Friday, September 15, 2006

The Body Politic of a Thumb War

(excerpt from my journal, in the recent 18 days i spent on a 24' gaff rig ketch, The Tern.)
Day 2

...we're now camped on Quadra Island. on a remote northeasterly corner. it was sunny today, but windless. between turns at the oars, we hopped naked off the gunwhale, cannonballed everybody in the boat best we could. passed fish farms to which we exuberantly gave Thumbs Down.
today i discovered: on boats, i'm a rube. though raised (in)consistently on small sailboats, i've accumulated only the following boat terms:
*Tholpin: (noun) a 9" pin that fits through a hole in the rail, and serves as an oarlock.
*Gromit: (noun) a circular piece of rope that attaches the oar to the tholpin.
*Mizzon mast: (noun) the aft mast.
*Main mast: come on.
*Jib: (noun) the small sail attached to the main mast, which, in good wind, distends like a pregnant woman's belly.
*Sheet: (noun, verb) the line by which you control either the mizzon, main or jib sails. ex: "Sheet in the jib, swab! She's luffing."
*Shitwhack: (noun) a large amount. ex: "Hey everybody, I boiled up a shitwhack of bean flakes for dinner!" (syn. 'Jesus Big')

Decisions on the boat are made by consensus. three thumbs: Thumbs Up, Thumbs Sideways, Thumbs Down. Yes, Blows with the Wind, and Veto.
Every day there are proposals; which passage to pick, when to stop, where to camp. Onboard, whoever is at the tiller makes the basic decisions -- when to jibe, come about, break for lunch, but when greater decisions need attention, someone calls out, "Consensus!" after which, proposals are made, thumbs are hoisted, deferred, or downed, and we move on.

Last night, after a shitwhack of bean flakes, rice and cornbread (made of inapproximate amounts of cornmeal, milk powder, baking soda, water and huckleberries,) Robin made an attempt to amend the thumb rule: he wanted to add a new thumb.
"The upward thumb implies assertion of a proposal, the sideways thumb implies indifference or weak allegiance, and the down thumb is a clear NO intended to prolong the discussion," he said. "But there has been a time when i clearly wanted to say no, but i only wanted that inclination to be heard, and not acted upon. I propose a 'just so you know' thumb."

This, of course, raised new issues: would this bring about too democratic a group? was this too many options? would this dissension lead to an I-Told-You-So attitude, a feet-dragging unwillingness to go along with the proposal?
In hushed tones, we discussed this for the following hour, as the light dwindled and the fire crackled and tightened the skin on my hands, put there, above the coals, as the fog rolled in. Then, as several of us began to doze, Ben said in a loud, stately voice,
"All in favor of a fourth thumb?" he put his thumb up.
Slow and sleepy we raised our thumbs. That we did so in silence was too much for Robin.
"Wait a minute," he said, "I withdraw, for lack of a greater interest, my proposal from the docket. I veto a fourth thumb." He punctuated this with a hearty downward thumb.

That was the last we heard of the thumb business.