The Sailing People of Conroe



For the third time in the past half-century, I found myself in close proximity to sailing boat people. Or more specifically, people who talk about sailing boats, design sailing boats, build sailing boats, dream about sailing boats, and, I imagine, some even find time to sail sailing boats. The encounter was a by-product of choosing to attend the spring messabout on Lake Conroe. Before we continue, let me make one thing perfectly clear (I always wanted to say that!), I don't dislike any of the above people for any of the above reasons or any other reason I can think of. So, if you are expecting some kind of sailing boat people bashing (is yottie bastards PC?) you won’t get it here. Anyway, as I was saying, this was the third time I have been in proximity of sailing boat people; I still remember the other two “encounters”.

Though far away in both time and space, I vividly remember the first time I was close enough to sailing boat people to speak. It was 1980; Jenny and I were paddling a heavy old Coleman Scanoe down the Panama Canal. I had two paddles held together with 10 yards of dock line, tied with the famous boa constrictor knot, and Jenny was expertly providing ballast. We were returning from camping on one of the many small islands created when the canal was flooded and were still six or seven miles from any sort of “civilization”. Alert for ship traffic, (getting passed in a loaded canoe by a giant container vessel making eight knots is…interesting) I spotted what I remember to be a fairly large sailing boat slowly overtaking us from the stern.

I was young and strong in those days, so it took a while for the sailing boat to come along side. It made very little wake; I remember a man and a woman were lounging on the aft deck in brightly colored tropical clothing. They were sipping something (champagne?) that looked cool and refreshing. I was dirty from a couple of days of primitive camping and was deeply tanned from two years of endless summers in Panama. I wasn’t too surprised when the lady spied us and exclaimed, “Oh look, natives!” But, she was certainly surprised when I responded in my version of English, “No ma’am, I’m not from around here. I’m from Clute, Texas!”

We had a brief exchange, easily talking over the quiet thump of their little diesel inboard as it pushed the beautiful 40-foot yacht down the canal. The usual, how did you get here, how long were you staying - you know, just regular stuff. I’m not ashamed to admit I did admire the lady a bit as she moved by – I mean I’m only a handful of generations out of the trees, so I can’t help it. My memory says she looked like a smaller version of the schooners you see in old paintings. She was dressed to kill with dark blue sides, maroon stripe with white accent at the waterline, and bone white decks. The roomy cabin had several ports and even a RV air conditioner. There was lots and lots of varnished wood – but, I think the masts were aluminum – so she was modern. There were sails, big ones, I guess they were up for effect, because it was dead calm. But I’m not a sailing boat person – there are things I don’t understand, so let’s leave it at that.

Fast forward, June 2001, Rend Lake Illinois. I had been working on Jetfish since December ’99, and she was ready to be admired by commoners. Realizing that about the only people who truly appreciated homebuilt boats were homebuilt boat builders, I hauled her up to Illinois on a homemade trailer. And there I had my second encounter with sailing boat people and sailing boats.

I was so absorbed, lost in my own world, with testing Jetfish (she had only been wet twice before), that I pretty much forgot that I was in “their camp” – the sailing boat people I mean. I do remember Chuck and Sandra’s Caprice – she was shiny new and had this neat little sail on the back. Chuck let me go aboard. He was talking in some language I didn’t know. I think I blew my cover, but I’m not sure – you got to keep an eye on sailing boat people – some of them are smart. Anyway, Caprice was the first sailing boat I ever actually touched!

April 2003, this time Jetfish was done – I gave rides to Gavin and others who trusted my work more than they should have. This time I wasn’t distracted from the mission. Finally, I was in a position to closely observe sailing boat people from inside the group! I got in because Jetfish just happened to be designed by the guest of great celebrity, Gavin Atkin (while he was well into a few pints of IRN BLU, no doubt). Getting in was so easy!

For whatever reason, I was able to move freely among the crowds of sailing boat people. Who knows what “they” were really talking about - just out of earshot as they were. It looked like they were innocently talking about sailing boats, but that could have been a trick. Even so, I was able to quietly observe behavior I don’t think has ever been documented – even on late night PBS! The sailing boat people became enormously agitated each time a new sailing boat arrived – mulling about in a frenzy and talking in secretive codes about what kind of rig she had, what famous (in their world) fellow drew her lines, and what special design features let her slip through the water with hardly a ripple.

If only I had had the foresight to bring a tape recorder (or even a lawn chair!) I could share some of the conversations with you. These people were talking to me – right there in the sailing boat marina, their words, my ears! On more than one occasion I was shocked when someone nearby would point out a stick of varnished wood, or a strange thing on a hull and make a meaningless comment directly to me. I had to answer! I didn’t want the sailing boat people to find me out. (Did you hear? Gavin let an idiot build his boat!)

In desperation I fell back to the old “TV nod”, a skill keenly honed over years and years of trying to watch important TV shows like “Survivor”, while my wife chattered endlessly about stuff too important to wait until commercial breaks. Reacting to the sailing boat people’s non-verbals, I either furrowed my brows or shook my head sadly, or smiled and nodded in complete approval of the obvious brilliance of the strange object before me. I managed a weak “uh huh” now and then, and one brave moment even said, “Yes, I see what you mean”.

And then there was the three-dollar plastic tarp from Wal-Mart that turned out to be a masterfully crafted sail of great interest (which also had an alien name). Now, that was a close one - very nearly blew my cover. Fortunately, I was able mask my ignorance by quickly stuffing a whole mustard coated hot-dog into my mouth – taking full advantage of sailing boat people’s propensity not to disturb someone when they are feeding. Just as I began to worry that I would have to spend the afternoon eating whole hotdogs every time someone looked in my direction, Chuck asked for a ride in Jetfish to take pictures of sailing boat people in sailing boats.

In the wild I never venture too close to people in their sailing boats. Never had a reason to – sailing boats seem to prefer the open water while the fish I seek seem to prefer the shallow coves and small creeks. So, with me hoping Jetfish’s polyester seams would hold up against the white caps on Lake Conroe (don’t know what Chuck was thinking), we set out to photograph sailing boat people and their sailing boats.

I vaguely recall that one of the boats Chuck photographed was called Bobber. It was a short little thing that had an orange junker sail. It was living up to its name out there in the rough water, bobbing up and down and side-to-side. The skipper seemed happy enough as he pulled this and that rope for no apparent reason, none of which made a change that I could see.

Next we circled the Sultana a few times. A much larger sailing boat, she carried about six people. They too seemed happy, leaning forward as she made her best tacking speed, no doubt I was the only one who noticed we were barely moving fast enough to steer Jetfish. I have to say; even struggling against the wind, she was a proud sailing boat with fine lines that even I could appreciate.

I tried to see more than can be seen with eyes – why sailing boat people do such things in their sailing boats, why they work so hard pulling ropes and such, when a throttle is so easy to move. But it was lost to me, and soon enough we headed back to the Conroe Yacht Club, where all the oohing and aahing processes were repeated as each sailing boat was loaded onto her trailer.

Before I knew it, it was time for Jenny and me to leave as well. It was a good day, my best encounter yet with sailing boat people. And I’m not saying that just because Jetfish behaved, and my belly was pleasantly distended with mustard coated hot-dogs. It was a good day because I spent it with good people, doing what made them happy. And what could possibly be better than that?