That Drinking Thing

My youngest recalls sitting in her classroom on the first day of eighth grade sporting a cool regatta shirt from a few weeks prior and being tapped on the shoulder by her friend Grace who whispered, urgently, "You can’t wear that here, it says rum. The principal is gonna send you home!" Elizabeth made it through the school day, but the shirt stayed in the closet until the next summer. Her mom and I were a bit embarrassed to have missed it.

Gosh, there is a lot of drinking in sailing, but as with the shirt, much of it goes unnoticed by many of us sailors. Sure, alcohol seems embedded in the sailing culture. Early high seas sailors carried fermented beverages such as beer because no known pathogens can live in it. IPA was, in effect, better than water. The Royal Navy’s long love affair with rum for grog set the stage for a marketing campaign by West Indies distillers that lives on today.

Who among us doesn’t have a sailing friend with a drinking problem and a drinking friend with a sailing problem?

And let me get this on the table: when the race is over, I’m often the first to ask, "What’s it take to get a beer on this boat?" I’m not anti-drinking. In fact, the gluten-free diet is out of the question for this Milwaukeean, because beer is at the apex of my food pyramid. A loaf of bread in a can. But I’m also a dad and must admit, right or wrong, to having included some awfully young kids in some awfully ruckus keggers after sailing. It weighs on me. So we set limits.

The first is about the law. We don’t serve minors, even our own. It might seem surprising to you that this would need saying, but to many liberty-minded sailors, the right to self-select the timing of "coming of age" is theirs. So at many clubs it’s not odd to see a father and son or mom and teenage daughter clinking cups. My wife and I won’t go there, even if we were there 30 years ago. It’s different now. The risks are much greater.

Second, we boycott regatta parties where young women are under-paid to over-serve wrist-banded, rum-soaked bozos. In fact, years ago, we stopped traveling to regattas where this is the attraction and norm. Our daughters are now old enough to know better, but the family agrees, the boycott stands on principle. In our world, the bartending women would be better sailing, not serving. Here’s their open invitation to join our team. Bring PFDs and stay-warm clothes.

And that leads to our final framework: the sobriety advantage. Any serious athlete will tell you that they lose performance as soon as they start drinking and for many hours afterwards. In fact, any serious practitioner of anything — writing, doctoring, inventing, driving, thinking — will say the same. Even bartenders know that they must stay sober to stay safe. One slip-up can lead to disaster. So we don’t drink before or during sailing. Ever. Non-negotiable.

The beer stays in the cooler until the racing is over, and on breezy nights, until the boat is safely tied at the dock. And the cooler is understocked. It carries just enough cans for a toast or two, assuming flags were earned, and that’s it. There is no hard liquor on board. Oh, and we also offer a wide selection of juices, teas, sodas, and waters for the kids and clear-headed adults.

The sobriety advantage has another lasting benefit for families. Elizabeth and her older (almost legal) sister Kate explain that by watching drunken sailors act like fools, they’ve learned what they don’t want to be when they grow up. I’ll take solace in and raise a cup to that.

About the Author:Saving Sailing author and sailing advocate Nicholas Hayes sails his B-32 Syrena with his wife and two daughters in Milwaukee, WI, and has contributed regularly for SpinSheet for four years.