September 22, 2009

Sailing In Philadelphia

As this is a new blog, some of my first posts will try to explain who I am, where I come from, and how I got caught up in this whole sailing thing.

I grew up in Philadelphia.

Sailing was something we read about in books. Very old books. I could say it was something other people did, but in a city of two million people, I knew exactly no one who ever went sailing.

I knew what a dingy optimist was, but not an Optimist dinghy.

We shot some hoops. We'd swat a tennis ball around the public courts with some old, wooden racquets for a while, sporting our finest tennis blue jeans. We played cards and went to the Wayne Avenue Playhouse - the closest thing we had to an Arte Cinema, where we'd watch Fellini and W.C. Fields and the Marx Brothers.

You knew the Wayne Avenue Playhouse was cool because it was most famous for a single empty coke bottle that went rattling down the concrete floor, kicked about by willing patrons like a mophead in a mosh pit, providing a vaguely musical accompaniment to whatever was flickering up on the faded, tattered screen.

But at no time, ever, under any circumstances, was there even a passing reference to sailing.

We had a few rivers. On one of those, some crusty, ivy-covered fellows went rowing. But sailing? Huh? Suggesting that we go sailing on a nice, Saturday afternoon would have been like calling up your dudes to go panning for gold.

So, it's been very late in my life that I've become aware of sailboats, of the fact that real people can actually own them and sail them, and of youth sailing programs. Damn, I wish I could have done that when I was a kid.

Because the very first time I was on a sailing dinghy, I got this little smile in my belly. This was more fun than you were supposed to be able to have on the cheap. I mean this thing didn't have any motor, you didn't have to put gas in it, you just had to work the ropes and the steering and you were off.

If you're reading sailing blogs, you probably already know what I'm talking about. You probably already know that little smile in the belly. What the heck is that, anyway?

I like riding a bike. A lot. I've taken whole vacations on a bike. To Europe. Up and over the alps. I can get into a special frame of mind on a bike that is magic in its own way.

Holding a nice cadence on a warm, spring day, along the narrow road that's chiseled into the cliff high above Lake Maggiore's sparkling waters, while the Fiat and Peugeot drivers tap out greetings with their horns as they swing past, a tasty lunch of penne al salmone waiting for you at a lakeside trattoria ahead, can be very cool indeed.

Ah, but it's not like sailing.

I'd like to explore that little smile in the belly as this blog unfolds. I'm going to find out what that is if it's the last thing I do. But I'll probably need some help from you to figure it all out.

Do you have a smile in the belly?



  1. Great post. I too grew up in a place and a time and a culture where it was inconceivable that anyone would take up sailing as a sport. And I do remember how "right" it felt when I first stepped on a sailing dinghy. I just knew I wanted to learn how to drive this thing properly and do it more and more.

    About 15 years ago there was an active Laser fleet on the Delaware in Philly. Not sure if it is still there. My son and I did a Laser regatta there once when he was a teenager. Pretty cool place to sail right in the middle of the city.

  2. Of course these were the days before the Laser was even a twinkle in Bruce Kirby's eye.

    With all of those people and all of that water around, people must have been sailing somewhere, I guess, but it just wasn't part of the culture I grew up in. Sailing was something snooty rich folks did.

    There was a vast boating community 'down the shore' along the New Jersey coast, but that was too far away to really be a part of my life.

    I remember the first time I walked along the docks in Sausalito, about 20 years after I graduated high school, and saw sailboats stretching to the horizon. No one was wearing an ascot!

  3. My story kind of starts on a sailboat; the first known story about me was that my Uncle George put my Mom and me in a dock cart to wheel us out to our liveaboard boat at Dinner Key in Miami.

    After my Mom moved out here to the Best Coast, I would visit my Father on the Least Coast for summers of sailing.

    Before buying my first boat, I had sailed exactly twice on the Bay I grew up on but a quarter of a million times in Biscayne Bay.

    I have never been on a Laser without the aid of photoshop.

  4. Your method of sailing a Laser is the only known way to stay dry on one.

  5. You're from philly! That explains EVERYthing.

  6. I know.

    I've been trying to 'pass' for 25 years in California. I watch how I pronounce 'water' and 'gas', and never, ever say the word 'awful' in public.

    But the cynical sense of humor gets me busted all of the time.

  7. a smile in the demure.
    I got on a laser and went screaming "Whoooooooooooo!!!!" except most of it was done underwater. I'm HOOKED.

  8. I don't know, Bowsprite.

    Despite your Whoo, and your ooooooo, and your ooooo!!!!, I think you may very well have a smile in the belly, if I may be so bold.

    I have seen your weeping ships and your wedding cake power boats and your ferocious dredges, and I think I see telltale signs of a smile in the belly all over your work.

    A smile is such a hard thing to hide.

  9. Funny how a smile in the belly can co-exist with a cynical sense of humor.
    From what I can tell, Philly has lots of happy idiots at the helm.
    Dingy optimist, indeed!

  10. Thanks for dropping by, Michael.

    I use sailing to ward off my cynicism. I think it's impossible to be cynical while sailing.

  11. I had actually been sailing for several years and finding it somewhat fun but not totally engaging. My first "smile in the belly" moment happened when I set foot on an Etchells for the first time, in February 2006. There was this resonance between me and the boat, and the boat's owner, and sailing that day was such an "ooooh, yeaaah" experience that I was hooked.