Sailing and Chess

27 September 2012

On Sunday I took part in a day of sailing and chess that is organized by my chess club and the sailing club of a lakeside town about an hour and a half’s drive away. They do it every year, and I’ve wanted to go, but this is the first time I’ve been able to. We might have gone as the whole family, but my elder son was playing music with a group late the night before, and my wife was being the taxi for him, so it was just going to be my younger son and me, and in the end he decided he had better ways to spend his only free day of the week, so it was just me.

The morning was devoted to sailing. There was to be a race. The organizers allocated us chess players to boats. There were 12 boats, about 10 chess players and 30 sailors. I found my captain, Fabio, a man about my age, and introduced myself. No other names had been read out for his boat, so I asked him whether it was just him and me. He said with a big smile, “No, don’t worry, I’ve got a couple of women.” I thought: Well, that can’t be bad. And indeed it wasn’t. He introduced me to the two women: Laura, around our age and Michela, a bit younger. I asked Laura if she was Fabio’s wife, and she said, “No, we just sail together” and didn’t pursue it further.

As we were getting onto the boat Fabio asked me how much I knew about sailing. I said, “Almost nothing. Let’s say ‘nothing’.” That clearly wasn’t a problem; the race was not a serious one. Obviously they all knew what to do, and I just concentrated on not getting in the way. I asked them the Italian words for rudder, tiller, boom, and so on; and also about how the race worked. There is a starting line marked by a stationary motorboat and a buoy about 30 metres apart, another buoy far away to mark the end point you have to go around, and then the finish line is the same as the start. Before the start you try to position yourself before the start line, heading towards it so that ideally you cross it as soon as possible after the start signal, and sailing as fast as possible; there’s a good deal of skill in positioning yourself correctly. The signal is given by a whistle, and it sounds 6 minutes before the start, then 5, and so on, so that you have a chance to get into the right place at the right time. They said I could help by starting a stopwatch to count down when the 5 minute signal was sounded, and I did that using my mobile phone. So I was able to feel useful to the team, at least in a very minor way.

There was very little wind, so it was all rather relaxing. We made a good start, and about ten minutes later seemed to be making good progress. We chatted, I took photos. Then I started to notice that the other boats seemed to be all headed in a rather different direction. I said so to Fabio, and he said, “Yes, I’m beginning to wonder…” He got out his phone.

It turned out that they had changed the endpoint at the last minute. There had been a motorboat going around before the start, shouting something to all the boats – “bolina e poppa” – which means “beating to the wind (on the way out) and running before the wind (on the way back).” We thought they were just saying the obvious, and shouted back “Sì, sì, bolina e poppa.” In fact, they had changed the end point so that it was more exactly upwind of the start, but we didn’t understand. So our good start was not going to be much use, because we had been going about 45 degrees off the correct direction. Basically this meant that for us the race was going to be even more relaxing, as we were now pretty sure to be among the last. I did point out that if I hadn’t said anything we might have been even further behind, and that therefore I’d been more useful than I expected, and they agreed. It was all very pleasant and friendly.

In fact when we arrived at the end point buoy we were not all that far behind, and we even had a couple of near misses with the other tail-enders. As we started “poppa” on the return leg the wind dropped even further, and we were making only 2 knots.

My phone rang. My wife. It felt rather weird to talk on the phone from the middle of the lake. I told her where I was, and who with – that I was in the only team that had two women in it. “Belle, belle donne, devi dire che sono donne bellissime!” said Fabio – “you should tell her they are very beautiful women”- so I did. But I explained that even if it was true there was no need to say so, because my wife is very jealous and the fact that there were women in my team would be quite enough to provoke her. “Non fare troppi versi con queste donne” she said – “don’t get up to too many tricks with these women”- which was fairly mild, really. How many tricks are too many?

We got back to harbour. We’d crossed the line tenth, but didn’t know the result yet because there would be an adjustment for the different types of boat. Lunch was laid on, and I sat at one of the long tables with my team, beside Michela, opposite Laura and Fabio. I asked them about partners, and they told me that Laura’s husband and Fabio’s wife were brother and sister, while Michela was single. I was mildly intrigued, because in the circles I usually move in I find the Italians tend to either do things as a couple together or as a same-sex group. I found it rather refreshing that they were obviously such well-established friends enjoying their sport together. I was also enjoying the fact that I was getting on well with them. I still often feel handicapped in Italian, and I often let my wife make the running in social situations, partly because of the language and partly because she is extrovert and I’m not. So I was feeling quite pleased with myself, as well as comfortable. I wondered about Michela being single. I thought, now, if I were interested in having an affair, it would probably be a bad move to just ask her about it. Then I thought, but I’m not interested in that, so why not just ask her. So I did.

She paused a little before answering. I wondered whether I had been too rude or crass. But she wasn’t really embarrassed; she just needed a little time to think what to say. She told me that she had had two partners, each for several years, but that now she was single, not unhappy about it, would like not to be, and believed that these things were more a matter of fate than choice. I told that before marrying I too had had a couple of long, serious relationships, and then quite a long period of being on my own, that it hadn’t been a bad time at all.

I did slightly feel that I had been too inquisitive, but I was also glad that I had asked. I have a tendency to think of saying something, think of a reason not to, not say it, and then regret not saying anything. So I was glad to have overcome that, but slightly concerned that I had been rude.

Lunch was coming to an end. I picked up my camera again, and said that I wanted a photo of the four of us as a team, but first, to feed my wife’s jealousy, would they take one of me with Michela? This was immediately understood by all and accepted as natural – I wonder if it would be the same in England? – Laura took the camera and I put my arm around Michela’s shoulder. She leaned in towards me as though it was the most natural thing in the world; perhaps it was, but it was also very pleasant and I was reassured that she hadn’t in fact been offended. After that, we all got up and found someone else to take a photo of all four of us, with Fabio insisting “Rob between the women!”

Well, that’s pretty much it. I don’t know if you found it interesting, but I guess that you certainly don’t want to hear much about the chess in the afternoon. My teammates all went away after lunch. The chess tournament was divided into three sections, 6 juniors, 6 amateurs, and 4 masters. I was with the masters, just because of the way the numbers worked out, and was completely outclassed, losing all 6 games; not surprising, because two of my opponents really are national chess masters, and the other is very strong.

A very good day.

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