My six rules for non-boaters

July 2012

By David Roper

When visitors from landlocked places come sailing with us, it’s really sweet. They’re so excited, and try their best to assimilate to the sailing world, buying the proper boat shoes and sailing shorts, researching and trying out a few terms such as “ahoy” and “avast.” They’re often surprised when they find the “real” sailors, this captain included, are not wearing Topsiders, a “Gilligan’s Island” skipper’s hat or a West Marine sailing shirt, but instead some old sneakers ($35 Saucony Jazz sneakers have a better grip than most $150 boatshoes, by the way), a baseball cap and a worn tee shirt. They anxiously await us at the dock in their sailing outfits.

While waiting, they’re perplexed when overhearing fellow sailors asking each other questions such as “When’d you splash?” or “Did you do your own bottom this year?” And they’re real surprised when, once aboard, we don’t always use sailing terms, but, rather, can be heard saying things like front and back, right and left, and miles per hour. We refer to the propellor as the prop and not the screw. We might even call lines “ropes.” We do keep some terms they will understand, even though they first came from boats and ships: such as “groggy,” “aloof,” “pipe down,” “bitter end,” “slush fund,” and “three sheets to the wind.” Our guests understand them; they can use Google if they want to know their etymology.

No, some of us prioritize safety rather than terms.

We start at the dinghy dock, where I present my six rules:

1.Stay in the MIDDLE of the dinghy. It is not mounted in cement; it is a tiny floating thing.

2.DO NOT argue with me; even if you’re sure I’m wrong, shut up and do what I say. (I’ll explain why I’m right another time – even if you don’t care to hear it.)

3. Don’t think I’m not being friendly out there; it’s just that I’m paying attention to a million things that they can’t even imagine could go wrong.

4. Don’t point vaguely and say “Yikes, what’s that over there?” If you want or need to point out something, you can use the clock reference. E.g.: “Excuse me, captain, is that a submarine surfacing about twenty yards away in front of us at 1 o’clock?”

5. You must hang on to something when walking around. I explain the phrase “One hand for yourself, one hand for the ship.” (Note: Years ago, I had an Ohio-born friend sail offshore to Maine with me and he refused to take me seriously on this. “Why hang on all the time?” he asked. “It’s flat calm.” “No, it’s not,” I replied. “You just think it’s flat calm. What’s under you is undulation; it’s the tide, which is actually a really large and really long wave that travels around the world at 450 miles per hour! It has no beginning and no end.” He rolled his eyes. Later, while I was below and the boat was on autopilot, he decided to take a walk forward on the cabin top, hands-free. When I came back on deck, the sunburn had left his face. He was white as a sheet. “Oh my God,” he said (as if it were somehow my fault), “I almost went over. I was suddenly airborne.” From then on, he hung onto the cockpit coaming and never ventured forward for the rest of the trip.

6.Finally, I explain the rules for what will happen if someone falls overboard, pointing my finger at the most responsible looking guest who also appears to be the weakest swimmer. “YOU!” I say, pointing accusingly at the startled visitor, “will have only ONE duty if someone falls overboard. YOU will point at the person in the water, never stop doing that and, never take your eyes off that person. You will not help others; you will not make eye contact with anyone else. You will not eat or drink. You will just point. People can disappear very quickly in the waves, and your captain doesn’t want you to be blamed.” Then I point to a second person. “YOU,” I say, “If the pointer falls in, you’re the new pointer.” Yup, that’s a good rule; good ole #6.

But sometimes I’ll get this response from a discerning guest: “But what if YOU fall in?”

To that I simply mutter: “YOU don’t ask those questions.”

David Roper’s latest book, “Beyond Mermaids . . . Life’s Tangles, Knots & Bends,” is finally on bookshelves. It’s a sequel to “Watching for Mermaids,” a three-time bestseller, and is available on Amazon.