Monday, May 9, 2011


Bean Value.
A Ratsey Bag... now made by LL Bean

What do you call this bag?  An LL Bean Bag?  A Boat and Tote?  Those are all modern names (Boat and Tote being the most awful).  The sure sign of an old Anglo salt is one who calls it a Ratsey Bag.  They were originally made of old scraps of hopelessly heavy sail cloth (canvas) from Ratsey Sailmakers.  If you live in the North East, your grandparents may still call it that, but you have likely had your brain marketing-infiltrated by the branditos who would have you believe that LL Bean invented this kind of bag.  Spare me the hate-email.  They are great bags, but they've been around a lot longer that any of us have, and by a different name.


Sailboats have always been the back-drops and sets for those wanting to define luxury (or "lug-zhurry").  The term "yacht" is a relatively loaded one, dripping with pretense, and deployed to advance the user a few rungs or attempt to impress one of several particularly naive young women.  

Sailboats, like polo ponies and aircraft, have traditionally been the devices of the very wealthy, devices which most of the same very wealthy people could not themselves expertly operate.  Fantastically rich brokerage house owners have no idea how to perform celestial navigation, overhaul a diesel at sea, or knot and splice... most have never seen genuine blue water.

Harold Vanderbilt sailed Ranger to America's Cup victory in 1937.  In those days, the J-class were enormous yachts.

Men like Starling Burgess and Olin Stephens designed them for the wealthy (below).

Granted, Vanderbilt had no shortage of capital, but he was one of the world's greatest sailors, and credited for inventing the modern (counted-down) racing start.  Olin Stephens is second from the left, and Harold stands at the helm with his tie clubbed, and wife Gertrude at his side.

Before Ted Turner started CNN and his clearing house for old and awesome movies, he was one of the world's greatest sailing skippers.  He and his team won the America's Cup in 1977.

For the win, he and (a very young) tactician Gary Jobson teamed up for what would be a hard-nosed but tight and effective team.

The Cup later was won and lost by Dennis Conner out of the San Diego Yacht Club.  It was the first time the Cup ever left the US.  It was at that point that the America's Cup became more like NASCAR.  Dennis Conner formed a syndicate that sought to raise funds by selling advertising on the sails and hulls of the yachts.  Fast forward to when the America's Cup was shamefully sailed by catamarans (similar to catamites) covered in corporate logos.  Protest hearings and pre-race receptions were no longer attended by gentlemen in blazers, ties, boat shoes, and khakis, but by high-fivers in Gore-Tex, lycra, and ball-caps.  Logos began to cover every square inch of the vessels, and the sailors no longer wore rugby shirts and sweaters, opting instead for kayaking helmets, life-vests, and wet-suits.  When the land-locked Swiss somehow won the cup, I completely gave up hope.

Beautiful vessels like this...

Were replaced with new contraptions like this...

Boats were once sailed by men like this...

(Greatest photograph in the universe, by the way)

And are now sailed with (not by) men like this...
Profile of America’s Cup Sail Racer Larry Ellison
Larry Ellison

Racing Sailboats Professionally
The Image:
Men dressed handsomely drinking Champagne and martinis on the teak quarter deck of a luxury sailing yacht.  Parties with beautiful women, and all of your prep-school and college buddies also on the team with you.  Gallant sportsmen acting with generations of discipline, tradition, and honor.  Other fresh-faced college grads who could also race large boats very well.

Manic-ego owners who don't know how to sail, mandatory gym work outs, stripped-down boats with no single comfort aboard, 18 and 20 year old New Zealanders and South Africans who can outsail anyone from Miami to Maine, and more canned beer than one could imagine.  Foul-mouthed jackass boat owners (not the professional skippers who actually won them) accept the trophies during regatta award ceremonies even though they nearly ruined the race.  There are also no gentlemen's agreements made... two or three racing syndicate owners may be old friends with your father, but that does not prevent them from wearing you thin and blaming you for the variations in wind direction.  Crushed fingers, bloody blisters, and eternally chapped lips are normal, and the team is generally expected to sleep aboard during race weekends.  Sunburn and raccoon tanlines from sunglasses that never seem to fade, and Russians who smoke cigarettes while sleeping, fixing an engine, or crawling through the hold.


My wife and I attended a fashion designers party aboard a large sailboat years ago.  We both showed up in our summer white pants, me with a double-breasted blazer and tie, and a long dark green coat made out of rubberized vinyl from Helly Hansen flowing over the whole outfit:

Helly Hansen Highliner Skipper's Long Rain Coat - Waterproof (For Men and Tall Men)

I remember all of the fashionistas laughing and mocking us in our long coats and conservative clothing when we boarded... until the boat left the dock and sailed away from land.  The temperature dropped 25 degrees and gusted, and the summer day turned into (the usual) cold summer off-shore evening.  Soon, the stylishly and modern-dressed attendees began vomiting and shivering below deck, huddled into cowering lumps of pathetic sea-sick fashion throw-outs, while Mrs. and I chatted the skipper and afterguard on the quarterdeck who all wore coats similar to ours... warm and comfortable.  Thankfully, the hired bartender was in good form.

Just because something can be modernized doesn't mean it should be. 


  1. Wonderful post!
    I recall my Granfather, who had a cabin on Kidney Pond in Maine...he called them Ratsey bags and used them often for carrying hunting gear, picnic supplies, nearly anything that needed to be hauled...

  2. We call them ice bags up in the Birthplace of the American Navy.

  3. I've grown up calling them Ratseys or boat bags.
    It's a shame to see what modern technology has done to the America's Cup. I tend to read up on sailing literature in the summer and recently picked up this book you might want to check out - The America's Cup: The History of Sailing's Greatest Competition in the Twentieth Century.
    I also accidentally came upon a set of patches from the 1987 America's Cup which I'm getting framed.

  4. Great post, well written, and most amusing. I call it a Boat and Tote bag, having given in to corporate-speak. But my mother, who bought them back when I was a wee laddie, always called them "ice bags." Reggie

  5. Just curious...why "ice bags"?

  6. Hilarious and true about the rich loving activities that they aren't actually good at. Probably because most truly rich (as much then as now) just recently cashed in and have to pick up the accouterment in a hurry. The real pedigreed people are the ones working on the boats, tacking up the horses, giving ski lessons at Vail, and picking up tennis balls on humid July afternoons. (That last one is personal.) Supposedly prestigious institutions like the NY YC fall into this trap, because they require you be a "serious" sailor for membership--i.e., spend millions on a boat. Only the Ellisons of the world have that kind of money.

    It's a Bean Bag to me. Not because I thought Bean invented it, but because it's, well, Bean. Also, I'm 25.

  7. I took a class once to learn how to sail. I had terrible remembering all the terms. It was fun though. flipped the sailboat over many times. This one time my dad took me sailing and he hadn't gone for years. He got stuck and hit the rocks. We had to end up asking people around the area for help. He was pretty embarrassed.


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