Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Is Discretion Really the Better Part of Valor?

That question was certainly being asked by prospective sailors in New England last Sunday. The New England Laser Masters in Newport saw wind of 17 – 28 with rain all day, and in Jamestown, RI, where I was with a high school regatta, the wind was a steady 18 with rain, until the end, when the wind went to about 25.

In Newport, my good friend Eric stuck it out to sail in wind and waves. We don’t really get waves at home, so these were unfamiliar and extremely challenging conditions. He took his licks, had some capsizes, but finished all races to place 15th in a 49 boat regatta. Pretty damn good for a guy who has been sailing lasers for only three years! Pretty damn good for anybody against this fleet!

Over in Jamestown, I was coaching (euphemism for riding around in a support boat getting soaking wet) in a high school laser regatta. There was a fleet of full rigs and a fleet of radials. Conventional wisdom is that radials are appropriate for people that weigh 140 – 165 and full rigs for people at about 180, with a rig switching range in the middle. Obviously, the more weight, the better in big breeze. There were only a few kids 180 and over, and I would guess most were 130 -150. Almost everyone was severely overpowered.

The race organizers did what race should organizers do – make every boat a potential rescue boat and alert all coaches, race officials, and spectators to be aware of the potential hazards. From a coach’s perspective, large numbers of boats in these conditions is a familiar recipe for trouble, and we prepared for the worst while hoping for the best. From a sailor’s perspective, this is a situation of fear. Almost all sailors expressed or revealed some degree of apprehension, but nevertheless, all 43 went out to face the daunting conditions.

I admired the courage of these kids for just getting off the dock in conditions where most adults would belly up to the bar to watch football for the afternoon (a thought that tempted me more than once). Throughout the day, there were a series of drop outs, but sailors continued until they reached the limit of their skill, endurance, or equipment. At the end of the fourth race, some 3 1/2 hours into the regatta, the PRO suggested that the fifth race be the last. One gung-ho coach suggested we hang out to see if conditions would permit a sixth race and if the sailors were up for it. Conditions did not subside. A sequence was started, the wind built up a little, a boat was capsizing virtually everywhere I looked, the race started, and the wind started gusting to 25. Then, thankfully, there was a unanimous acceptance of discretion, and the courageous, but exhausted sailors were sent in. As we towed in a sailor with an equipment failure, we watched at least a half dozen other capsizes, some within fifty yards of the beach.

I salute all the sailors who on Sunday did not let discretion become the better part of valor, but chose instead to display true bravery.

In spite of the eloquence of the phrase “discretion is the better part of valor,” in its original context in Shakespeare (one of the Henry IV plays), it is the suggestion of a coward. The colorful speaker, Falstaff, is ultimately a foil for the hero, Prince Hal, who ignores Falstaff’s advice, and marches into the battle that transforms him from the profligate prince into King Henry V. Courage is ultimately triumphant, as it was on Sunday.

Enough of the English class! Isn’t Falstaff the name of a beer?

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