Believe it or not, I am very loyal and dependable. I don’t like to disappoint. I commit and I follow through. In fact, I once wrote a blog post about getting attached and about difficulties of letting go.
Yet, as I was waiting for our boat before a race a couple of months ago, a skipper I know asked me while walking past, “So what boat are you on today? Do you even remember the name?” and I blushed. He was long gone and I was still muttering to myself. “I commit to boats for an entire season! What did he even mean? I always sail winters on the Tiger! And I sail Sundays on another boat!” My fellow crew members, always happy to help out with a smart-arse comment or two, chuckled at how close to heart I took that comment. “He called me a boat slut!” – I said finally. Although technically he didn’t.
I don’t think there is such thing as boat slut shaming. I am almost positive there isn’t. The first time I heard the term, quite a while ago, it was a self-description and the guy who used it was quite casual about it, almost self-congratulatory. After all, being invited to a lot of boats is flattering, especially when you are invited for the right reasons.
Still, the term doesn’t sound neutral. It implies lack of loyalty if not morality, and its parallels with romantic relationships are obvious. When we fall in love with a boat and commit to it for a long time, we get to know its every quirk, every nook and cranny, the preferred tack, the slipping halyards, the thin line between going fast and being overpowered, the best way to position yourself while trimming and a thousand other things. Racing on a familiar boat is comforting in its familiarity, not unlike sex in a long-term committed relationship – you both know how to get each other going, you work together really well to reach the desired outcome and you feel safe and protected, even if that last bit is an illusion.
Yet in many cases you learn more about sailing and yourself when you sail on different boats with different people. The fundamental principles might be the same, yet every boat behaves in its own unique way. There is a different dynamic in every crew, and it pays off to do a different role to what you usually do every now and again. You might get burned sometimes. The worst race I’ve ever had finished on the rocks because someone put on the running backstay too early so the boat slid sideways past the mark and into the shore. It was a valuable if embarrassing lesson. During better races you learn from other people – how to roll tack better and how trimmers interact with each other, how not to panic when a boat starts rounding up. You compare strings and the way the winches are positioned on boats. You see people tracking target speeds or struggling with stuck canting keels as the shore gets closer. You learn something new every time. And as opposed to romantic relationships, it’s not morally reprehensible, especially if you are loyal for as long as people need you to be.
Sailing on a new boat can also be extremely enjoyable. It’s hard to describe what it’s like to feel a boat tremble and surge forward as you play with its kite sheet. If there’s trust between the skipper and the crew, if you are allowed to do your job and it all goes well, if the boat is going fast, what more can you ask for? Even a bad race is usually enjoyable on our beautiful harbour with its dolphins, seals and penguins, its brilliant sun reflecting in the water and the rugged coast line – and a good race feels nothing short of amazing.
I still enjoy sailing on the same boat for a season or more. I always show up on time and I don’t remember the last time I cancelled. Going steady with a boat is exciting in its own right, all that getting to know the crew and the way the boat behaves in different situations. Yet sometimes, when there are no prior commitments, it feels great to hop on to another boat and see what it’s like. And if that makes me a boat slut then so be it, even if I do get uncomfortable about the term and mutter in self-defence for a minute or two when I hear it.