The harbor has been so empty lately. Barely any boats on the move, which is out of character when the weather is as relatively warm as it has been this season. Some lobster boats keep fishing -- but even they seem holed up, waiting for better times. Don’t know when a winter sailor has ever had such a lessened threat of getting run over by traffic.
That hasn’t always been the case. For years, a winter adventurer had to maintain a rigorous, paranoid 360-degree awareness to defend oneself. The problem of the mainsail perpetually blocking all visibility below it, kept this head, in particular, continually popping down in a contorted body pretzel shape to check to see if the coast was clear - literally. Most of the time, it wasn’t.
Back in 1987, when Gordo The Sailor Man began to become gone-with-the-wind every day, the fishing and lobstering fleets were still impressive. Net mesh sizes were the newest limits on the take. But the rodeo was still on -- fish ‘till you drop. A sentiment left over from the good old wild west days of “get ‘em before someone else does” in the ‘70s when keeping the catch away from the East Germans and Russians were driving forces in the news. The freaking government was putting people in boats cheaply to encourage our efforts. In 1987, you had to really pay attention out there. But that kept you alert and alive. It was not rare to dodge clusters of boats headed in and out of the narrowest parts of the harbor. Learning to slither over and hide alongside government marks or parked boats became a survival skill for waiting them out.
But fear is a great teacher, no? So are sudden wind shifts, gusts, knockdowns and instant snow bursts, rain calamities and even a swamping or two over the decades. That’s a whole college full of lessons in those 33 years.
Thirty-three years of being driven by some mad, ridiculous force to go and challenge the elements and the fear. The fear? Yes, because almost every day in the season from October through May, when the wind rules the bay is a lesson in overcoming fear to get off the dock and get out into it. In winter sailing, getting off the dock is often the hardest part. The wind blows you right back onto your leave point and if your sail hits the float in breeze, over the boat goes.
A sunfish is very thin and only about 12 feet long, so it is very vulnerable to any hiccups. Likewise, underway, if a 40 degree shift combines with a sudden gust, you will be popped into the harbor toaster before you can help it.
That was the formula for my two capsizes in 33 years in Smith’s Cove. Completely out of the blue, completely under control and smugly heading home, unarmed. Slam, bang, boat upside-down, masthead stuck in the Smith Cove low tide mud. Swim to shore, dude. Sheesh. So much for relaxing for a second.
But while the initial purpose of my everyday sailing was to get better at driving and boat skills -- in the same way a guitarist has to practice every single day to get better and compete not only among their peers, but with Jimi Hendrix-type guitar greats -- after the first decade, something else began to take shape. A kind of Mount Everest began to take shape -- a goal that was so high that one couldn’t help but improve: 10,000 sails. An extremist needs a massive goal to keep going out day after day, year after year. 1987 was the starting year because my 30-foot race boat came in dead last at the International 20 National Championships in Hingham. Like Scarlett O’Hara cursing to the winds of the vanquished Tara, I declared to practice every day until I won the Nationals.
But 10,000 sails takes 300 sails a year for 33 years and then you still need another 100. My best years were 353 (2008 and ‘12) and last year at 354. Sailing solo is great way to escape the pandemic and is slated to become my best year yet -- fingers crossed -- at nearly 360 if the Arctic Clipper doesn’t invade the year’s end. However, I hit my goal of 10,000 on Nov. 1 this year, two days before the election to give Joe Biden some extra luck. (I posted a one sentence notice on Facebook). But how does one stop a habit and a desire that has formed over 33 years? Joggers keep jogging, tennis players keep playing tennis and guitarists keep practicing. It’s just their normal habit and so is this.
My racing and driving skills have improved but there’s always more to learn. I was able to win 10 races in the 210 Champs over the years, which still helps keeps me going. But there are other challenges now, in bigger boat racing that old age has facilitated. Practicing every day is still profitable from a skills point of view. Overcoming fear is also still a big part of the everyday challenge. But when folks tell me I’m brave for daring to write about Gloucester school and development politics -- what are those follies and dangers compared to the Gloucester winter wind howling away in that beckoning harbor. Come this way, ye foolish darer . . .
Gloucester resident Gordon Baird is an actor and musician, co-founder of Musician magazine and producer of “The Chicken Shack” community access TV show.