John F. Kennedy said that history is a relentless master. Apparently, writing about history isn’t much better. I certainly wasn’t prepared for how difficult it would be.
I don’t really think about history that much. I know enough to get through a conversation at a cocktail party, but I don’t choose vacation destinations based on their historical significance. When I was in school, I tended to reduce history to memorizing lists of events and being able to put them more or less into chronological order—despite having a few really good history teachers who did their best to try to contextualize things and paint a compelling narrative. I think this may be the same sort of “Why will I ever need to know this?” trap that a defensive adolescent mind can easily fall into once math takes that leap from the concrete to the nonsensical. In college though, one of the few times when I felt like my horizons were being expanded was during a class that dealt with history. To fulfill a requirement, I took an honors colloquium called The Archaeology of War, which was under the Anthropology Department. It looked at war by studying the art, objects, and ephemera of the people involved rather than from the top down. Learning the distinction between anthropology and history in the context of something like war was enlightening (since wars always seem to bookmark history), and I found it far more compelling to read Siegfried Sassoon than to try to empathize with the Habsburg Monarchy.
In much more recent history (2010), Jen and I joined the Windjammers Sailing Club. This was a bit of an unusual step for us since it’s basically a social club and we’re basically antisocial, but we thought it might help our sailing, which it has—cruising with the club has given us confidence and racing has taught me everything I know about the finer points of sail trim. We’ve also met a lot of cool people, despite our best efforts to hide in corners during parties.
As we’ve become more involved, a couple things drove me to want to learn more about the history of the club. I suppose that one was natural curiosity…I’m kind of fascinated by old timer talk, but without a timeline it was difficult to fit it all together. Another big reason was that over the course of the last couple years I transitioned into the position of Webmaster, which is really more of a generalist role than the name might imply. I worked closely with the secretary in managing the club’s electronic documents, switched the officers and chairs over to a managed email system, and got to sit in on the organizational meetings where the sausage gets made. As I thought about how the website could be improved, however, I kept coming back to some sort of club history, which is a staple of yacht club websites.
I started asking around about a written history a year ago, but it was clear that nothing existed. It should be noted that the we’re truly a sailing club and not a yacht club: we have no blue blazers, no epaulets, and no club bar (although Ron did once refer to us as a drinking club with a sailing problem). We also do not have a library appointed in hand-tooled walnut and rich Corinthian leather, where one might store the oil paintings of past commodores or the vellum scrolls upon which the original club charter was penned. There is a legend of a Tupperware bin that passes from commodore to commodore and contains important documents, but I haven’t yet advanced to a level where this can be confirmed or denied.
In September, I finally took it upon myself to try to gather up something that I could post on the website. It just so happens that some of the people who I know best in the club also go way back. Val, the skipper of my Windjammers race boat, was an original member, designed our logo, sewed the first burgees, was the only person to serve as commodore twice, and created a bunch of our club’s awards. Ron and Kathy took us sailing the very first time we did anything with the club, and Ron is a past commodore, a committed club member, and he grew up hanging around the local marinas. He had actually told me bits and pieces of the Windjammers history before, but it was always either at a dock party or when rafted up, and I was never in a position to take notes or retain the details. Ron and Kathy are now full-time cruisers but were in port for a while, so I took the opportunity to interview Ron and Val.
Once I figured out how to get USB audio into my hand-me-down netbook running Ubuntu, I pondered the fact that I have no idea how to conduct an interview. I briefly considered reading Terry Gross’s book, but there was no time. I went in mentally prepared with the probing question, “Please tell me the history of the Windjammers.” Fortunately for me, it wasn’t hard to get Ron and Val going, and once they started riffing off of each other, they were able to walk me through the major events.
The big issue with this technique was that, as I’d learned in college, I was dealing more in anthropology than history. To get it from a series of anecdotes to something resembling what you might find in a history textbook (or even the “About Us” section of a yacht club’s website) was surprisingly difficult. Just paralyzing. I consulted an archivist at my work, because, uh, I work with people like archivists, and she helped me confirm/listened to me complain about the fact that there was a real disparity that would require some interpretation.
Then there was the question of voice. I’m comfortable banging out a thousand words at a time on the boat log, but I can let my natural sarcasm and bleak outlook bleed through without remorse and I give myself permission to do things like pass off “just paralyzing” as a complete sentence. None of that really flies in the quasi-academic or at least upbeat voice that I was imagining for the club history. I decided to just force my way through it and write something, no matter how stilted.
Val also lent me about 25 old newsletters, which I agreed to scan and post on the club’s website. This took about 100 more hours than I thought it would. A lot of them were bound in such a way that a scanner with a feeder wouldn’t work and I wound up doing one page at a time on a flatbed. I had problems keeping the settings similar, getting pages aligned, removing personal information, figuring out ridiculous PDF issues, etc. Something clicked, however, when I started reading them and began to find connections between the oral history and things in the newsletters, like dates and how people actually spell their names.
I then went through lots and lots of revisions on the history. Abstractly, I can accept that this is how real writing gets done, but it’s not very romantic. Jen read a dozen edits before it left the house, and then it went out to Val and Ron. Ron and Kathy were visiting a couple of past commodores while on their trip south for the winter, so they read it too, and I incorporated everyone’s suggestions. The current commodore, the vice commodore, and the owner of Cedar Creek Sailing Center all got a shot at it before I published it, but everyone’s comments were constructive, pertinent, and easy to merge in.
It’s out here, under the “history” tab, if you want to take a look: http://windjammersailing.com/about/
It was a pretty fascinating exercise—way more difficult than I thought it would be when I started, but rewarding. I have a newfound respect for the craft of writing history, I learned a lot about the club, and I feel like the website is more complete. At the very least, I’m glad that we’ve got something written down now, and I hope that it will seed more contributions.
“History is a relentless master. It has no present, only the past rushing into the future. To try to hold fast is to be swept aside.”
John F. Kennedy