Lessons learned from a lame duck

The duck house near Birch Marine, from which a valuable lesson emerged. Photo by Christopher Birch

By Christopher Birch
For Points East

Not every marina has a duck house, but, lucky for me, mine does. I’m thinking now of a certain duck that once lived there. She had a bad starboard wing and a bad port leg. When she walked, she leaned on her good wing like a cane. When she swam, she dragged her bad wing to keep her course straight. She was a full-displacement sort of duck, with a nine-inch waterline, and her top speed was “slow.” Despite her plodding pace, however, she got her work done. She ate well, slept well and had lots of friends. With a nod to her gregarious nature, I named her “Greg.”

Unlike Greg, healthy, wealthy Americans can always go faster. Taller rigs are built to carry more sail. Larger engines are installed to turn larger props. Ultralight displacement boats can plane, reducing drag. More speed on the water is always attainable.

Paying for that speed, however, will earn you an “F” in any economics class. For the price of a Greyhound bus ticket, for example, you can go as fast – if not faster – as your bass boat with a brand new, high-powered outboard. Boats just aren’t the smart place to go looking for speed. If cars are like cheetahs and planes are like falcons, boats – especially the non-foiling variety, powered by sails – are like ducks. They plod along and enjoy floating. But, let’s not forget, they do get their work done.

I remember leaning over the rail of my sailboat and listening to my powerboat neighbor explain with great frustration how he was trapped. One of his two engines was out of service. He was 50 miles from home, and with just one engine he could make only eight knots. “Impossible!” he declared. Rather than suffer the indignity of a half-assed stern, he would find a car to take him home and come back for the boat once it was repaired. In the world of sail one engine is an abundance, and an eight before the decimal on the speedo usually a cause for great celebration. One man’s trash digits are another man’s treasured velocity. I tipped my hat to Greg who was floating nearby while my twin-screwed friend scurried up the dock in search of a car.

For those addicted to speed, carbon fiber is the gateway drug. Racing sailors know this to be true. It starts innocently enough with a nice new carbon bowsprit and the next thing you know the mast is black, the sails are black, a team of divers is on hand prior to every race and the boat’s anchor is in the back of a car.

A friend tells a story from a windy Antigua Sailing Week where a Class E boat – a J/24 in this case – mistakenly found itself just upwind of the starting line moments before the Class-A start. The gun goes off, and the domino line of huge, Class-A yachts, all on starboard, harden up in unison, and one of them impales the J/24.

“We’re down a tenth,” came the cry from the afterguard on the great yacht. “We’re down two-tenths! We’re down three-tenths! What the hell is going on!?” Eventually the crew up forward relayed the news of a small boat impaled on the bow.

“Well, cut him off! Cut him off and clear him away!” was the hard-charging skipper’s response, as if this situation was akin to a rudder snagging a piece of kelp. Never was there even so much as a single thought spent on the well-being of the crew of the J/24, at least not according to the retelling of the story I heard.

Tenths of a knot can become over-valued on the racecourse. Meanwhile, Olympic-level racing is waiting to be enjoyed in small, reasonably affordable, one-design fleets all around the world.

Speed has a way of getting into the psyche. I, too, have yearned for half a knot in moments of weakness. Cruising speed becomes normal, and anything short of normal becomes dreadful. Never mind that cruising speed on one boat has nothing to do with cruising speed on the next, or that the cruising speed of a Greyhound bus is something that the fastest sailboat in the world has struggled to achieve.

One day, Greg appeared from the duck house leading a parade of bright yellow, squeaky fluff balls. I complimented her on finding a special friend and then doing a fine job with her eggs. She proudly spent the next four minutes paddling the length of a Sea Ray, family in tow.

“Thanks for the lessons,” I called as she rounded the swim platform and headed out to sea.

Duck houses make good neighbors.

Christopher Birch is the proprietor of Birch Marine Inc. on Long Wharf in Boston, Mass., where he’s been building, maintaining and restoring boats for the past 34 years.