Monday, May 21, 2012

Racing Through Household Chores: America's Cup

If the eponymous hero of the kitschy old cartoon Speed Racer had had an official pit crew (instead of his kid brother & a chimp) there's a good chance their uniforms would have looked like those of the Luna Rossa
I didn't know how little I knew about sailboat racing until the America's Cup races came to town.

Is it possible to know less than nothing?

I think so. At least in my case. For not content to wallow idly in its ignorance like a pig in its slop while the races unfolded for the most part unintelligibly before my eyes (Is that the race or are they just warming up?), my mind insisted on conceptualizing everything in the most wrong-headed manner.
I get the sense that most other spectators in the huge crowd thrilled at the majesty and passion and glamor of a great international sporting competition. I have friends who expressed just this sense of it.

I didn't admit to any of them that I saw the whole thing mostly in terms of housekeeping.

I couldn't help it, I didn't try to get it so wrong, but in spite of challenging wind conditions and other dramatic plotlines a sense of domestic chores hung over everything I saw.

On the first day I watched, Friday, as the boats approached where I stood on the Riva near the Giardini Pubblici from around the edge of Sant' Elena, headed toward San Marco, I was surprised by just how busy the crews were. The wind was strong that day, each boat tilting up onto first one then the other of its two hulls, and each crew scrambled around the deck from side to side and bow to stern, busy with one chore after another: winching, hoisting, tightening, taking down the laundry, pulling up the ironing boards...

At least that's what it looked like to me, whose sole exposure to the America's Cup had been limited to a 1977 Sports Illustrated cover photo of Ted Turner in yachting cap and crew neck sweater at the wheel of what (based upon the headline) I took to be America's entry in the competition. I didn't read the article, but while the photo conjured up a drama of wind and waves, it gave my child's mind no hint of a frantically scurrying crew doing and undoing the same rather limited series of activities. I got the impression that sailing was all graceful privileged ease.

Once you'd plumped out the money for the yacht, the wind did all the work.

Old misapprehensions die hard. 

On Friday, no matter how I tried I couldn't entirely rid myself of the sense that any given crew was a group of teenage siblings who after a carefree week of debauch at home while their stern parents vacationed far away suddenly find out that those same parents are headed home five days earlier than expected.

With what urgency they spring into action! There's so much--too much!--to do!

It's a little like The Royal Tenenbaums meets Risky Business. The extravagant drapery in the vast high-ceilinged living room reads like a splotchy record of the kids' wild activities and must be hauled down for cleaning. (Where'd the case of champagne come from and whoever thought "gunfights" with its shaken contents were a good idea?) The second eldest brother, who's spent the last week entertaining in his mother's best gowns, quickly sets up an ironing board, then races through the house retrieving the crumpled things from everywhere he's spontaneously ditched them. The youngest sister (not yet 13), with no one to help her, resorts to the winch of the small boat trailer to frantically crank one piece of lawn furniture after another up from the bottom of the swimming pool...

Could you give me a hand with this ironing board? Or is a table leaf?
This was the drama of Friday's America's Cup races for me.

I couldn't tell you who actually came out on top that day, but those of you who are interested will have gotten the information from reporters much more knowledgeable than myself.

Yesterday, Sunday, with gray skies and only a faint slack wind, the household drama assumed an entirely different tenor.

Now the crews had time, perhaps too much of it. There was no tilting in the wind, none of the Keystone Cops hurrying and lunging and scurrying, no full crew sit-downs on the edge of a hull--all of them leaning back in unison like grade school pals goofing on a picnic bench. And the big fleet race that I watched from near the Giardini was hardly a race at all, as the lead boat took such an early insurmountable lead.  

Chores were done at a much more leisurely pace. The big linens were put up and taken down off the laundry lines with aplomb. The extra leaf in the big dining room table was lifted or dropped into place with more care. Everything was tucked in and tightened up, then untucked and untightened, then retucked and retightened, with professional diligence, and nothing like the bristling urgency of Friday.

Crew members whose paths crossed in the course of their labors sometimes had a few moments to sit together and "catch up".

But without the strong wind and with first place seemingly wrapped up--at least as far as I could tell--a certain weary inevitability settled upon many of the crews.

A few raindrops fell. I left the crews to slowly tack through the rest of their long afternoon of domestic drudgery and headed home to my own.    


  1. I'll never be able to look at any type of sail boat in action without thinking of your imaginative description! And, you're so right, why hasn't anyone thought of this sooner? You're such a trail blazer.

    Even your last sentence retains the domestic 'thread', with the reference to tacking! Good on ya!!

    1. You're far too kind; I believe I'm simply clueless--or is it "at sea"?--when it comes to sailboat races. But before such races return in April 2013 I plan to learn enough to understand what's going on and appreciate them more fully.

      BTW yesterday at the gym I happened to hear English being spoken--which was something new--and a lot of it. I wasn't sure it WAS English at first because of the music in the gym and the accent of the four speakers, but then realized it clearly was: 4 guys lifting weights. Odd, I thought. Then on the way out I noticed a signed T-shirt of the New Zealand America's Cup team displayed in the entry and found out from the gym's owner that that's who those English speakers were! They've been working out at the gym while the team resides here. I think they may be here for a couple more days. It's not Australia, but it's about as close as it gets...