Jargoned to Death


I’m driving a 37- foot Jeanneau sloop headed west across Haro Straits to Victoria, British Columbia. The wind out of the south is peaking at 30 knots, the current is running against me at 4 knots and the six-foot waves bashing the port quarter have a interval of five or six seconds.

It would take two seconds of inattention to broach the boat. I am not having a good time.

Still with me? I ask because I’m know that those of us who write about the outdoors often bury our readers in jargon and factoids so that we appear to be authentic, knowledgeable and cooler than a streaker at the Breck ice sculpture contest. To be honest, we are usually none of the above and often making things up as we go along.

So let me explain the first paragraph. The use of the word “driving” is an attempt to be slick when in fact I’m steering the boat. I’m guessing that was understandable on the first read. So how about “30 knots?” What the hell does that mean? A nautical mile (knot) equals 1.15 real miles. The derivation of nautical miles is the reason you use Wikipedia. So 30 knots converts to 34.5 mph. That’s a good deal of wind on a small boat.

One really good idea is to have both the wind and the current in your favor when sailing. While I have more wind than I need, I’m bashing the boat against a strong current. The so-called port quarter is not a red-colored coin, but the first half of the boat on left side. Six-foot waves in a 37-foot boat are manageable but pounding into a six-foot wave every five or six seconds (wave interval) beats-up the helmsman or person as the case may be. Finally, a broach is when you get your boat sideways to the waves. It is not a clever maneuver. More on broaching in a moment.

We have put two reefs in the main and cranked-in the roller furler on the jib half way. The skipper is standing just behind the dodger and catches a face full of spray that was headed my way. This pleases me to see him sputter and say bad words. I’m pissed that he wants to try to keep sailing in this mess even though I can see from the instruments that our speed over ground (SOG) is less than half a knot.

At this rate we’ll make Victoria sometime tomorrow.

Wow, pretty amazing that I can write that stuff with a straight face, thinking you understand. You are probably thinking, “What a dick to write that gibberish.”

sunset on the water

“Two reefs in the main” means that we have shortened the biggest sail on the boat from the cockpit (oh geesus, the cockpit is the area from which we control the boat and where we also spill drinks after sailing). We have done the same thing with the jib or front sail. Theoretically, less sail area implies more control over the boat in difficult conditions. It is often just theory.

The “dodger” is one of those aptly named pieces of equipment on a boat. It is essentially half a tent with plastic windows that keeps a good deal of water out of the cockpit (see the previous paragraph) and sort of protects the crew. The crew now on deck is the Skipper, who commands the boat, and me driving. He is behind the dodger and I am at the wheel, catching some of the water coming over the top of the dodger.

By instruments I mean an array of screens providing all sorts of information from the boat, the environment and satellites. These instruments are right in front of the wheel on a stand called a binnacle (Wikipedia again) that also houses the magnetic compass. One piece of information we are getting from satellites via GPS (A GPS on a boat is exactly what you throw in your backpack and don’t know how to use) is our speed over ground (SOG). While our knotmeter may tell us that we are sailing at two or three knots, the SOG tells us precisely how fast we are traveling compared to ground in the real world. It’s not pleasant to stand there in the cockpit getting beat-up and seeing that you are making no progress at all. It can remind you of working for a ski corporation.

“Skipper, we need to drop sails and motor out of this.”

“I think we are okay.”

“No, I’m getting the snot knocked out me. SOG says less than half a knot and we are 10 miles from Victoria. Figure doing this all night.”

He scowls at me. I give him a dripping, frowny-face from the helm.

He’s one of my life friends. His kid taught me how to handle rapids in a raft. He’s a good sailor, races on Flathead Lake, but he likes more risk than I do. My fear is a broach where I lose control of the boat and it gets caught between waves taking on water. There are tons of lead in the keel that will prevent the boat from turning turtle, but water into the cockpit, down the companionway and into the cabin could cause any number of problems involving both our engine and electronics.

Finally a couple of paragraphs that sort of make sense. By way explanation, folks who race sailboats tend to be a little type-A. Yes, watching a sailboat race is just about as exciting as the bunny slope at Keystone. Seems to me that sailboat racing is about timing, precision, tactics, crew cohesion and equipment, not necessarily in that order. That’s sounds too much like work to me. Sailing should be about sailing downwind in your shorts with a beer in your hand.

The diesel catches as I come up on the wind to take pressure off the sails so we can drop them. Given that the wind is pretty much on our beam, I’m on a tight line between broaching and easing pressure on the sails. The skipper reels in the jib and then drops the main into the lazy jacks. I’ve got my nose 45 degrees off the wind. Some fool needs to go forward to lash down the main. The Skipper claws his way out of the cockpit on the windward side and crabs his way forward to the mast.

If I screw up on the helm, he’s going swimming in 50-degree water and 30 to 50 more minutes of life. A man overboard drill in these seas would be a one-in-ten proposition.

Geesus, I thought we were finished with the jargon. Here goes: “coming up on the wind” means that I moved the bow of the boat closer to where the wind is coming from — in this case, the south. Under ideal circumstances, we put the bow of the boat right into the wind to raise and lower our sails. Since the wind is on our beam, (the widest part of our boat) and the waves and current are coming at us from our bow, I can’t turn 90 degrees without broaching, but I can split the difference long enough for the skipper to get out and get the main lashed.

My PFD (personal flotation device) has rings in the front of the harness for attaching a safety line. The Skipper’s PFD is the “coastal model.” He doesn’t have rings and is going out on deck without a safety line. The boat has what is essentially a two-strand fence around its perimeter and there are a number of things to hold on to going forward. But we are talking about a 52-year-old man with arms and legs somewhat the worse for wear going out on deck, hanging on with one hand and trying to get a mainsail lashed with loose hayards (ropes we use to raise and lower the sail).

It is absolutely critical that I do everything possible keep the boat steady while he is working. A rogue puff of additional wind or a wave and our problems have gone from manageable to critical. We’ve practiced man-overboard drills, but always under calm or moderate conditions with plenty of people on deck. These are tough conditions and there are only two of us on deck. If he goes swimming, I’ve got to get the life ring out, keep my eye on his location and maneuver the boat all at the same time. A tall order. Small chance I could get to him while he is still strong enough get hold of the trailing life ring.

He slips twice going to the mast and catches himself. I am watching the bow, the waves in front of us and glancing toward the wind. He gets one wrap around the main tied off and then a second. Now all he has to do is three or four moves to get back to the cockpit. I may not be breathing as gets to his knees and finds a rail, slithers down the windward side, grabs the safety line and tumbles into the cockpit.

“Nicely done,” I say after breathing again.

“Sporty out there.”

“Shoulda had a safety line on you,” I say as I turn the boat to fall off the wind.

“Nah, I was pretty comfortable.”

“You’re an idiot.”

Not much jargon here. “Sporty” may be a climbing term for an out-of-control situation. We really should have rigged some sort of safety line, but we were in too much of a rush to get the sail down. “Falling off the wind,” means that I have turned away from the wind. The Skipper’s claim that he was comfortable risking his life is pretty accurate. He probably was. Calling him an idiot was not jargon.