I don't wish to boast, but recently I was on the crew of one of the yachts in the prestigious Whitbread round-the-world yacht race.
OK, if you want to get picky, I was not, technically, "on the crew." A more accurate statement is that I was "constantly in the way of the crew." But I was on the yacht, and it was an experience that will remain with me for the rest of my life in the form of chronic butt soreness, caused by "tacking." (More on this later.)
For the benefit of those of you who do not keep up with international yacht racing, I should explain that the Whitbread is a grueling nine-month race in which hardy yachtspersons sail around the world, relying only upon their skill, the wind, and humongous sums of money from corporate sponsors. One of these sponsors, a major beer manufacturer, arranged for me to be a passenger on one of the yachts; a public-relations person for this company expressed the hope that I would mention the beer by name in this column, but of course that would violate my journalistic ethics.
The Whitbread is the world's toughest sailing race. The 14 yachts competing this year will travel a total of 32,000 miles, a distance that -- to give you some perspective -- is equal to 253,440,000 Heineken bottles placed end-to-end. The 10-person
crews race under brutal conditions: at sea for weeks at a time, sometimes battling 50-foot waves, constantly cold and wet. Why do they do it? For the same reason that hardy mariners have always ventured out onto the vastness of the sea: They are out of their minds.
Please note that I, personally, did not sail around the entire world. I sailed in an exhibition race off the coast of Fort Lauderdale, where the competitors had stopped to prepare for the final leg of the Whitbread, across the Atlantic to England. The yacht I was on is the Yamaha, named after its Japanese corporate sponsor, Steinway.
No, that was a joke. The Yamaha is sponsored by Yamaha, a company that manufactures fine pianos and outboard motors via what I assume are two completely different processes. Most of the Yamaha's crew members come from New Zealand; they speak a language that is similar to English, except that the only time you can understand them is when they say a very bad word that I will represent here as "fudge" (not its real name).
The crew members say this word a lot, and I don't blame them, because sailboat racing is hard. The entire boat is covered with a complex intertwined mass of nautical items such as winches, pulleys, lines, booms, halyards, leewards, mizzens, stanchions, forecastles, starboards, Heinekens, etc. To make the sailboat do anything, crew members have to yank on every single one of these items until their hands bleed. Getting a racing sailboat to turn right requires about the same amount of labor as building a three-bedroom house.
And the boat has to turn a lot. This is because, in sailboat racing, you never sail directly toward your intended destination; instead, you zigzag constantly back and forth, with the boat leaning way over to one side, then way over to the other, like a person who has consumed too much Heineken. This is called "tacking," and it serves an important nautical purpose; namely, to fling the guest civilian passengers into the ocean where they would be eaten by squid.
At least that seemed to be the purpose. There were four of us civilians on the Yamaha -- Gerry, Lucy, Bob and I. Our job was to always sit on the high side of the boat. Basically we were human ballast. So when the boat was leaning way over to the left, we'd be clinging for our lives to the right side, feeling as though we were on the edge of a cliff; then, suddenly, a voice would shout "Tacking!" and all these New Zealanders would start pulling on things, and the boat would start leaning sharply to the right, and we civilians would try to get over to the left side, moving on our butts like pudgy four-legged crabs, wincing and flinching and trying desperately to avoid flapping sails.
And of course as soon as we got to the other side, the voice would shout: "Tacking!"
We tacked like maniacs. After an hour of this, I knew I was going to need a butt transplant.
So it was a long afternoon out there. But it was exciting, and we might -- thanks to a strong performance by the ballast -- actually have won the race. There was no way to tell. All I know is, I was very glad to get back on land and be able to walk erect and try to heal my bruised and battered body via a time-tested medical remedy. Involving Heineken.