is to come off watch dead tired and find someone else's wet sock hugging your only dry sweater. On one of the Bermuda runs a Finisterre crewman who failed to understand this persisted in leaving his belongings wherever they dropped. Mitchell finally warned him to mend his ways on pain of seeing the whole lot heaved overboard. The crewman began to believe that Mitchell meant what he said when he saw his wardrobe flying into the sea. Does that make Mitch a Captain Bligh? Not in the eyes of most sailors.
A racing skipper who knows his business and is firm about his command is as welcome at sea as a sound bottom even if, like the bottom, he sometimes gets a bit crusty. One of the toughest and most capable sailors afloat is Finnish-born Sven Joffs, the professional who commands Huey Long's Ondine when the owner is not aboard. Joffs doesn't believe in pampering his amateur crewmen and he is not above applying a firm foot to a slothful backside. Last year when Ondine was skirting the frigid wastes of Antarctica on her way to the Sydney-Hobart race, freezing hands on watch constantly sought Joffs' permission to seek shelter beneath the cockpit dodger. Joffs just as constantly refused it, grunting that the watch was there to keep an eye out and not to lull himself into drowsy comfort. There was grumbling, of course. There always is. But when the huge ketch's big mainmast snapped off in a wild blow on the same trip, miles and miles from anywhere, Joffs' sound seamanship and calm, firm command as he set the crew to work clearing the wreckage were like a father's hand to a lost and frightened child.
There are few situations in the world where men are more dependent on each other or more likely to get in each other's way and on each other's nerves than aboard an oceangoing sailboat. It is an atmosphere that puts a high premium on morale and good nature. In years of sailing, the fellow crewmen I remember most fondly are those who, in one way or another, added something special to the vitally important store of goodwill aboard.
Take, for example, Simeon Bull, with whom I sailed a Fastnet race in 1959. Simeon came from an ancient and honorable family of the kind that breeds Englishmen who insist on dressing for dinner in the jungle. Simeon himself was not a stickler for form. As a matter of fact, he couldn't care less, but he did like to sleep in flannel pajamas. No possible combination of wind and weather could deter Simeon from the nightly ritual of donning those pajamas. One night in particular a howling gale struck, soaking and wracking our boat and everything and everyone in it. All of us watched fascinated as Simeon, undismayed by these circumstances, prepared for bed. First he wriggled out of his foul-weather suit—something like a wet strait-jacket—and peeled off several layers of sopping sweaters, shirts, pants and socks. Then, his hands long since blue with cold, he reached for his pajamas, which were by then, of course, soggy lumps of wet flannel. Carefully and precisely, Simeon wrung them out as dry as the conditions allowed, donned them daintily, slid in between a pair of wet sheets half-stiffened by salt, and—teeth still chattering—fell into innocent sleep.
How in the face of such magnificent unconcern could the rest of us fret over our little discomforts?
There was another heroic morale-builder on that same race. His name was Loudie and he suffered, chronically and violently, from seasickness. It is in most cases a terrible, demoralizing thing to watch a fellow crewman disintegrate in self-pity under the impact of mal de mer, but Loudie made a positive virtue of his ailment. Suddenly but quietly in the midst of breakfast, lunch or dinner at the wildly swinging cabin table, he would wash down a final mouthful of cold ravioli with a swig of beer and say with impeccable manners, "I beg your pardon, but would you mind letting me out for a second?" Because we all knew where he was bound we would step aside hastily as Loudie made his way on deck. In a minute or two he would return, his face as green as the sea. "Now, where was I?" he'd continue, chugalugging another beer.
Loudie is one of those sailors, dear to every skipper's heart, who sign on as crew every chance they get because—for reasons known only to themselves—they actually like it. They like the opportunity to abandon a warm bunk at midnight, don wet clothes and fight their way to a deck swept by wind and rain to do battle with Dacron that feels like icy sheet iron. They like to spend their Sunday afternoons hiking out to windward on a racing dinghy with an ache burning the small of their backs like a branding iron. An inch of relaxation might cure the ache, but it might cost their skipper a second at the windward mark as well, so they don't try it.
There are men like these in ports all over the world, in Capetown and Gibraltar, in Papeete, Newport Beach, Miami and Marblehead, Mass., men—young men mostly—who are footloose, fancy-free and eager to sign on any boat going anywhere. Take Des Kearns, for instance. Supporting himself with skimpy checks for bits he sends to yachting magazines, this young Australian has crisscrossed the Pacific, raced to Bermuda, rounded the Horn in a small sloop just for the fun of it, sailed from Greece to Australia, got wrecked off Antarctica with Ondine, and has still not reached 30.