Sometimes it seems as if sailors are gluttons for pain. How about those long cold hours in the cockpit staring at a featureless horizon, or cooking a dinner while sailing at a 20-degree heel, or going forward to the plunging bow to wrestle down the jib while being doused by a steady stream of water. But, of course, these are among the joyful discomforts of sailing. There is also the real pain that comes with this crazy passion called sailing.
That's the pain, for example, of taking the final sail of the year before having to put the boat away for a season, or the pain of seeing your boat ill-kept or dirty. But the most devastating pain of all is the pain of deprivation, a.k.a. winter.
Having just returned from the Strictly Sail boat show in Chicago, I speak from firsthand experience of the effects of winter sailing deprivation, or, as it's clinically referred to, Winter Sailing Deprivation Syndrome (WSDS). I went below the new Sun Odyssey 40 by Jeanneau. I wasn't alone. A man looking as if it was the middle of July and he had just stepped on to the dock, wearing top-siders, a baseball cap, and beat-up khaki shorts, was seated at the nav station. We greeted briefly and I went about my inspection of the interior. After five minutes looking at the aft cabin, I was about to go back up on deck when I realized he was still seated at the nav station.
"Sure is a nice boat, isn't it," I said.
He nodded, not really looking at me, just staring ahead aimlessly. I left him sitting there and clambered off the boat to speak to a representative of the company. But later, needing to return to make a final inspection of the interior, I discovered my khaki-shorts friend still seated on the nav seat. He was still staring and betraying a sort of state of serenity. Then I knew. This had to be a case of WSDS, where just whiffing the distinct smell of new fiberglass and teak oil of a new boat has been known to be enough to hold one over for a while.
It's not easy being a sailor in winter. When the clime is cold and nasty, it's a time when even if you must go down to sea again, as those famed words implored, you have to settle for only your heart going. So when that primal passion has to be forced into hibernation, it takes many ploys to see it through the barrenness of off-season. How do sailors cope with winter, when sailing is but a memory and the boat sits under a tarp with a mound of snow atop her? Other than chartering in some warm place far away from winter, here is what I find sailors do to get through the meanest season of all, the off-season.
One popular ploy is living off memories of those great sails from last season. This means pulling out a chart and dragging your finger over the plots you drew, remembering each mark of the course"Oh, yeah, that was when we were able to fall off and free up to lay it perfectly to make anchorage that night." It helps also to pull out a few pictures, especially the ones of you and your family lounging in the cockpit without a care in the world. Along this same idea, pull out your logbook, if you kept one, and reread the passages that marked the high points of a cruise.
Of course, if this isn't enough, many sailors sail a vicarious cruise by taking in a slide show of another sailor's summer cruise at the local yacht club or sailing organization. It's a good idea to pick these carefully, however. Many of these presenting sailors are actually also suffering from WSDS. They tend to lose perspective on their fondly remembered cruise and include 10 slides for every one slide that's necessary to tell the story.
While you're at the club, you should hang around at the bar in hopes of running into old sailing buddies who might be lured into spending the afternoon swapping stories from some of the great times on the water last summer. Alternatively, some sailors will opt to indulge themselves in a good Sam Llewellyn sailing thriller or the latest Patrick O'Brian novel in lieu of the sometimes equally fictionalized sailing bar talk.
A good number of die-hard sailors require more than sheer escape. I have a friend who gets through the winter by religiously following a schedule of varnishing the wood members of his boat that he was able to take off. This is done in multiple, thin layers of varnish, each lovingly applied till at least a dozen layersand sometimes up to 20 layersof varnish are built up. As each long weekend sets in, he escapes to the basement for an afternoon's delight of applying smooth, sublime sheen to his boat's wood.
Many sailors, even the most unlikely builders, take on massive projects over the winter months. Some will set out in November to begin construction of a dinghy in their basement, and, sure enough, five months later, a dink-perhaps of questionable qualityemerges up the steps: mission accomplished and another winter chalked up by a WSDS victim.
But for the less energetic sailors, a vast array of enrichment is available. The business of sailing seminars has arisen out of the WSDS. Now sailors choose from learning how to service their diesel, to taking a CPR or Red Cross first-aid course, or immersing themselves in a weekend of safety-at-sea instruction. The seminars, which often run over a weekend, offer a healthy batch of up-to-date information while providing a meeting place for sailors who are eager to talk sailing. Just talking about sailing with other sailors is one of the most fundamental ways of getting through the off-season.
For those living in areas where the winter stretches into April and the sailing season does not start till June 1, a heavier diet of sailing escapism is absolutely required. Some sailors may be able to lose hours wandering around maritime museums; others may spend hours surfing on the Net. And let's not forget those sailing movies, like Mutiny on the Bounty or the arresting action flick Wind that are always worth seeing again.
Now, if all else fails, there are always a few good knots to go over. Yes, knots. Practice that fisherman's bend or the one-handed bowline utill you can do them with your eyes closed.
But if this still doesn't fill the long days waiting for the season to start, I recommend you build yourself a Laser hiking bench, even if you're not a Laser sailor. Get on the bench often; make it part of your daily regime. Sit out while pulling on the attached braided line. Now, close your eyes and think hard about sailing. Imagine a little breeze blowing across your face and you're nearly there. Happy winter sailing in your reveries.