Sailpast Iconoclast

Originally published in Pacific Yachting, July 2012

The tradition of opening day and sailpast at the Royal Vancouver Yacht Club was a complete mystery to me when I became a member a couple of years ago. However, being eager to immerse myself in boating culture, last year I accepted my first invitation to join in the annual event. I was instructed to wear white pants, a white shirt and a navy blue blazer, but was told to “just wear something nautical” if I didn’t have those things.

I’d like to emphasize that I do have those things, but misreading the seriousness of the instructions, I opted for a white striped dress, a navy sweater and jacket. It should also be noted that it was pouring rain, cold and stormy even though it was May.

When I arrived at the club that morning my jaw almost dropped to the floor. Literally every single person was wearing the entire outfit of white pants, white shirt and navy blazer. Even babies were wearing it. As I slinked shamefully to the docks, a couple of dogs galloped by me in sailor suits, surely judging my outfit in their little terrier minds. If that wasn’t bad enough, I even made the horrifying mistake of wearing a captain’s hat inside the clubhouse where, upon arrival, someone politely took me aside and whispered, “Punishment for wearing a captain’s hat inside the pub is buying every person in here a beer.” So much for tradition! I hastily took the hat off and thoroughly enjoyed the event despite committing this opening day fashion faux pas.

After learning these hard lessons in nautical etiquette, I was over prepared for this year. My blazer was pressed, my Sperrys were sparkling, we even had matching tams for all the girls. Champagne bottle in hand, I walked confidently down the docks with all my other uniformed sailpasters to Miller Time, a boat my friend’s family had just purchased. Once on board there was even more to celebrate, as this would be the boat’s inaugural cruise, other than sea trials. 

We ran through a dress rehearsal of the sailpast ritual a couple times, lined up shortest to tallest with the shortest at the bow. It was very official. All we had to do was step left to right, hands moving from behind your back to your sides, then back again. No saluting and no smiling. Just kidding, smiling was allowed. 

The weather this year was perfect. There was not a cloud in the sky and the wind was blowing as we set out with hundreds of other boats to take part in sailpast. We sailed around in the glorious sunshine for about an hour, preparing for our big moment and enjoying being out on the water dressed in matching uniforms. 

When the time came for us to sail past the Commodore, everyone was nervous and excited. We lined up on the starboard side, which was slightly more difficult while not tied to the dock (and after a glass or two of champagne) and when the skipper yelled, “Ship’s company attention!” we stepped into position, hands at our sides. Everyone that is, except me. I chose that exact moment to lose my balance and lurch forward. I quickly composed myself and managed to get in position without (I hoped) being noticed by the Commodore, or worse, the skipper of Miller Time, who in no uncertain terms gruffly instructed us, “We are in it to win it this year!” He had even made cuts just before the crucial moment, sending anyone without perfect uniforms to hide shamefully in the cabin. Everything, except for my stumble, went off without a hitch and we all cheered and it was over. It was time to head back to the dock. 

But when the skipper went to start the engine, there was a terrible sound of silence. Springing into action, a couple of the more experienced sailors took off their blazers, and ignoring their pristine whites, wedged their bodies into the engine room to see what the problem was. One by one they tried everything. Nothing worked. It became clear the engine was not going to start and we were faced with two options. 

We discussed which option would be less embarrassing—being towed into our slip with every single yacht club member watching from their boats, the balcony and the dock, or attempt to dock under sail (where a failed attempt could be disastrous).

Not being a cowardly bunch, and confident in our sailing skills, we decided on the latter and made our way to the docks wide-eyed and ready for anything. We spotted a slip that was in a good position to sail into and aimed straight for it (and for a quiet group of five immaculately uniformed yachty types sipping white wine from fine crystal on their yacht.)
As we explained (shouted) our situation to them they grew increasingly worried we were going to hit them and leaped into action to push us off should we, in fact, actually hit them. Everything was going well until it became clear we were not headed straight into the slip, we were headed straight for the boat beside it. Words started to go from friendly to slightly less so, but thankfully our crew was poised on the bow ready to act as human fenders if need be. With some handy human fendering we avoided the other boat and were guided into the slip and out of calamity’s way. 

After the stress of all that drama, we toasted our sailpast success and a relatively smooth docking under sail experience. Our moods were even cheerier a couple hours later when “word on the docks” was that Miller Time had won the over 40-foot category. We were elated! (And I was relieved my mishap hadn’t cost us the win). Afterwards, we celebrated the start of cruising season with a party on the docks in the sunshine. 

I have learned a lot in my last two—and only—opening day experiences. For instance, always make sure you and your pets are immaculately dressed, and always make sure your engine is running perfectly. My goals for next year are to not fall over during the crucial moment and hopefully not almost hit any other boats. For now though, it’s “Ship’s company at ease” until the next opening day.

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