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Old 01-19-2000
Bruce Caldwell Bruce Caldwell is offline
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The Soul of a Catboat

Bill, the former owner of my Mystic 20 catboat, Kirsten, had a gratifying amount of documentation, detailed diagrams of rigging and wiring, maintenance lists, and even the original engine manuals for the boat. He only gave me one uncharacteristically vague piece of advice: "She'll tell you when she is being handled well on a point of sail."

I tucked that thought away for possible enlightenment later. The idea of a boat speaking was too alien to take in at the time.

When my wife, Julie, and I first started our sea trials on Kirsten, my initial focus was on the mysteries of the inboard diesel engine. Once away from the canal wall where she was tied up, my attention shifted to the responsiveness of the helm as we putt-putted slowly down the canal to the Great South Bay of Long Island. The narrow canal bent this way and that with many blind corners and intersections where I feared we might suddenly meet a large power cruiser.

Once we were out into the bay and had passed the buoys marking the busy channels leading to other canals, we hoisted the gaff-rigged sail. Heading out on a starboard tack with the normal southwest breeze that blows across the bay, Kirsten sauntered along easily. We were both pleased with the simplicity of the running rigging, the feel of the boat, and the delightful sense of accomplishment that came with our success in getting the wind to work for us.

Coming about onto the reciprocal course was also achieved without difficulty. On the port tack with a course just north of west, the breeze was fresh in our face and the noise from the bow wake caught my attention. Leaning out to see the plumb line of the bow meeting the waves, I momentarily froze.

Amid the flying spray, Kirsten's sturdy white bow and teak bowsprit looked solid and reliable, steadily shouldering her way through wave after wave. We connected as surely as if she had winked at me.

We completed the purchase of Kirsten at the end of that brief sail, at least as much as we can ever own anything with a personality.

Kirsten doesn't often display her personality. There was the time when I botched the job of reefing her and she threw an embarrassing tantrum of thrashing about just as another catboat sailed serenely by. Her impatience with ineptitude also showed clearly when I tried to point her into the wind to drop sail in the middle of a crosscurrent. She spun about in circles and threatened us with the boom sweeping back and forth overhead until I motored to calmer water. Most of the time, however, she is quiet and patient, and forgiving of my minor sins. She seems content to ghost along with a light wind off the stern quarter or to bash through wakes and waves on a reach.

But she hadn't really talked to me yet and over many sails I gradually forgot Bill's odd statement. It came back to me one late afternoon when I was sailing alone. As I was hauling in the mainsheet to come up into the wind from a beam reach, Kirsten heeled steeply. Since I had been told that catboats sail best on their feet, I eased the mainsheet a bit more. The tiller ceased to vibrate and I took my hand off for a moment. She sailed on, perfectly balanced, happily in the sweet spot that Bill had only hinted at. "You'll do," she seemed to be saying, finally completing the transaction that had really just been started when Bill and I last shook hands.