What’s Steadfast, Skilled and Wet All Over?
by Matt Makowski
The English language grows increasingly muddled. Consider what we’ve done to the word hero.
Marie Curie, who overcame male hegemony in the science field to discover radium, is a hero. Her discoveries led to a plethora of medical knowledge and disease treatments.
In the world of fiction, Atticus Finch of the classic To Kill a Mockingbird is a hero. The southern lawyer defended a black man against a rape charge in a bigoted southern town despite numerous threats, because it was the right humanistic thing to do.
On the other hand, pop culture has come to identify sports stars and music idols as heroes. Michael Jordan is a retired sports figure, not a hero. Even at the peak of her success, Madonna was never a hero.
This brings me to a more recent questioning of language.
Now that the Volvo 70s are somewhere between New York and Portsmouth, England, I have no chance of running into one of the gritty sailors referred to by newspapers from here to Melbourne as conditioned, skilled or stalwart. Not that meeting one of them would be a bad thing if he finished this article.
When I first heard of the race, I was skeptical. How hard could it really be? Is 32,700 miles that long when it’s broken into nine legs? I enjoy traveling. Where do I sign up?
I started with baby steps. I got wind of a 177-foot triple-masted 100-plus-year-old Portuguese cod-fishing boat trekking down to Annapolis from Philadelphia. The Gazela’s 22-member all-volunteer crew invited me to tag along on the simple grounds that I not break a sacred rule: Stay out of the galley. I acquiesced on learning that was Lynn’s territory, and she doesn’t take kindly to meddling strangers.
My trip obviously pales in comparison to any of the Volvo legs, but as I said, baby steps. Also, the ship I was on measures over 100 feet longer than any of the Volvo 70s, and I was allowed to bring on a lot more than just a toothbrush. At 10pm the night before we were to set off for Maryland, most of the crew was curled up in another amenity that the Volvo crews don’t get, something similar to a bed.
The majority of the Gazela crew slept in the fo’c’sle. By 11pm, the lights under the deck were out save a single red light that illuminated just enough of the understory to guide you to the head. Lying in my cubby, I realized I don’t have a sailor’s body. Even if I had brought a nightlight to read to, it would have taken a masterful act of contortionism to use it.
At 3am, the crew was on deck and taking assignments. I crankily pretended to take notes to avoid an assignment from the deck hand. By 4am, we launched and were on our way to Maryland. It was too cold to hold a pencil without gloves. I was tired, miserable and freezing. At least I only had 12 hours to go before docking.
On the other hand, the Volvo sailors sail their boats for days, sometimes weeks at a time. They have none of the amenities I was privy to. What’s more, they do this for a nearly nine-month stretch.
After just 19 hours on a boat, I look on with admiration to the Volvo competitors. They’re certainly conditioned, and definitely stalwart. Win, lose or draw, anyone with the courage and dedication to stick through a race this long has more than a little something extra.
What word do we reserve for the 75 sailors willing to traverse the world’s oceans?
Matt Makowski. a journalism graduate of Rutgers, reflects from Annapolis. His last story for Bay Weekly was “Trying to Make It At the Theater (Vol. xiv, No. 13: March 30).