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The Tyranny of Catchphrases

Updated: Mar 25, 2021

Minuro Saito's boat on the right.
The dock in Cape Town | Photo: Kathleen Tison

I’d been racing maybe twice? Maybe three times when I heard this phrase. This “PIE SHAPED WEDGES” being shouted from the mouth of one man into the ear of another.

We were just shy of the mark, on a starboard tack, almost dead into the wind. Other boats were perilously close. The whole scene felt unnecessarily slow for the amount of screaming that was going on.

The specifics of the screaming coming from the other boats was lost beneath the PIE SHAPED WEDGES harangue of our boat. It was an almost stream of consciousness set of three words that summed up that moment, in that race, trying to round that mark.

For those lost in the ‘what in the world’ category, PIE SHAPED WEDGES comes down to trying to make our mark without changing tack. The wind, being what wind will be, was coming nearly straight at us. The idea behind the three words was to fall off a bit, fill the sail, get a little speed and then pinch ourselves back up into the wind. Fall off, pinch up. Fall off, pinch up. Fall off, pinch up. In other words, drive pie shaped wedges.


This gem came from the same mind that loved to shout PIE SHAPED WEDGES. He was in the cockpit of boat new to the woman with her hand on the tiller. The woman had never driven anything at all that didn’t have a wheel. Not even a joystick in a game. The woman was locked in the muscle memory that turning to the right meant going to the right, turning to the left meant going left. The woman was struggling with a tiller.

Being an amicable marina neighbor and adept sailor, Captain PIE SHAPED WEDGES assured the woman he could teach her. He could help her stop pin-balling her way out of the dock. He could educate her past the abject terror that now descended every time she thought of untying her dock lines.

Shouting TILLER TOWARDS TROUBLE was his answer. It’s as true a statement as any but shouted at a slightly frightened woman without context or explanation? Well, it may not have been the best teaching tool.

Nevertheless- if you point the tiller towards the thing you want to avoid? You will avoid it- so – you know- TILLER TOWARDS TROUBLE.


Don’t shout this just anywhere. I mean, if you’re not on a sailboat, with the sails up, it might not be appropriate. On a boat? Well- it’s as good an axiom as any. The whole pretext is a means to keep you from strapping your sails in so tightly that they resemble a trampoline surface rather than a wing.

Because your sail needs shape, like a wing, to create lift.

This is the point where, if you want more information about that, about lift, you find someone at a sailing club. Someone who will begin mapping out diagrams on a bar napkin with a mechanical pencil they just happen to have in their shirt pocket.

Otherwise- when in doubt? Just let it out.


I raced on a few different boats. By raced I mean I alternated sitting on the rail with doing what I’d been asked to do. I worked the foredeck.

I worked the foredeck because I am a small person and an athletic person. There’s more to the foredeck than those two qualifications but those are good attributes for going forward to wrestle with the monstrosity that is a spinnaker.

I tell you all of this because when I think of how often I heard anyone screaming “STARBOARD” I feel that I was engaged in an epic battle with fabric and poles and lines. There’s many a firmly implanted memory of swaths of brightly colored fabric trying to swallow me whole, while the word STARBOARD was being thrown around.

This tells all of us three things. Shouting STARBOARD is about claiming your right to be in a patch of water during a race. It’s a particular right frequently claimed when rounding a mark. Spinnakers are beasts. (the last may have nothing to do with STARBOARD but it’s what I know with certainty)


When in Cape Town a fellow sailor asked my partner and I if we’d help him move his boat to the fuel dock. The gentleman himself was no stranger to boat handling. He was on his eighth solo circumnavigation. That particular iteration was his attempt to be the oldest solo circumnavigator to go round the wrong way.

Suffice it to say the man, Minuro Saito, was not a novice.

Novice or not the marina in Cape Town was a maze of narrow waterways and unexpected vessel maneuverings. The fuel dock was what the locals fondly called ‘tricky.’ The potential for disaster was high.

We said- of course we’ll help and hopped aboard.

What we could not have predicted was how we would arrive at the fuel dock. Our fellow sailor handled his boat like it was a snow plow charging through the transcontinental highway of Canada in a blizzard. A steel cutter, emblazoned with sponsor logos, he stood at his wheel and rushed his way towards the fuel dock like he was astraddle his war horse galloping into battle.

Arrival was his hard reverse just before the bow plowed over the dock. A furious spin of the wheel was followed by the screech of his steel hull scraping painfully along. The fenders my partner and I were attempting to keep between the boat and anything else, popped up and bounced along uselessly. The grimacing faces of workers stared at us from hastily attained safe distances.

We came to an excruciating stop.

The captain, this hardened sailor, turned and looked at us. Looked at our gaping mouths, our hands still on fenders that were fending nothing. He shook his head. He waved a hand. He furrowed a brow.

“Well?” He asked “Are you not going to handle the dock lines?”

Never hit anything harder than you have to.

I still think he hit that dock harder than he had to, but I suspect he might argue the point.


In the fall of 2019, I volunteered to help a friend move his boat from an anchorage to a boatyard. Calling it volunteering gives the whole act an amount of preparedness that isn’t real. It was more of an acquiescent shrug.

He called. I was shopping at Target. I said sure. Be there in an hour.

I mention all of this because it’s important to know that it was fall.

Actually, late fall. In Maine.

And I don’t go shopping at Target wearing my Dracula-collared foul weather coat. I don’t go shopping at Target wearing sensible outdoor clothing. Shopping at Target and being on board a sailboat, in late fall, in Maine, require substantially different attire.

And I say all of that because it helps paint a picture of exactly how cold I was by the time we actually got near the boatyard.

The right boatyard, that is, because we first went to the wrong boatyard. Went past the right boatyard. Even spent some time talking about how wrong the wrong boatyard looked. How it didn’t look at all like what the right boatyard actually looked like.

The owner shrugged tremendously over the whole thing. He left me shivering in my Target shopping attire aboard the big boat while he putted the dinghy into the wrong boatyard to find out why the wrong boatyard looked so wrong.

Putted back and told me it was the wrong boatyard.

By now you should be firmly on board with what kind of seafaring was going on. Or, at least, you should be able to guess. Poorly dressed deck hand and slightly baffled owner motoring along through the late fall weather of Maine.

By the time we were within spitting distance of the right boatyard I made the mistake of breathing a sigh of relief. Soon I would be back in my car with the heat on full. Soon I would be able to feel my fingers rather than being forced to look at my hands to make sure they were still there. Soon it would be over.

I don’t know the precise distance from the dock when it went wrong. I know we were set with what fenders and docklines were available. We were set for a starboard tie. Set to just drive up and tie up. No fuss no muss.

Maybe it was 10 feet. Maybe that’s how close we were when the wind came.

I was at midship, staring at the dock, lines in hand, eyeballing the distance like a long jumper. And then the dock was slipping away, the distance increasing. And then I wasn’t looking at the dock at all. And then a ferocity of obscenities began filling the air.

The hard slam of the transmission moving from forward to reverse to neutral punctuated the obscenities.

I turned and looked back at the owner. What I saw was a man spinning the wheel, lock to lock, like he was reliving his finest hours spent in a bumper car.

And then I saw him, arms flailing above his head, turn into the living embodiment of one of those inflatable waving tube men.

Bumper cars. Tube man. Bumper cars. Tube man. This back and forth of hands on the wheel to hands in the air, all while a stream of froth laden cursing sang out into the world. All while the bow of the boat spun around and pointed us back towards the direction we’d come from.

We attracted attention. You bet we did. Which was why we made it to the dock. Nothing brings help like a sailor cursing their way into port. An absolute judgey help, but help nonetheless.

It took a while to get the boat settled, took a while for inflatable cursing tube man to settle down as well.

When he did, he thanked me. He laughed. He thanked me again.

I just nodded and smiled.

“Remember,” I said, “The bow will always blow down.”

I leave it there because it highlights one of the problems of catchphrases. They tend to arrive when least needed.

As for others not mentioned there’s:

  • It would be foolish to let go

  • Step up into a liferaft

  • There’s no bad weather just bad clothing

  • Sailing offshore is the same as being a narcoleptic with a reading problem

And one’s that seem far too popular and deserve a whole different article

  • What’s wrong with you and Calm down


Kathleen Tison spends her time in the wilds of Maine watching her husband collect trees to turn into a junk-rig mast for a 22’ sailboat that will never be a sloop again. Between that, two cats and decades spent hawking all sorts of boat products at West Marine and now Hamilton Marine she enjoys running, hiking and trying to come up with the ideal craft to use in the R2AK. Because someday she hopes to bring her sailing awkwardness to bear on that race.

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