Nouveau Sailing

By Peter Feibleman
Illustrations by Elaine May

     Harvey Jimson is a mild-mannered investment counselor whose demeanor verged on timidity in New York, but like many New Yorkers, as soon as he came to the Vineyard he donned a cap with a gold braid, bought a sailboat, and became Captain Bly.
     "She’s a yawl," he told me proudly, "if you want to come sailing, be on the dock at nine o’clock sharp, and don’t be late."
     At five minutes to nine the next morning I stood at the end of the vineyard Haven town pier with a small bag containing a towel, a tube of sunscreen number 10, a canvas hat, a bathing suit, a bottle of water and a tin of aspirin in case I got a headache from the sun, which wasn’t out, I noticed suddenly. In fact, it looked a little like rain.
     I waited upwards of an hour.
     "Ahoy there!" Jimson shouted at last, tossing a rope from the deck of his boat as he approached. "Belay the line on the cleat."

Ahoyst.jpg (29004 bytes)   "Do what?" I said.
     A small boy who was busy fishing on the pier grabbed the rope from me and tied it to a metal thing. "That’s a cleat," he explained. "’Belay just means tie."
     "Climb aboard, mate," Jimson told me. "Look sharp – she’s pitching a little."
     "She’s doing what?" I asked, stepping onto the boat and falling on my face on the deck.
     "That line is fagged," Jimson barked, stepping over me. "Watch the rigging screw. Stow your gear in the hold while I get away from the piles and we’ll slip around the groin."
     "You wouldn’t believe what I just thought you said," I said, scrambling up. "Where should I stand?"
     "Aft, by the gun'l."   
     "What’s a gun'l?"
     "Careful of the boom."
     "I didn’t hear anything."
    "Duck, you half-wit," Jimson shouted       as the sail flapped toward me,
sustained by a horizontal, lethal-looking piece of wood, thick enough to bash a person’s head in. "And stand clear of the tiller!"
     An hour later we’d left the harbor and were, in every sense of the term, out to sea. A squall had come up and sharp little waves rocked the boat, causing a surge of nausea in me, eased now and then by sheets of stinging cold water that whipped me in the face.
     "Fun, isn’t it?" Jimson shouted. At least, I think that’s what he shouted. For the last ten minutes the storm had twisted and garbled his words, though I’m not sure I would have understood him in any case.
     "Tweep the dicky! Stay the ferls! Suck the duck," he commanded. "Pickle the jib! Grab the mains’l! Goose the moose…."
     I would like to pause at this point to reflect upon the meaning of certain technical terms used by the new sailors to demonstrate their knowledge of the sea. I’ve made a study of them, and a glossary will be found at the end of this narrative.
     After the squall had passed, we found ourselves under a blue sky on a calm ocean with heavy gentle swells that made any nausea I’d been feeling up till then seem a joke. Jimson was fiddling with his fishing line at one side of the boat while I lay prone on the other side with my head over the edge.
     "I like the look of that stretch of sea up ahead a few knots," he said, tightening his fishing line. "Might be a feeding ground for blues."
     "Okay." I washed myself with a rag dipped in seawater while Jimson pulled at one of the sails.
     "Ready about!" he shouted suddenly.
     "Beg pardon?"
     "Hard alee!"
     "Maybe you’d better explain some of those terms to me," I said, trying to stand up, "so I’ll have a better idea what you’re talking about."
     "I had just finished speaking when the boom swung across and knocked me overboard.
     "You have to pay attention.," Jimson said, swinging the boat around and putting his hand out. "Grab hold, mate. I’ll pull you in. Hurt yourself?"
     "Only my knee," I said, rubbing it, "nothing serious. I’ll be able to walk in a day or two."
     There was a zinging sound and Jimson ran over and grabbed his fishing line. "Got one," he announced proudly, reeling it in. "Looks like a quarter pounder. Toss it in there, mate," he added, handing me the fish – a very small one – and pointing to a coffin-shaped box at the back of the boat.
     I carried the little fish over, lay it down inside the box, poured a bucket of seawater in after it, and stroked its nose. It bit me.
     "What are you yelping about, mate?" Jimson said. He came over and examined my bloody fingertip. "Blues have very sharp teeth, didn’t I mention that?"
     "No."
     Jimson studied me. "Better put your shirt back on mate," he said. "You look kind of red."
     A little while later he’d tied the boat to a pier and I stepped gingerly off. By that time my back was on fire and I could tell I was in for a sleepless night.
     "Glad to have you on board, mate," Jimson called as I limped away, nursing my knee. "Be here tomorrow at nine sharp and I’ll take you out to look at some whales."
     I pretended not to hear. If a little tiny bluefish can take off the tip of your finger, I wouldn’t like to think of what a whale could do.

Glossary of Nautical Terms

Note: the following definitions are not gleamed from a dictionary, but from personal experience combined with careful observation and, if I may say so, guts.

Port – This side.

Starboard – That side.

Aft – Abbreviation for the time immediately after midday.

Fore – (I’m not sure.)

Aye, Aye! – The gentile equivalent of "Oy, oy!"

Laying On the Oars – Something you shouldn’t even try.

Dinghy – A small dingh.

Dead Astern – A useless thing that is behind you.

Dead Ahead – A useless thing that is in front of you.

Gaff – Something you shouldn’t have said.

Head – Euphemism for Powder Room.

Tonnage – Amount by which you’re overweight.

Shipshape – Something that looks like a ship.

Winch – (Same as Fore.)

Rigging Screw – The act of making love on the ropes.

Splice – Hispanic bedbugs.

Bilge – Diminutive of "Bill."

Jibe – Modern slang.

Fo’castle – A brief weather report.

Buoy – Opposite of guirl.

Sea Cock - (This term is self-explanatory and requires no definition.)

Sextant – The owner of a sea cock.

Soundings – Little noises.

Swab – Baby talk for "slob."

Ground Swells – Rich tourists.

Capstan – The word "Captain" spoken by someone who should not have another martini.

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