Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Coarse Sailing

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.


PeconicPuffin said...

I'd say cruising broads in Norfolk is a coarse way to describe it. Whatever happened to polite conversation with the ladies?

Tillerman said...

Shhhhh. We don't talk about that aspect of the vacation. What happens in Norfolk stays in Norfolk.

Chris Partridge said...

As G.K. Chesterton wrote: "If a job's worth doing, it's worth doing badly."

Chris Partridge said...

PS Michael Green was also responsible for my favourite spoof 18th century diary, "Squire Haggard's Journal".

JP said...

Aaaahhhh..... Heffers :)

Ok, got that reminiscing out the way, nice post.

When we hired that motor cruiser on the Thames last year the Senior Crew asked the company if they were worried about handing their pride and joy over to a bunch like us.

"Oh no, you're ok" says they, "now when its a stag weekend, that's when we worry!"

Hate to say it but Green sounds a bit like Buff!

Should point out have never read any of his books, but sounds like I ought to.

Anonymous said...

I think the Navy says that about [the other] Norfolk, too.

Steve in Baltimore

Tillerman said...

You definitely should check out some of Green's books JP! Of all my regular readers I was most confident that you would be the one to have read Green and remember those quotes. He just seems so much like your kind of writer. Maybe the peak of his popularity was a little before your time?

I think all of his books are out of print now, but there seem to be a few second-hand copies on Amazon, or Heffers Online Bookshop if you prefer. And Heffers Online even has an audio-cassette of The Art of Coarse Sailing as read by Jon Pertwee. How English is that possume?

JP said...

I'll definitely look out for them at second hand bookshops - like those under Waterloo Bridge you probably know.

Tillerman said...

What happens under Waterloo Bridge stays under Waterloo Bridge.

Baydog said...

Is that near Itchycoo Park?

Pandabonium said...

"enthusiasm trumps skill" - that's us!
Sounds like good fun. I'll have to find this book.

I do remember hearing that those Norfolk Broads are good time after a pub crawl.

Ah, Acres of Books, Long Beach, CA - (1927 - 2008).

BlueVark said...

I also went cruising on the Norfolk Broads with a group of friends at age 19. But the daft boat yard actually let us loose with a beautiful wooden gaff rigged sailing boat. We managed to put the bowsprit through the side of a motor cruiser that would'nt give way to us as we tacked up the river under sail!
Also managed to 'shoot' Potter Higham bridge by dropping the gaff just at the last second (oh how that could have gone horribly wrong!).

Presuming Ed said...

Ah, The Art of Coarse Sailing. With it's companion volume, The Art of Coarse Cruising, the only two books about sailing that are actually funny.

The definition of a coarse sailor - one whom, in a time of crisis, forgets all nautical language and shouts "For God's sake, turn left!".

And the coarse sailor's beaufort scale:

Coarse Sailor's Sea Going Version
Landsman's version
Boat moves sideways with tide.
Cigarette smoke gets in eyes.
Coarse yachtsman hoists sail, then wind drops.
Wet finger feels cold.
Tea towels blow off rigging.
Public houses close one window.
Coarse boats careen. Difficult to make tea underway
Public houses close two windows.
Gas keeps going out.
Beer froth blows off.
Coarse sailors get book on sailing from cabin and look up bit about reefing.
Customers in pub gardens go inside bar.
Coarse sailors try to double reef and go aground
Elderly customers have difficulty in leaving pub.
Coarse sailor rescued by launch.
Pub door cannot be opened against wind.
Pub sign blows down.
Coarse sailors in pub.
Coarse sailor hit by falling sign
Above force 9 - only of interest on TV.

Tillerman said...

Thanks be to the Flying Spaghetti Monster that someone apart from me actually remembers and appreciates the Michael Green books. Thanks for that Ed.

You might also enjoy the Beerfort Scale.

Andrew said...

I would've answered your quiz but every quiz I take always ends up telling me I'm an alcoholic

Andrew said...

All of Green's books are entertaining, but they aren't the only funny ones about sailing See three sheets to the wind by an English cartoonist whose work appeared in Yachting Monthly (I think). It was obvious he'd been sailing a lot.

Pandabonium said...

My copy (a 1st edition bought from abebooks.com) just arrived from Australia. Illustrations are great too.

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