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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Never be Chicken of the Sea

Although I had a perfectly good job in the early 1990s as a technical writer at Boeing, I felt strangely unfulfilled. Sure, I enjoyed the challenge of my Jane Goodall-like existence, patiently earning the trust of of shy, docile and uncommunicative engineers, learning their culture and bringing my findings to the world. But still I needed more. Day after day in a cubicle farm with people who ate lunch in their cars was doing nothing for my social development.
The Boeing plant where I worked is situated on the south shore of Lake Washington. In the 1930s the company had expected to win a lucrative military contract for a large flying boat called the Sea Ranger. The plant was constructed with huge hangar doors opening directly onto the water in anticipation of a substantial production run. Alas, only one plane was ever built, and it was known forever after as the “Lone Ranger.” But the plant remained, rolling out World War II bombers, early airliners, and by my day 737s and 757s. All of which are forced to make an awkard turn outside the factory doors to avoid a trip to Davy Jones' Locker.
But Boeing’s real estate problem was my benefit. Adjacent to the plant was a lovely waterfront park. On summer afternoons I would go jogging along the lake after work, dodging strollers, skateboards and flocks of grazing Canada geese.
One day I spotted a little flotilla of sailboats maneuvering erratically inside a logboom. After a few inquiries I learned that it was a local sailing club offering introductory small-boat sailing classes.
Having sailed with my family since I was a teenager, and lacking a boat of my own, I decided this was the perfect opportunity to expand my social life.
The club turned out to be populated mostly by more Boeing engineers, though they were older than the people I worked with, had families and seemed able to speak in complete sentences. But they retained the thrift and practicality I had come to know and love in my workplace. The instructional dinghies were 14-foot C-Larks that had been donated by some benefactor during the Carter administration. The pulleys used to raise and lower the threadbare sails were chipped into square-ish Flinstones-looking wheels. We spent our off season in the members' garages lacquering layers of duct tape over the steadily diminishing original fiberglass in the hulls.
My least favorite vessel in the club fleet was the committee boat. Now this term may conjure up images of gleaming white-and-teak cruisers, navy blazers and Bloody Marys on the afterdeck. But this was a working class town, and no Boeing engineer worth his or her subscription to Aviation Week would be caught dead in such froufrou. I secretly dreaded the afternoons when it was my turn to putter around in the decrepit 10-foot skiff, shouting at students “No, pull on the other rope! No, not that one, the other other rope.” As tepid lake water seeped through “The Spirit of the City of Renton” ’s rotting plywood hull, I bailed with one hand, using a halved Clorox bottle helpfully supplied by the club for this purpose. At the same time I tried to keep the sputtering outboard from stalling, while keeping the stern pointed toward passing harbor patrols to hide the bow’s registration tags that had expired in 1987.
Much more fun was sitting in the instruction boats with the students. Many were reluctant wives whose husbands had just purchased a sailboat for the first time and had packed them off to our classes for instruction. The other club members decided that since I was the only female instructor the wives should be my responsibility. Ignoring the sexism, I made it my mission to break down as much of the mystique about sailing as possible. While the male instructors loved to bombard their charges with arcane nautical terminology from the outset, I told my students to turn left or right, pull or let go of ropes, and pull the tiller toward them or push it away. There was plenty of time later to learn about port and starboard, sheets and lines, and “helm’s alee.”
My proudest evening occurred several weeks into one session. My group of fledgling seafarers was maneuvering calmly along in a light breeze. Ahead of us, two boats full of male students, each with a male instructor sitting in the bow and facing backward so they could bark orders at their charges, were steaming toward each other. The students were too intent or intimidated to say anything. I yelled, but we were too far away. The instructors instructed, the wind blew, and sure enough nature took its course as the two boats rammed each other forcefully enough to unleash a flock of startled blackbirds from the nearby cattails. Loud curses flew from the the boats. But behind me, I heard a giggle. “Men,” said one student. “They just have no feel for the water.” We sailed on.

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