Surprised by sailing

By Frank Michael McCormack

In Wednesday night’s regatta on Lake Pontchartrain the sailboat crew I’m on finished third of 10 in our class. Yes that’s right. Regatta. Lake Pontchartrain. Third.

I’ve been chasing the sailboat dream for a while now. It started when I met my friend Tony, who was living on a sailboat in Chesapeake Bay at the time. That got me looking for a sailboat, though I’d never been on one. I tried hard for a while to get Jennifer to let us buy a big boat and live aboard.

I didn’t get too far with that idea.

Another friend of mine later invited us for a cruise on his boat that’s docked at Southshore Marina near the Lakefront Airport. It was our first time out on a sailboat. We were hooked.

(As an aside, another friend of mine described boats as holes in the water that you just throw money into.)

Now I love power boats. Fishing boats. Offshore boats. Ships. Really anything that floats. But there’s just something about cutting the engine off and the boat continuing to move along just because of the wind. The steady movement. Rocking with the waves. Wind filling the sails. It’s better when there’s wind.

After my third time out on my friend’s boat, I went several long months without ever going out for a sail. No joke, every time he called to invite me for a sail I was always out of town.

So to scratch the sailboat itch, Jennifer and I began eating dinner at the Lakefront, watching the sailboats come and go. We stuck with that for a while. Then one night we drove by a sail dealer on Lake Avenue in Metairie and I spotted an old school Pearson Ensign sailboat parked outside.

Just out of curiosity, I emailed one of the guys at the sail dealer about the boat. It wasn’t for sale, but he did put me in touch with a guy who he said was looking for some crew members for the weekly Wednesday regatta (sailboat race). I emailed with that guy a few times and it was settled. I raced with him and several others just a day or two later. As it turned out, it was the marines and me.

I was terrible. It was like everyone was speaking in a different language, and I’m not talking about marine-speak. There’s port, starboard, aft and whatever the other one is that I can never remember. We didn’t just make a right or a left turn. We attempted these maneuvers using sails like the “spinach-curd” and “jibber jabber.” I’m exaggerating a little, but I really can never remember that other side of the boat. To top it off, it was stormy and we raced a short course, which meant close quarters.

Everyone was very patient with me, but still I was really only good for ballast. They were experienced sailors. It was my 4th time on a boat. I tried to be as vague as possible about how many times I’d been on a boat. They might have figured me out. Afterward, we stopped in at the Southern Yacht Club for a sandwich and to get to know one another some more. I discovered some mutual connections with one of the guys. New Orleans is a big small town, after all. We even talked religion and politics.

I thought I’d never hear from those guys again (because of my sailing performance, not the conversation). Graciously, though, Joel the boat owner invited me first for a training cruise this past Saturday (I was out of town) and then back for this Wednesday’s regatta.

Wednesday, the winds were calmer and it was a much longer course. Both those factors made the race much more low key, which was great for crewmembers like me (okay, just me) who were still getting their feet wet (or struggling to keep them dry).

I had a job this time. A purpose! A responsibility. I stayed near the mast and was responsible for fine-tuning the downhaul and the outhaul (both adjust the tension on the mainsail). I also made sure the headsail passed smoothly from one side to the other when we tacked. The headsail almost got me one time. The race was great. We were constantly fine-tuning the sails. Checking our speed against the wind speed. Setting goals. Targeting boats to pass.

In the end, we finished third in our class – an incredible improvement over a few weeks ago. After the race, several of us went up to the New Orleans Yacht Club and had hamburgers as we awaited the results. I texted the colonel my number. He responded with “Rgr.” The next day I sincerely thanked Joel for another great time on the lake. He said the same, adding that he hoped I considered myself a regular crew member now.

Now I’m not totally crazy. I’m no expert yet. I couldn’t sail across the Gulf by myself, nor across the lake, nor across the marina. But it’s not about that. It’s just great to be doing something fun and different, enjoying the outdoors, learning new skills and making new friends.

And it all happened because I drove by a sailboat on my way home one night, sent an email and took a chance.

I’m kind of an introverted extrovert, I think. I really thrive off being around people, but left to my own devices, I tend to be a loner. But what would happen if I was more disciplined and intentional and took some more chances in order to widen my circle of friends? I bet I’d have more friends on my block, learn some good hobbies and habits from other people, enjoy a broader support system, and have a wider sphere of influence.

Not too bad an outcome for a chance detour on the way home one night. Just think, a seemingly unconnected series of events led to me being a member of a crew with a group of great new friends, all of whom I didn’t know three weeks ago. Now, why am I sometimes afraid of trying new things again?

Eat. More. Seafood.

By Frank Michael McCormack

On my list of dream jobs, commercial fishing is near the top. It’s not because I have experience commercial fishing. If I did, it might not still be on my list. I’m afraid I might not be tough enough. But until I know any better, fishing will remain near the top.

Seafood and fishing is an integral part of life in Louisiana, the Sportsman’s Paradise. And in many ways it’s symbolic of life in South Louisiana.

It’s romantic: Talk to a commercial fisherman or an avid recreational fisherman and you’ll see how passionate he or she is about it. Fishing isn’t just a pastime or a way of life. It’s an identity.

It takes dedication: Nights, days, rough weather, blue skies, hot, cold, fishermen are working. Fishing, like life in Louisiana, is not for the lazy or the faint of heart. You’ve got to work at it. You’re not going to catch anything if your bait’s not in the water.

It’s fragile: As we’ve seen with economics and both natural and manmade disasters over the years, the ecosystem and way of life in South Louisiana is quite delicate. And fishermen know that fragility all too well.

An April anniversary

An upcoming anniversary underscores just how precious and fragile life on the water is.

Later this month, the people of the Gulf Coast region will reach an anniversary most would probably like to forget. April 20 will mark one year since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded about 70 miles south of Venice, La., killing 11 rig workers. The explosion triggered the largest oil spill in U.S. history, which released over the course of three months an estimated 205 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Though responders capped the well on July 15, 2010, efforts to capture released oil and clean the region’s sullied coastline continued through the end of 2010. And much of Southeast Louisiana’s coastal marshes still bear the marks of the BP Oil Spill. The longevity of the environmental impact from the spill is still unknown.

Last year at this time, I was reporting for two small newspapers and was wondering what “news” I’d write about over the summer. After all, in rural Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parish, summers aren’t usually action packed. Then came the late-night explosion, daylong rescue operation at the rig site, eventual sinking of the rig and the ensuing spill and response.

Over the next several months, the 80-mile drive from my house to Venice, the staging ground for the response and the usual place for press conferences, became almost automatic. Interviews, Coast Guard press conferences, boat tours, media events. It was nonstop.

There were a lot of questions surrounding the BP oil spill, both political and environmental. Whether all, some or none of those questions have been answered is debatable.

But one thing is certain: the oil spill highlighted Louisiana’s commercial fishermen’s already tenuous situation.

Prior to the spill, Louisiana shrimpers made headlines in 2009 when they marched on the State Capitol and lobbied Congress to help boost low prices at market. Shrimp is the most consumed seafood in the United States, yet about 90 percent of it is imported. As a result, U.S. shrimpers have very little lobbying power, even though the quality of domestic seafood is head-and-shoulders above imports.

Domestic seafood is stringently tested and regulated by the government, while imported seafood undergoes very little testing (and may contain pesticides and antibiotics). In addition, imported seafood prices are kept artificially low, which pushes domestic prices lower, which in turn makes it difficult for the everyday fisherman to stay in business. And this isn’t a recent development: over the past 30 years, the number of Louisiana commercial fishermen has decreased while seafood imports have shot up.

Add to that the BP oil spill – which resulted in massive closures of fishing grounds, near fatal salinity levels for oyster beds east of the Mississippi River and higher fuel costs – and it’s plain to see that fishermen have had a rough few years.

April celebrations

But in addition to the first anniversary of the BP Oil Spill, April also brings some events that offer hope for fishermen and opportunities for seafood consumers to support them.

April will begin a round of Blessing of the Fleet events. At the start of the different fishing seasons, fishermen will line their boats along the banks of bayous and canals in the region. Then, a priest or pastor will float down the waterway, offering a blessing for a safe and successful season. Fishermen’s families also use this time to celebrate the start to the season. Blessings of the Fleet offer a great glimpse into the world of commercial fishing.

April is when festival season kicks it into high gear, and many of these festivals highlight Louisiana’s rich seafood culture. Even the mudbugs have ventured out in April.

The springtime is also a great time to pick up seafood at local markets and groceries and try old and new recipes. You may also want to attend a Friday fish fry at your neighborhood church.

It’s time to eat, folks. But not just any seafood. Eat. Local. Seafood. It’s a great way to support local fishermen.

I’m convinced that Louisianians could keep Louisiana fishermen in business if we all bought ONLY Louisiana seafood.

If you want more seafood in your life, click over to the Geaux Therefore events page. We’ve posted a wide variety of events there that will help you discover Louisiana’s fantastic seafood culture.

Clockwise from top: Our Lady of Lourdes Church's Father John Arnone and St. Bernard Parish President Craig Taffaro bless boats along Bayou La Loutre in 2010; A pelican takes flight from a pile anchoring oil boom in Mississippi Sound; Oil in the water off the coast of Louisiana in May 2010; A shrimp boat outfitted with boom returns from offshore in June 2010; Crawfish soak in a pot at the 2010 Buras Fire Department Crawfish Cook Off.