Blast from the Past

I been sailing small boats since I was a kid in the UK.  Probably 10 years old.  As the ‘crew’, operating the jib, balancing the boat and at the absolute command of the ‘helm’.  Like ships of old, the helm had total control, but fortunately in modern times, flogging has fallen out of favour for any mistakes of the crew.  I was very keen and after a suitable apprenticeship, progressed to sometimes being at the blunt end of the boat and being in charge.  Controlling the rudder and the mainsail and yelling those deliciously antiquated commands like ‘ready about’ and ‘lee ho’ at the crew to spring them into action.  As a teen, I was a fierce competitor in racing and enjoyed considerable success.  There are a lot of rules for sailboat racing and you have to know them well and apply the quickly and ruthlessly.  So in the melee at the start and the ‘Big Crunch’ at the first mark and a lot of yelling such as ‘starboard!!’, ‘mast abeam!!’ and ‘WATER!!!!” claiming space to round the mark.  From afar and out of earshot sailboats racing may look elegant.  Up close, it can be fast, vicious with dirty tricks played on the unsuspecting.

Many years travelling the globe, building in Possum Valley and having a family created a large gap in my sailing experience.  When my two daughters were quite young, single figures, I bought a little dinghy, a Manly Graduate only 12 ft long but with spinnaker and trapeze and quite lively and took the girls sailing on Lake Tinaroo.  Family sailing is a great thing to do because it is a sport where age doesn’t matter all that much.  Parents and children can do it together or even compete against each other in races.  We had a good time, but my daughters advancing into their teens, expressed a desire for an upgrade, a ‘need for speed’.  They wanted a faster boat.  OK, lets try a 14 ft skiff.  I had been sailing 14 ft boats all my life so how difficult could this be?  I should have taken the hint from the guy who sold me the boat who said “don’t go out first time in 20 knot winds”.  He had me nailed as a rookie.  If you want some idea of how difficult this boat is to sail, google i14 and see video of the disasters that even the experts have.  It has an amazing 520 sq ft of sail with the spinnaker up.

14ft skiff doing it’s thing

Our first sail was in strong winds was a disaster being totally out of control.   Survival the only issue.  In all the dinghys I had sailed before, I knew how to spill the wind and keep upright, but with this monster, for technical reasons about apparent wind, I had to learn completely different reactions and apply them within half a second or it was all over and we were instant swimmers.  Also, there had to be perfect coordination between helm and crew, as the crew controlled both the jib and the mainsail when going towards the wind, and the jib and spinnaker when going downwind and the helm takes the mainsail.  All this delicate balance while both of us on the trapeze dangling just above the water.  The boat reaction time is under a second or you capsize.  The crew looks at the sails and constantly adjusts, the helm steers and looks outside the boat looking at the light reflections from the water to guess the wind coming and makes cryptic comments like “gust in five heading”.  So I have read a darker patch of water ahead indicating a gust and I think it will come at an angle closer to the boat centerline.  We try to make adjustments to the course and sails about 1 second before the gust hits to remain in full control.  Holes in the wind are harder to spot on the water and often left us ‘tea-bagging’.  That is crashing into the water at 15 knots or more and often being detached from the boat and dragged along by the trapeze wires.  I still have the tiller in my hand and the crew the main sheet or spinnikar sheet as we try to right the boat though being in the water a couple of meters away.  The helm pulls the tiller to try and fill the sails with wind and the crew pulls in the sheet to do the same.  Sometimes we are too successful.  The sails fill quickly and we are plucked from the water as the boat becomes upright and we swing and crash into the side of the boat, not always feet first.  The thrill and great coordination required was a great bonding experience for me and my daughters to get the boat screaming through the water at up to 30 knots.  Actually my phrase “through the water” is not very accurate, it is more like flying and hitting every 3rd wave.

So why am I regaling you with this so many years later?  Well, yesterday I was invited by my daughter and partner to sail with them on their recently acquired Nacra 5.  A high performance cat. You can google that too if you have any interest.  20 years since I hung up the trapeze harness, I was going to get another go.  Fortunately the Nacra is a catamaran and nowhere near as sensitive to balance as skiff.  Which is just as well as I found as a septuagenarian, I am stiff and slow.  But it was still a great blast to crank myself out on the wire and get the best view of the boat cutting through the water.  Its hulls have very fine bows that hardly make a splash at 15 or 20 knots, whereas the skiff directed sheets of water at the crew dangling on the wires.


It was great to get out on the water again, but I doubt I will do it often even when asked.  Afterwards I had aches in places I didn’t even know you could get aches, and I want my kids and grandkids to get a bit of the same bonding I got with my daughters.  But we did have 3 generations on the boat at the same time.


You probably know what the title means at a glance.  If I hear another advert telling me some product kills 99.9% of germs, I swear I will scream and curl up in the foetal position if my old bones can manage it.  I mean why???  It is a very temporary, tiny, and pointless win in a limited area for the most part.  There are about 400,000,000,000 cells in the human body.  Every one of the cells is outnumbered about 10:1 by germs such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, phages etc.  There is a whole zoo inside a happy healthy human being, who may be described as a high-rise appartment for germs.  An adult has probably about 8kg of germs.  Many of them essential to our survival, many of them going about their own business and doing no harm and a few that are troublesome.  We need bacteria in out gut to be able to digest many types of food.  In our western diet, our food range has contracted from that of our ancestors by concentrating on growing few crops such as wheat and rice, and a relatively small range of vegies in the supermarket.  A hunter-gatherer in the Amazon jungle for instance would eat a much wider range of food.  We probably have about 400-500 species of bacteria in the gut and the hunter-gatherer more like 1400.  Some people with chronic intestinal problems are currently being treated with an influx of germs from a healthy person, a pill nicely coated with a hard sugar shell to help the medicine go down, to boost germ levels.  Jokingly referred to as a “transpoosion”.  An awful pun on transfusion.  Some are treated with an influx of worms, but a pig variety which can’t reproduce in humans so there is just one generation.

The resident germs are also our first line of immune defense.  They defend their human real estate with turf wars against any intruder stealing their resources.  You are probably wondering what our immune system is doing in all this. For a long time I thought the immune system acted as “ah ha, an intruder lets kill it”.  But it is more sophisticated than that.  Like cops in a big city, it lets citizens doing no harm alone and goes after the bad guys.  Sure cuts down the work load. There are hints all around about the usefulness of germs to us.  Babies are usually born face down and contact germ rich material from the mothers anus in the great struggle to get the little bastards out.  Specialised cells also kidnap useful germs from the gut and transfer them to the vagina before birth.  As a back-up, they also take them to the mother’s milk.  Babies need germs to even be able to digest mother’s milk.  Ruminants are even more dependent on bacteria than we are to digest their food and often lick their mothers mouth to pick up the germs.

OK.  I hope I have persuaded you about how much we need germs.  So what happens if a child doesn’t get enough exposure in early years?  What if over-diligent parents Glen 20 everything in sight? Their children are more likely to develop auto-immune diseases later in life.  The “hygiene hypothesis”.  Google it.  Hay fever, forms of arthritis, multiple sclerosis and many other modern diseases on the rise are auto-immune conditions.  These conditions are almost unknown in peasant societies with animals such as goats, chooks, pigs etc in everyday contact.  You would be doing your kids a favour by having a dirty smelly dog.  A wonderful vector for germs.  A nice slurping lick over baby’s face to clean up the dribbles of mashed pumpkin.  Sooo much better than a santised wipe.  You will not be surprised to learn that I encouraged my kids and grandkids to romp naked through the rainforest and plunge into swamps.  I remember just a couple of years ago my youngest grandkid, less that 2 years old, was swamp diving totally naked and disappeared from sight.  He’ll be coming up soon I thought  ….. anytime now ….  will be soon… just before I went into panic mode he appeared crowned with mud and rotting leaves and laughing his head off.  A large ongoing study in Belgium found that auto-immune diseases are a city disease.  Kids brought up on farms, especially farms with animals are at much lower risk.  This is because in the neolithic ages with kids brought up in caves, they needed a robust immune system.  Given too little to do, the immune system can get over sensitized and loses the capacity to distinguish friend from foe and can attack the body’s own cells.

My own little rave here is about the fact that if we try to sterilize the world, kill 99.9% of germs, it will backfire in a catastrophic way.  Many microbiologists and biologists are telling us that we are immersed in the whole ecosystem and we need to protect it and preserve it for our own welfare and health.  Not just because some very pretty birds and animals are becoming extinct, but because our very lives depend on it.  There is plenty of sentiment about preserving cuddly things like koalas, and beautiful things like birds, but there is also a world wide catastrophe happening right now as insect numbers are crashing, even in places far away from the onslaught of agricultural spraying.  Even in Possum Valley, still rich in every kind of bug, I have noticed a steady decline in extravagant swarming events that stunned me when I first came here 46 years ago.  Fireflies, once a reliable dazzling display are now rare and I see but a few in the year.  Beetle swarms and moth invasions used to litter the house but now don’t happen.

So I am trying to put in a good word for the most maligned creatures on the planet.  Germs.  We need them as most fundamental to the web of life.  Some are bad for us such as covid, and we should focus on the nasty ones, not try to kill the millions of species indiscriminately.  The fundamentals of hygiene still apply, like hand washing and containing sneezing and coughs, but I do believe the old adage applies “a home should be clean enough to be healthy, but dirty enough to be happy”.

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