Tuesday, February 01, 2011
One summer, many decades ago when I was at college, three of my friends and I spent a summer vacation week cruising the Norfolk Broads, a network of rivers and lakes in the east of England. In retrospect it seems incredible to me now that a reputable boatyard would rent a motor cruiser to a bunch of wild college students with almost zero knowledge of boating. But they did and, after a short introductory driving lesson, off we went.
We managed to commit almost every novice boating mistake known to man. And a few new ones we invented...
There was Discovering the Hard Way that Sailing Yachts Tacking up a Narrow River Don't Give Way to Motor Cruisers. However it must be said that the resulting hole in the side of our boat really wasn't all that big.
There was Four Drunken Kids in a Dinghy Can't Find Their Moored Cruiser After an Evening in The Pub. Hey, how did we know that all these boats would look the same in the dark?
And then there was Why Didn't They Make These Bridges Tall Enough For Our Boat to Fit Under? I don't think we appreciated the importance of complicated phenomena like tides and all that stuff, and anyway the bridge had already taken a few knocks over the years.
But we had fun. And our confidence was boosted (and our fun enhanced) because we had with us a most excellent book that was our guide, our inspiration, our bible. It was The Art of Coarse Sailing by Michael Green, a story about a journey on the Norfolk Broads quite similar to ours. The hero of Green's book seemed even more incompetent than us. At least we didn't experience (as he did) Explosion of Vessel or Going Aground on a Bungalow. (We did have one near miss in that latter department though.) Every day we laughed over Green's brilliantly funny accounts of his Broads cruise in which many of the zany incidents seemed eerily like the ones we were experiencing.
Back in those days, Michael Green was quite well known in England as a writer of humorous books. There was The Art of Coarse Rugby, The Art of Coarse Acting and several others. The whole premise of the "Coarse" series is that it isn't necessary to be skillful to enjoy a sport; enthusiasm trumps skill every time. All the books are essentially about the art of playing a sport badly, and exposing the humor in the situations that ensue.
The Coarse actor is "one who can remember his lines, but not the order in which they come." The consumption of alcohol is central to the life of every Coarse sportsman; Green once defined a Coarse sportsman as "one, who when his club receives a grant from the National Playing Fields Association, wants to spend the money on extending the bar."
I don't seem to have a copy of The Art of Coarse Sailing in my possession. (Our old cruising guide must have belonged to one of my friends.) But I do have a copy of The Michael Green Book of Coarse Sport which is a collection of short stories about many different sports... rugby, cricket, tennis, camping... and, of course, sailing. The book was published in 1965 and inside the cover there is a sticker that says W.Heffer and Sons, Sidney Street, Cambridge right next to where the price of the book is written by hand in pre-decimal currency.
Aaaah. Heffers! That name brings back so many happy memories of the days when "browsing" didn't mean something you do on a computer.
Where was I? Where am I?
Oh yes. Coarse Sport.
There are two sailing stories in my book. The first is called Collapse of Coarse Sailor. It is an hilarious account of the time when the author went dinghy racing with his friend Beaver. Green quite correctly points out that one of the most important Laws of Coarse Sport is that there be no recriminations after the game, but that dinghy racing contradicts this noble attitude because of the stampede after the racing to the protest room where the contest is not won by the fastest boat but by the fastest talker.
The author admits that he doesn't take such things seriously enough and confides, "It will give an idea of my approach to sailing when I say I measure distance in bottles of liquor." He takes out his bottle of rum as Beaver and he tack up to the starting line of the first race, which triggers Beaver into a tirade worthy of Captain Bligh in which he reminds his hapless crew of his many duties, the most important of which is to note the number of "any bastard who fails to give way" so that he, Beaver, can lodge a protest after the racing is over.
There follows a typically Green-esque account of mayhem and carnage on the start line which ends with our heroes' boat upside down, and is followed by an epic struggle for survival and an injury which sends the author to the emergency room. If you've ever been dinghy racing, read this story and I guarantee that you will laugh 'til it hurts.
The other sailing story in this book is A Coarse Sailor at Sea which opens with the line: "I had been sailing for years before I realised that most people with boats are liars." The premise here is that the sailing stories told by members in the yacht club bar are all gross exaggerations, if not downright lies. After a year or two of playing this game at his local yacht club, our hero runs out of tall tales to tell and decides he will actually have to "do something." So he and his friend Hicks set out to cross the English Channel to France in an 11-foot sailing dinghy.
During the crossing they experience more death-defying incidents than most round-the-world sailors face in a lifetime, including nearly being run over by what they thought at first was the Varne Lightship; arguing about whether their compass or their chart (or both) are wrong; waving a match at their sail so an oil tanker can see them; running our of rum... etc. etc. etc. Somehow they survive the ordeal. But the reception of their (actually true) story back at the yacht club bar was not quite what they expected.
I thought that perhaps Green's writing was more widely known these days, which was why I included two quotes from him in my recent Quotes Quiz. Sadly, nobody guessed the author of either quote. It's a shame if he has fallen out of fashion because I think others would still enjoy his Coarse Sport series as much as I do.
I think that somewhere in the back of my brain it was the memory of reading The Art of Coarse Sailing that inspired me take up sailing as a sport myself several years later. After all, the whole message of the Coarse sport genre is that you don't have to be all that good at any sport to enjoy it, and that any sport worth playing is worth playing badly. And I've certainly enjoyed myself doing much sailing badly over the last thirty years.
And the other message that I took from that book is that it's possible to be very funny if you write well about playing a sport badly. I don't think I consciously copy Green's style in writing this blog; but I do think that his book planted a seed in my mind that, over three decades later, matured into the idea to try to write some humorous pieces about my own "coarse" sailing... and thus Proper Course was born.
And what is really weird, possum, is that I chose that name, Proper Course, for this blog. Course. Coarse. It wasn't a deliberate pun or homage. But maybe unconsciously it was some weird mental echo?
And that's all I have to say about that.
I think I'll go and shovel some snow now.
Posted by Tillerman at 11:30 AM