Last summer, at the church fair, I hit the jackpot. For a dollar, I bought a tattered hardcover book, because the cover drawing (of a handsome looking chap hiking out on his International Canoe) had caught my eye. Upon further inspection, I noticed that it was written by the legendary English sailor and boat designer, Uffa Fox. It was called, simply, “According to Uffa.” I’m quite sure this could only happen at a church fair in a die-hard sailing community, such as the one I’m proud to call home!
How, you wonder, did I know about Uffa Fox? Well, because of my dear friend George, of course, who always has the most interesting and often hair-raising sailing stories to tell me! Back in the day, George used to be one of the top International 14 sailors, and he raced with the very best of them in Britain and France and Canada, and Lord only knows where else. And Uffa, if I may call him that, was probably one of the most famous of the International 14 sailors, and regularly sailed with none other than H.R.H. the Duke of Edinburgh. Anyway, George tells a wonderful story of attending a dinner at the Royal Yacht Squadron in England, and because it was during the International Team Races of 1958 (held at Cowes), Uffa was there, too. And, as luck would have it, George and Uffa ended up being dinner partners. George found him to be fascinating, larger than life, and a great lover of singing. Evidently, the very stuffy dinner included endless speeches, and Uffa grew increasingly restless — until he finally, and rather dramatically, leapt up from the table and bellowed: “I think we need a bit of a song!” Soon he had the entire room singing, rip-roaringly, much to everyone’s delight. I believe George used the word “stentorian” to describe Uffa’s rather commanding singing voice. . .
But, back to the book. I took it home, dusted it off, opened the front cover, and was completely riveted, from the beginning to the end. Really. I sat there on my couch and read the entire thing in one sitting. I couldn’t put it down. It is a book full of the old ways, with the flavor of what it must have been like before radar, and weather satellites, and when sailors raced in just about every kind of weather. It was fascinating to read the Isle of Wight tidal charts, and to learn why the Solent has “double high water,” or to hear why the seamen of the day listened to the weather reports of areas to windward: “so that they know in good time what is coming their way.” Or about sailing in dense fog, in pre-radar days: “Fog is one of the greatest dangers at sea, so you must have a jolly good bell that can be rung every three minutes at anchor and a loud foghorn that must be blown every minute when you are underway.” Certainly quite a lot different from our electronic age, where GPS and radar and weather reports have taken away much of the thrill of the ocean adventure, taking us farther and farther from the days when a seaman’s own wits and knowledge, honed over a lifetime, were the only things at hand to keep him safe.
Uffa had this to say about racing: “Having learnt to sail and handle a boat, the earlier you can start racing, the better. Once you race, every fault is pointed out in the way the other boats sail away from you, and when you do anything well this too is revealed as you start sailing away from the rest of the fleet.” I completely agree. Racing’s not for everyone, but it certainly forces you to improve your sailing skills much more quickly than just “sailing around.” Having to sail in the most efficient way, as in racing to win, quickly teaches you about sail trim and boat handling, and, as Uffa said, you can immediately gauge your progress against other boats. Boom. Instant feedback. In my own experience, after I had been racing Tiger Tale for a season, I could look back and see the dramatic improvement I had made in my sailing ability and confidence — all directly attributable to competing with other boats.
Apparently, Uffa really liked to sail in very strong winds. In his book he describes, at great length, a particularly blustery (he called it a “summer gale”) 100-mile sail in his International 14, all the way from Cowes to Le Havre! Or, he writes this of his annoyance with the racing being cancelled for heavy winds (35 m.p.h.): “This habit of cancelling races when there is a brave breeze should be discouraged: it takes the robustness out of the sport and tends to debase sailing from a sport into a game by eliminating all zest and risks.” And, furthermore: “All the gear should be strong enough to stand up to all the wind a vessel can endure, and by continually cancelling races in strong weather committees alter the aspects of boats so that instead of sturdy little vessels able to endure the wind and sea, they become light-weather playthings.” British understatement? All I can say is that I would certainly love to have seen him in action. It must have been amazing.
While reading this book, it made me realize that we ladies have come a long way since it was published, way back in 1960. Imagine the following appearing in a sailing book of today: “She was a full-bodied boat, which not only enabled her to carry my cruising gear as well as me, but also gave her steadiness and stability. Because of her lines I named her The Brave Alum Bey from one of W. S. Gilbert’s Bab Ballads, ‘O Big was the Bosom of Brave Alum Bey, and also the region that under it lay.'” Or this: “for although women are the equal of men in their knowledge of the sea, winds and vessels, and can win races in the light weather that is well within their strength, they cannot hope to defeat men in heavy blowing weather, when great strength as well as great knowledge is required.” Or my absolute favorite: “In these days of nylon spinnakers you have to keep something on your forestay; because if the damp nylon spinnaker wraps around wire it grips as tight as the clothes on those women you see who fill them so well that you think they have been poured into them and somebody forgot to say ‘when.'” It conjures up a rather unforgettable image, though, don’t you agree? Today, we ladies would probably respond, en-masse, with a catchy, empowering hashtag. But, despite his benevolent sexism, the ladies all loved him.
As a caution to sailors, he wrote this: “But you must at all times remember that the power of the sea is greater than anything else on this earth and that although many fleets have sailed over it, not one has conquered or harnessed it, and no one ever will. Remember, too, like fire, the sea is a good friend but a bad master; so you must never, never allow yourself to get into the position where the sea takes control.” Truer words were never spoken. Maybe especially if you found yourself sailing across the English Channel in a small, open boat — in a summer gale?
And lastly, here is one of my favorite quotes: “For the seaman’s motto when hoisting or lowering sails — ‘always look aloft’ — is true of our daily lives whether ashore or afloat, and I am always astonished when I go to London town to find how seldom you see people looking up at the sky. If only they would, it would lift them out of the dreariness of their surroundings. So on your way through life, always look aloft.” Well said, I say. It opens your horizons just thinking about it, doesn’t it?
The magic of stumbling upon one of life’s unexpected little gifts always brings such joy. Who would have thought that I’d find such a wonderful book at the church fair? Or that it would bring me hours of delighted enjoyment? I loved every moment of being spirited away by Uffa’s words, into the magic of the old ways, and the unexpected and beautiful poetry of a canny seaman. You can bet I’ll read it again before the summer’s over — probably during a good blow!