Beers and Boats: How Did the Two Become so Inseparable?
As appearing in July 2019 Points East Magazine
Over the years, varieties of alcohol have all factored large in the lives of maritime voyagers. In roles of service, used to be that a sailor's ration of alcohol equaled one gallon of beer; or it may have be a pint of wine or port. Caribbean crews were often portioned rum. In 1756, in order to prevent scurvy, British Navy regulations required the addition of small quantities of lemon or lime juice to that rum ration. Eventually the rum rations were diluted with water and became what was called “old grog.”
No matter the potion, maritimers have long held esteem for beer, not just as tonic, but as a source of nutrition and calories. Beer was also often deemed a safer liquid to drink. Whereas water could harbor harmful microorganisms; beer would not. For Navy seafarers, particularly those making lengthy ocean crossings, weak beer was a standard provision. In the 1808 Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty’s Service at Sea, “In case it should be found necessary to alter any of the foregoing particulars of Provisions, and to issue other species as their substitutes, it is to be observed, that a pint of Wine, or half a pint of Rum, Brandy, or other Spirits, holds proportion to a gallon of Beer.”
IPA as Brew of Choice
It’s been said that the India pale ale (IPA) is the sailor’s choice for beer. Prior to this brew’s existence, pale ales such as those brewed by Englishman George Hodgson of Bow Brewery on the Middlesex-Essex border, predominated the export trade to India. Just how did the IPA become a favorite, starting in the 18th century? Perhaps because IPAs were formulated by the seafarers themselves—who were bent on trying to find ways to increase brew longevity during transport between England and India.
India pale ale was developed in England around 1840 via addition of extra hops to help sustain freshness. IPAs from the Bow Brewery and other makers grew in popularity with East India Company traders. A yarn prevails that early IPAs were stronger than other beers of that era. While formulated to survive long the voyages at sea, a porter type beer was also being successfully shipped to both India and California. Porter is a dark beer developed in London using well-hopped base beers created using brown malt. The name porter likely derives courtesy its popularity with street and river merchants and transporters.
Fast forward to today, and beer recipes continue to evolve. For regional variety—compare East Coast to West Coast IPAs. East Coast breweries generally use spicier European hops and specialty malts. Eastern IPAs also tend to have a stronger malt presence. Hops are more prominent in West Coast brews. Further breaking down the recipe, in the early 2010s “New England India pale ales” were concocted in Vermont. Marked by juicy, citrus and floral flavors, these regionals are less piney hoppy versus typical IPAs. They also have a hazy appearance.
Best Beer for the Buoys
No matter the brew, sailors remain devotees—so much so that entire sailboat racing series have been named for this refresher. As I set out to research this article, I learned early on that not every New Englander knew what I meant by ‘beer can racing.’ For some, a better handle was “buoy racing” or “the Wednesday night races.” This drove me to Wikipedia. For a laugh, here is their paltry three-line definition:
“Beer can races allow people to experience yacht racing in a more relaxed environment than that of a major offshore race. They typically offer races on short courses. Many restrict the use of spinnakers, trapeze harnesses, and the use of twin headsails.” Included in the Wikipedia entry is reference to a 2008 Los Angeles Times article about sailing in a Newport Beach (southern California) beer can event. It states that boats were stopped, and citations issued, by the Orange County Sheriff to any crew exceeding the 5mph (4.34 knot) speed limit in the harbor.
Whether coined weekday racing or beer can racing, almost every sailor agrees that beer is de rigeur. Some say its consumption before crossing the finish line is fine. For others, drinking is verboten until safely back at the dock.
Sound Advice About Drinking and Driving
Robin is a 32-year member of the City Island Yacht Club, which is located in the Bronx, New York. He has quite the number of sailing miles logged both inland and offshore. When sticking close to home, he and peers are often found in western Long Island Sound waters. This 71-year old New Jersey Sicilian has a few stories to tell; this one is a favorite: “So I buy this J24 called Power Play and I enter her in a beer can PHRF race. I engage a respected local tactician so that as skipper I could focus on the helm, watch the shifts and tick tack. He says to me, as many tacticians will, ‘I only race for good dack beer.’”
(Writer’s note—having not heard the term ‘dack,’ I chalked it up to his NJ accent and thought it meant ‘dark.’ Nope. Robin says, “I think it just means high-priced expensive crafted beers).
Robin, a caring skipper, goes to buy good dack beer. Referencing that day, “We are upwind and trying to get around Big Tom--red lighted buoy. Tactician calls for a tack to port to the mark and the skipper--that be me--says please remember the heavy max current pushing us left. Tactician hollers like General Patton, ‘I said tack now!’” Power Play crew tacks, then continues to sail the short leg. Robin shouts, “We hit the damn mark!” Tactician says, “Sorry, my bad.” Now Power Play must go back (since they did not in fact even make the mark).
“Here we go again back on course upwind to the same mark and tactician says, ‘Tack right now!’ We tack, and once more we hit the mark, the same mark, a second time on the same leg.” A little time later, and safely round that mark, the tactician looks at the crew somewhat strangely and states, “Guess I had a few too many good beers. I hope the damage from both impacts will buff out!” To this, Robin responded, “Oh yeah, yuh gotta just love this racing scene. I never said a word and just smiled at all the crew onboard!”
New Englanders with Opinions
A bit inland and near Bristol, Rhode Island, is racer Annie—fan of Whale's Tale Pale Ale, an English pale ale style beer brewed by Cisco Brewers in Nantucket. She also favors Harpoon IPA, crafted in either the Boston or Windsor, Vermont locations, plus local draft brews. Annie has crewed on a Herreshoff S boat for the last two years where beer is always present. In fact, the honor of picking it up rotates amongst the crew. As to imbibing, “If we are in the lead we’re generally focused on preserving our distance so we do not drink. If we’re not doing well we’ll pop open brews on the downwind leg.”
Has she experienced any great beering and boating moments? “Well, there was the time we skyed the spinnaker halyard early in the race. The shackle popped open because it got caught on the forestay during the hoist.” She shares, “Pretty sure it was the day the spinnaker went all the way under the boat and we had to pick it up from the back. I was running the foredeck, so it was my first big spinnaker mishap.” Seems there was no bosun chair on the boat that day. So, once safely connected to a mooring ball and two beers into things, someone had the idea to fashion a DIY harness. Being the lightest, and a very talented racer, up the mast she went. All worked out fine, but in hindsight she chalks up that decision to a wee bit ‘o beer influence.
Connecticut coastline racer Catherine is a regular crew member on three different regional boats. She says alcohol consumption depends on the race, the number of people on the boat and the skipper. In general though, the crew has a beer while rigging and prepping, but none while racing. Her Tuesday night competition is enjoyed with an all-female crew. The preference is homemade—IPAs, double IPAs and stouts. “Only if it’s a really bad night might we share one beer amongst all of us while still sailing.”
She once sailed with a crew where the bow person kept a mini cooler tied front of vessel. Her duty was to hand him a new beer after he finished each one. He brought a six-pack onboard—either Bud or Schaefer. He was a good sailor, which explains why his at-race drinking was permitted. Years ago, Catherine also sailed with a skipper who kept a half keg onboard—installed and plumbed to dispense. This was on a 27-foot boat.
Further south is Annapolis area racer, Bill. He reveals, “It’s Heineken, Becks, Sprite, ginger ale, Gatorade. Sometimes we bring Tecate because it does not come in a green can!”
For a broader reach, I also queried members of the group Facebook Yacht Club (with permission of the social media group’s administrator). Comments from New England-based racers:
Tom (Georgetown, MA)
We have the ‘Bud’ rule. We only drink one brand. It saves time selecting what crew want. Not our favorite, but it is like the Wonder Bread of beer. Usually one on the way to the line. One during prep. One every downwind leg. It works! No yelling allowed on the boat and we win often.
Jon (Colchester, VT)
Two shots of Captain Morgan before the start...beer is only served after the #1 is flaked down, bagged and stowed!
From the club house deck, Patsy (Marblehead, MA)
Guests relaxing in the rocking chairs on the Corinthian Yacht Club porch have a lovely view of the Wednesday night racers as they head back to the Boston Yacht Club. Spectators drink local--Bent Water Brewing Company.
We Hold Dear, the Beer
No question about it, these casual weekday sailing events hold dear, the beer. So much so that entire associations are dedicated to its preservation, for example the Can One Evening Race Association. Held on Thursdays, Can One events draw 50 to 60 boats from seven regional clubs situated along the western Long Island Sound (American Yacht Club, Glen Inland Yacht Club, Huguenot Yacht Club, Larchmont Yacht Club, New York Athletic Club YC, Oriental Yacht Club and Horseshoe Harbor Yacht Club). Participants compete in either the spinnaker or non-spinnaker division. Adam Loory has been one of the association’s organizers for the last 15 years. He says sailors, “Divide and conquer the work week with casual competitive sailing fun. Even a thirty to fifty-minute race with friends as the sun goes down can recharge emotional batteries.”
We should assert that, no matter the New England location and no matter the presence or absence of beer, safety is a top concern. For some crews, alcohol is not permitted until safely hooked at home base. There are dry boats and there are wet boats, and this determination is often governed by the owner or skipper.
We cannot quite deem an hour or two of marks roundings as a maritime journey, but just try to take the six-pack out of a sailor’s hands as he walks down the dock on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday evening. Beer is signature to beer can racing.