The death of an America's Cup sailor in San Francisco last Thursday has wrought days of excruciating sadness and understandable analysis, but for me it loosed also a third thought-stream, one I never could have imagined even 24 months ago.
At four Olympics from Barcelona 1992 to Athens 2004, I had witnessed most everything from archery to wrestling to team handball to fencing and even to pelota, but never sailing. Somehow in the delirious, sleepless Olympic muddles I had missed entirely the seas, which in Atlanta's case lay all the way out at Savannah. I had seen no dinghies. I had met no sailors. I had sustained obliviousness.
On my occasional mental lists of the world's toughest athletes, sailors would not have appeared -- not because I disrespected them, but because I never would have thought of them.
Then, through the mercy of an excellent editor, I went burrowing in 2011 into something called the Volvo Ocean Race, a nine-month, 39,000-nautical-mile, 10-stopover grind of 70-foot yachts and 11-man sailing teams that reached all six inhabited continents in addition to so much of the angry watery matter in between. Yes, an around-the-world race differs from an America's Cup which tethers to one port, but an America's Cup does have its unpredictable horrors, and many sailors have worked both formats.
In the beginning of my stint among sailors, the technical jargon proved almost impossible to decipher. In the end, the technical jargon proved almost impossible to decipher. As I got going on my tutelage I sat in on a Saturday morning team meeting on the Portuguese coast and understood only about every fifth word, often a "the" or an "and" or one of the several variations of a word that begins with "f."
I think I pretty much grasped, say, "rig."
A young physiotherapist explained how her mentor, a more experienced sailing physiotherapist, could determine which boat a sailor sailed and which job he held on that boat simply by watching him walk - his gait, his tilt. Here was a world of backs and shoulders and arms and wrists, all exceptionally strong and routinely compromised. All of this began to disabuse me of any cockamamie concept that these guys aren't athletes, a concept I never had mulled anyway.
Good grief, are these guys athletes.
I did meet sailors. And sailors. And sailors. They told of a phantasmagorical "Southern Ocean," correcting my misconception from the world having four oceans to its recently acknowledged five, and can you imagine being the International Hydrographic Organization and having the power to bestow ocean status upon swaths of water? In this Southern Ocean, in the part of the world that starts to think about becoming Antarctica, you would encounter albatross, whales, sea birds. You might go around icebergs that seemed as if white skyscrapers. You might be cold for spiteful amounts of time.
It could be fearsomely windy not for the typical two days but perhaps for 10, yet while that might daunt almost all of us, it left these people only exhilarated. One mighty Kiwi sailor named Craig Satterthwaite had spent a small chunk of his life in that Southern Ocean hanging from a boat and hanging on. He seemed blase about that matter, and as in many daring sports, it seemed these people simply had to do this in life, as if their red blood cells might resemble little sails.
They had visited an exhilaration most never find, and they had returned to tell of it with lively eyes.
The amount of work to ready the boat floored me. The day they invited me on a practice run and one unassuming marvel of a sailor named Justin Slattery appeared 100 feet into the sky atop the mast astounded me. I already knew these particular sailors could spend 20-odd days at sea with bland food and mean cold and staccato sleep shifts and no showers and, apparently, insufficient razors. And as my knowledge upgraded from nothing to next-to-nothing, the experience led me to read about the Dutch sailor Hans Horrevoets.
Horrevoets, then 32, died in the middle of a malevolent night in the Atlantic Ocean, 1,300 nautical miles from the English coast, when his team's boat nosedived into one of the 16-foot waves that had complicated the wee hours, even as his teammates went downstairs for their harnesses and he was moments from doing likewise. His teammates did find him in the ocean and attempted resuscitation, then sailed with his body toward the coast.
Only they didn't do just that. At one stage they turned around to rescue the harrowed crew of a stricken, damaged rival.
The possibility of death always hides out in the distant background, of course. Everybody knows it's there. Nobody refers to it much.
I began to see sailors as unusually tough.
While in Spain for the race start in October 2011, I managed to have lunch with some of the sailors' wives, and with their strength they probably didn't even know they had, they managed to reconfigure some of my thinking about something so elemental as marriage.
One said that even with her husband absent for long stretches, she and he could communicate in some deeply meaningful way through merely the boat speed, which she would check at intervals online. She would know he was all right, and he would know that she would know he was all right. One said that the frequent absences, so rued in general society, could help a marriage if you calibrated your thinking to relish the absence of monotony and the ability to reconvene in ports all around.
One said she fretted, but she knew that if her husband were not doing this, he would not be the person she loved, would not be him.
The race began from Spain in October 2011. In a first-night storm, the Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing boat came down off a wave and had its mast snap gruesomely in three places and in the Mediterranean. In full safety gear, a 30-year-old sailor, Wade Morgan, went barreling out into the choppy sea to cut loose the sail. He reported zero fear as he enabled the sullen ride back through the night to port under motor.
I began to see sailors as possibly as tough as anybody playing anything.
As the race wore on through Cape Town and Abu Dhabi toward the Chinese island of Sanya, the skippers told of the diabolical possibilities in the Strait of Malacca near Malaysia and Indonesia and Singapore. How many sports have, as hindrances, these: unlit fishing boats, floating 20-foot trees, the occasional steel barrel, the occasional peddler of discounted cigarettes, the occasional discarded cargo box. In how many sports beyond sailing can your chances fizzle when you strike, say, a mammoth animal?
Pretty soon, I started watching all the other sports I'd watched all the other years with a fresh view. I'd think, That field doesn't even move.
On a Saturday midnight in the Auckland harbor in New Zealand, a large boat took a horde of media sorts out to greet the French team Groupama, when suddenly we spotted their green team color in the distance. Here they came, and what an impossible, remarkable thought:
While I had arrived by Korean Air via Seoul -- excellent airline, service, food -- the 11 guys on that boat over there had come from China, across 19 days and 15 hours and 35 minutes and 54 seconds, across 5,220 nautical miles, by sailboat. They had weathered some pretty ferocious Mother Nature concoctions just out of China. They had withstood a late-stage near-catastrophe when they took on fresh bow damage and a fresh flow of water pouring in.
That race would continue around the growling stuff beneath South America, to Brazil, to Miami, across the Atlantic to Portugal. What it saw the very first night out of New Zealand would frighten most of us to heaps. When one of the sailors of the American boat Puma got a dislocated shoulder on the way to Brazil, another sailor got it back into place through medical advice from telephone conversations to shore. And on and on and on, saga after adventurous saga, until I rate ocean sailors up there in the toughness clouds amongst NFL players and rugby players and UFC fighters and boxers et al.
The whole thing raises a continuing chatter about boat design, about speed-versus-safety, a concern the America's Cup weighs anew after the death in San Francisco of 36-year-old British Olympic gold medalist Andrew Simpson, a strategist aboard the Swedish Artemis boat that capsized during routine training. Meanwhile, the America's Cup will go on this fall with memories of Simpson, while the Volvo, that different animal, has set its course for its next edition, in 2014-15, including an American stop in Newport, R.I.
Besides just those two, all manner of races and expeditions you and I don't know much about carry on all around the world, constantly. Aboard them are amazing people who tend to dismiss it if you note they're amazing. On the horrible occasions when they die, at least you can say they very much have lived.