THERE ARE MORE THAN 17 MILLION boats in this country, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association. More than a few of these are powered by sail. And right about now, in our part of the country, these boats are coming out of storage and heading for our lakes and ponds to try their luck against the capricious breezes of summer.
At the same time, millions of skeptical spouses, incredulous co-workers and terrified kids are wondering in unison -- why?
I've been sailing for 20 years and, truthfully, I'm still scratching my head over the answer. But I do have a few insights, which I'm only too happy to share.
REASON NO. 1: A SAILBOAT IS A WHINE-FREE ZONE.
Don't get me wrong. Sailing attracts its share of whiners -- for whom the sun is too hot or too bright, the water too funky or that funnel cloud over there a little too scary. But when we are in the boat, the whining stops. A 10-foot squid tentacle could shoot up over the transom, wrap itself around your buddy's neck and drag him under, and when he pops back to the surface, he'll say something like, "Wow, I think I lost a shoe and maybe an arm." Or perhaps, "Guys, you're going to have to help out with the tiller here. I'm dead."
Why is this? Because at its heart, sailing is not a whining-friendly activity. It tends to be miserable and tedious, punctuated with brief intervals of abject terror. In either situation, whining is neither a productive nor welcome part of the ambience of the boat. And the ambience of the boat absolutely trumps everything else because there are few options for escaping when things go bad. So sailing tends to draw folks of a certain temperament: Heart surgeons. EMTs. Bomb dismantlers. Professional assassins. Anyone with a high whining threshold or need to escape a whiny environment. You get the idea.
REASON NO. 2: "YACHT RACING" IS SUCH A COOL PHRASE TO DROP INTO ANY CONVERSATION.
Try it some time: "We've analyzed the analytics here, and we've extrapolated the projections out well into the holiday buying season, and by the way, did I tell you I was YACHT RACING last weekend?"
Instant alpha dog.
That is, unless there are any other sailors in the room, in which case you're really out of luck. They will know that the "yacht" you race is unlikely to be something that Ted Turner, the celebrity sailor, or Dennis Conner, known as Mr. America's Cup, would be caught dead on. In fact, even Popeye might look at it with a squinty eye and move on. What we sail in the yacht races on our little lake every summer weekend -- and what thousands of people of all ages race on lakes, bays and wide rivers all across America -- generally are fiberglass boats fewer than 20 feet long. They're redolent of mildew and stale sweat. They're about as comfortable to sit in (or, just as likely, sit on) as the bleacher seats at a middle-school basketball game.
They're yachts in name only. The term is derived from the racing fleet of a yacht club. No mini bars, no bathrooms, no hammocks slung in the rigging. But still cool, right?
REASON NO. 3: THERE'S BIG MONEY IN IT (OR AT LEAST AROUND IT).
If you like hobnobbing with the 1 percent, this is where you want to be. Some of these folks fuel a mini-economy, creating jobs for people who sew Dacron, shape stainless steel cables or repair splintered fiberglass.
Sailing is the high life. For example, for a recent regatta, I got out of bed at 5 in the morning, piled into the team's 2004 Oldsmobile Cutlass (it actually belongs to the guy who owns the boat) and helped haul our yacht to Cuba Lake, New York. (Look it up. Cuba Lake is on the edge of a Seneca reservation, north of Bradford. Palm Beach North, baby, with tax-free cigarettes!)
There, we ate doughnuts as we waited for the rain to move out, ate hot dogs as we waited for the wind to come up, ate granola bars as we waited for the race to start and drank Gatorade as we waited for the race committee to call off the race when the wind dwindled to zero. There was not a cocaine party or high-priced hooker within 100 miles of our event, but we kept that to ourselves. As far as the rest of the world knows, it was an orgy worthy of Newport, Long Island or other yachting havens.
REASON NO. 4: NAUTICAL JARGON IS ADDICTIVE.
Sailors spend their share of time discussing all the cool maneuvers involved in navigating a boat around a racecourse: tacking, jibing, running, breaching, fountainating, porpoise-hopping, and the infamous Sally-go-round-the-roses. OK, I made a few of those up, but you get the idea.
Truth is, some of this language is actually necessary. Otherwise, by the time you yell, "Hey, you with the life jacket, pick up the yellow rope, unhook it from the clamp under your butt, jump over to the other side of the boat, hook your feet under that strap on the bottom so you don't fall out and pull the rope really, really hard!" everyone would be in the drink ... not whining, of course, but probably hypothermic.
So you get used to using verbal shorthand, and it sort of grows on you. It also makes conversational room for colorful epithets and spontaneous sea chanties. Soon, you can't help yourself; you're talking like television's Captain Binghamton.
REASON NO. 5: IT PUTS YOU IN TOUCH WITH YOUR INNER WEATHERMAN.
This goes back to the miserable and tedious part. You're in a coffin-sized compartment with one or two other sweaty, overweight adults. And contrary to what you might imagine, yacht racing isn't all ride 'em cowboy all the time. There are long, hot, windless stretches when you want to be anywhere but with your faithful crew.
What do you do? A lot of us stare at clouds. "Oh, look, I think I see a profile of Elvis, riding a unicorn." This is internal conversation, you understand. Not to be shared with shipmates.
REASON NO. 6: THE FASHIONS ARE AWESOME.
Think YMCA T-shirt, compression shorts under last year's Hawaiian vacation mistake and stinky shoes that squish when you walk in them.
REASON NO. 7: IT'S AN INCREDIBLY SOCIAL SPORT.
OK, so this one's a myth. Yes, a lot of yacht clubs have dances, clam bakes and charity fundraisers, but not a lot of races. Imagine that! Our particular club is all racing with a minimum of chitchat. So we rarely see each other except on the water, usually 50 yards or more away from each other, and we are not engaging in small talk.
Not a great way to meet girls.
REASON NO. 8: SAILBOATS ARE CREATURES OF MYSTERY.
This one I shouldn't really talk about because it would violate the Pirate Code, but what the heck.
Sailboats seem to move with their own will and intent. They can seem malicious, capricious and downright magical all at the same time. Yet in every race, there comes a moment when everything's in trim and balance, and you see beyond the cares of the day to a goal on the far side of the course.
You know, to get there, you have to wrestle the boat into compliance. More often than not, this is a physical act that involves throwing your weight backward over the side of the boat to the point where your hair is skimming the water speeding beneath you. You're suspended between water and sky, held in balance by a thin nylon strap, and you're looking at an upside-down horizon and the top of a mast that points at the sun.
When it's all said and done, that moment is why we sail. Or why I do, anyway.
Don't tell anybody.
Brad Fisher is a freelance writer who races yachts on Chautauqua Lake in New York (firstname.lastname@example.org)