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A Sailor? Knot Me

Although I have been sailing boats on the Gulf for 25 years and, during one period of my life-when I was temporarily insane-even owned a couple of them, when someone asks if I'm a sailor, I say: "Unh-uh, not me."

A sailor is someone who is stalwart and self-sufficient, someone who when confronted with gale-force winds that snap the mast and send giant waves crashing over the bow, calmly surveys the situation, sets about to repair the damage using wonderfully ingenious methods-"Let's lash together these swizzle sticks with seaweed and reinforce them with several old pairs of Topsiders!"-ties off the tiller and heads below decks to record the experience in the ship's log before catching a quick nap. And does it all without hurling.

Not long ago I found myself in a situation like that and I can assure you I did not react in sailor-like fashion. It was during a regatta on the Gulf; I had been invited to crew on a very expensive sailboat, a sailboat that cost more than many people's homes, which is the best kind of sailboat there is, but only if you are not the person who actually owns it.

This was such a swank sailboat that it came with its own line of clothing, meaning that before the regatta started the owner handed out baby-blue polo shirts emblazoned with the boat's name to all the crew. I thought this was an incredibly nice gesture, and it created a great sense of camaraderie among the crew. Indeed, after the weather turned bad and the seas picked up, our feeling of oneness was so strong that when the first of our ranks lost his lunch, we all promptly followed suit. It was the most moving display of nautical solidarity that I've ever had the great displeasure to take part in. We looked like a boatload of really sick, but color-coordinated, Smurfs.

And then the mast broke. Unfortunately, this happened when our boat was flying its spinnaker, which, for those of you unfamiliar with sailing lingo, is a big, brightly colored sail that no one on the boat really understands how to work. Still, every sailor knows that if the mast breaks and the spinnaker goes down, the crew must be quick on its feet and cut loose the spinnaker. Otherwise the spinnaker will fill with water and pull the boat down after it. Yes, every sailor knows this. But, truth is, when the mast breaks, the noise is so loud and the pandemonium so great that anyone with even a shred of survival instinct is hitting the spew-covered deck and holding on for dear life.

Which is exactly what I was doing when I experienced my personal sailing epiphany. I was frozen-in a state of panic, fearful for my life, concerned about how much it was going to cost to repair this splendid vessel. But then I realized: Hey, it's not my boat. And I'm probably not gonna drown. Whereupon a wonderful state of calmness enveloped me. I walked to the bow, where the spinnaker was rapidly filling with water. All the rest of the crew was shouting, "Cut loose the spinnaker!" And I did the most heroic thing I could think of: I stood there looking at it.

Just a few minutes earlier, I had helped raise the spinnaker by tying on its sheets-aka, the ropes that hold it to the boat-and because I am not really a sailor, I had forgotten how to tie the correct knot, a bowline. Instead I had tied knots of my own invention, knots that had lots of loops in them but not much in the way of holding power. And as I stood there watching the spinnaker prepare to pull us down to the bowels of the Gulf, I saw both of my knots come undone and the spinnaker fly loose. We were saved! And I had saved us!

All because I wasn't really a sailor.

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