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Diary Of A Sailmaker’s Apprentice


March 15

I loved journalist lingo, especially the sneaky terms that look like words other writers might correct as misspellings. “Lede,” for example, is the word for the lead-in to a story. “TK” stands for “to come” and acts as a placeholder in an article for missing information.

I loved the lingo of whitewater kayakers just as much. The word “chundered,” meaning to be pounded by the force of a rapid, was so fun to say and so bone-chilling.

My life as a sailor poured more specialized phrases into my vocabulary: orange peel, babies in the furl, splash don’t splatter. All of those terms described things that shouldn’t be: Thick spots in varnish that wrinkle as they dry; bunched-up fabric that bulges from a sail not put away neatly; a sailor who climbs aloft on the side of the ship that overhangs the pier, rather than the side that overhangs the water (you’d rather fall in the water, right)?

What strikes me now, however, is the shop talk on the five tall ships I sailed on hardly ever swung around to sail design, maintenance, or fit. In a way, it would be as if those journalists overlooked the ergonimics of their work station, or if those kayakers never read their roof rack manual. The difference is, ergonimics and manuals are boring. Sail design is exciting, and fully deserves its own fun phrases and made-up words.

A sailor can use his or her sail every day, and make it work, but never ask the questions: Is this sail built specifically for the kind of sailing I do? Does this sail fit my boat? What is the condition of my sail? How do I prioritize a list of possible repairs and upgrades? The answers to those questions can improve the safety of a sailing rig, prolong the life of a sail, and boost a sail’s efficiency.

So, the next time you are on a sailboat and your buddies are itching to debate what kind of brush and thinner you use to apply varnish, come prepared with a question of your own:

“How’s the luff tension on your headsail?” you might ask.

Then you’ll have their attention. Perhaps they will begin squinting at the jib, straining to provide you with an answer. But only you will see those all-too-pronounced wrinkles, and it will be time to invent a term that will strike fear and wonder into their hearts.

“Looks like you’ve got some granny sag,” you say. Or maybe something nicer, since making fun of grandmothers isn’t nice.

Then add, “With the halyard two-blocked like that you might be looking at a re-cut.”

And with two sentences you’ve started a revolution. No sailor wants sails that don’t fit. Still, it seems more sailors need to make sure they do. Ask the questions, spark curiosity and camaraderie with new terminology, and get that pulpit chafe checked out, it’s turning your Sunny B into fray city.

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