Sailing has always been a family event for me. It's pleasures have now spanned three generations, some half dozen boats and more hats than even my imagination can conjure. Along with a love of the sea, the Mysteries That Be planted a distinct lack of hair upon the heads of all three generations, so our affair with the hat has been a long and sordid one.

In the early days hats were decidedly the most important safety device on board. Each gust or shift in wind provided the ready opportunity for another HOB drill. I remember them fondly: the captain bellowing above the wind, the crew snapping into action, one fellow upon the quarter-deck keeping a sharp eye and lifted finger directed upon the hapless head wear as it faded over the stern, another diving below for the Hat Extraction Gear (boat hook), the helm hard over, the hiss of sheets through turning blocks, the despondence at losing sight of it between swells, the hope of catching it rise on a crest.

These were not always happy times, however, for in those days hats were not "engineered," there were no floaters, no second tries. If your turn of speed was not good your old friend and protectorate was lost (offered?) to the dark abyss. And in those brief private moments after the failures, it was always such a small leap for the mind to make from mourning over what moments ago lay on top of your head to mourning over the unthinkable possibilities for what lay just below. Thankfully the immediate demands of the ship allow only short indulgences like these, and it was only after the gear was stored and the sails trimmed back to course that there was time for quiet conversation back in the safety of the cockpit, the evaluation, the search for the lesson learned. Hats lost always returned lessons.

And oh, the lessons we learned! With heads like ours we brought hats on board like most men of the day brought beer--always at least a twelve pack below. Our favorites, those worn over and over, were the twisted, moldy ones that had made the leap repeatedly, only to be coaxed back on board time and time again by the skills and blind luck of a crew of practiced seaman. They were our badges of honor and skill. And in an ironic turn it was those very same drooping, dripping rags upon our heads that seemed to be reason enough for any passing boat to give us wide berth.

But times are changing. We now all sport fancy hat retention devices. It has only taken a few months to quash that old impulse of "one hand for the hat" when things pipe up. Nary even a flinch distracts us from the pull of the ship when the bill of the cap is caught by the gale. We have even started to cautiously step out into style. With his Tilley perched high and proud upon his head, the father can no longer be labeled (accurately) a dork by the son. The son now takes what comfort he can from the fact that his new cap looks better than his head. Boats pass close and wave.

It's hard to say whether it is an improvement. Granted, minus the head wear grabbing reflex, the main no longer drops back down on deck in a lifeless heap when the halyard is forsaken for the hat. The helm is no longer left to its own devices while the skipper scurries along the lazerette in a last ditch lunge for a worthless piece of scrap. We all now even have one hand for the ship. But our learning curve certainly seems to have slackened. You might even say we're in the doldrums. Gone are the days when valuable lessons were learned in wild gyre of action and response. Sailing has become an exercise in subtle refinements. Certain possibility seem to have been lost. (I mean, who can get excited about a MOB drill with a cockpit cushion that was never comfortable to begin with?)

The time may be near when I venture on board with a pair of scissors up my sleeve and once again release our hats to their full potential. I miss that certain glint in my father's eye when the "crisis" was at hand. I miss the minor rush of the little search and rescue. I miss the days when all sane sailors gave right of way, not to our starboard tack, but to our tacky hats.