Excerpt from Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar, by James Bach
August 13, 2007.
“Which is the jib halyard, and which is the spinnaker halyard?” asked
Captain Ben, as his 26-foot sailing yacht rocked beneath us. From my
point of view on the bow, the two lines looked identical. Both lines
curved down from pulleys at the top of the mast.
“I don’t know.” I replied.
“Well, logically, which should it be?”
“They’re the same. I don’t see any distinction.”
“Look more closely.” Captain Ben runs a yachting school out of Rosario
Marina. Long ago he was an elementary schoolteacher and then a
motorcycle racer. The racing part may account for the steely glint in
his eyes and the schoolteacher part for their twinkle. I like that
combination. He’s the perfect instructor for me, pushing me a bit
beyond what I think I should be doing.
“What do you think?” he prompted.
“Okay…Hmm. On closer examination they are identical.”
“No, they are not. This line goes to the outside pulley. The spinnaker
sail is outside of the jib sail; therefore this must be the spinnaker
“There’s only a three-inch difference between those pulleys! Does it
“It matters. That difference is enough to foul the lines. You’ll see
what I mean when you hoist the spinnaker, later on. Now come down here
and tell me what’s wrong with the mainsheet rigging.”
I got out my Moleskine notebook and wrote, “A critical part of
learning new skill: learning distinctions…distinctions invisible to
untrained eye….” I underlined “distinctions” a few times. I carry my
Moleskine everywhere. My Sharpie calligraphy pen, too. Every useful
thought goes in the notebook. One out of fifty pays off, and sometimes
they pay off big.
“What are you doing?” asked the Captain. I wrote, “A pattern of
distinctions?…distinction matrix?…contradistinctions? Ben tests for
distinctions BEFORE explaining them. Dialectical distinction
“I might have to put you in my book, Ben,” I said as I jammed the
notebook back into my waterproof vest. “I’m getting a lot of ideas,
here.” Sailing was part of my work that day. Research, I told myself.
Also procrastination, since I’d made a bold boast that I would have a
new chapter by the end of the week. Here I was, sailing. It’s what I
felt like doing, so it had to be part of the writing. The Captain
reminded me that the jib sheet must first pass through the turning
block. It was easy to fix.
Everything is a part of it. Always. My education is my reaction to
whatever happens. I develop ideas, I write, I teach. This is my life.
“Wait a sec, Captain.” I fished out my notebook and wrote, “Zero-point
learning? Like zero-point energy. Seems to come from nowhere.
Realizing what already is learned, that I didn’t know I knew.”
He raised the mainsail. It pivoted into the wind and fluttered
innocently. “Time to go, James,” called Captain Ben. “Take the helm.
There’s a west wind over the point. You won’t need the motor.” He
leapt off the boat and shoved it clear of the dock, me with it. “Helm,
“I’m going solo?” We hadn’t discussed this.
“Happy sailing, James.”
At the helm, notebook stowed. I hauled in on the mainsheet. The wind
kissed the sail and the fluttering ended. The sails powered up. The
boat leaned a bit, as if gathering its thoughts. Then we surged