Don't sail past your charitable instinct

Summer sailing lessons at the local boat club this year, led to interesting dinner-table conversations with our 12-year-old about everything from quick decisionmaking to charitable giving. It started when we were talking about reefing the sails, a study in the art of precaution, especially in New England, where the coastal winds can be gusty and strong.

Putting a reef in the sail is taking a tuck in the amount of fabric exposed to the wind. The mainsail becomes smaller, so it captures less wind. Wise sailors know to take a reef when they first think of it and, similarly, to let it out again when they first think of it. Wait too long to reef in the sail, and the chance may be missed, because the likelihood is that the wind will blow harder, making it more difficult to manage the awkward reefing maneuver. As with many things in life, when it comes to too much wind, first instincts are often correct.

Teaching a 12-year-old boy to trust an early inkling of a precautionary thought assumes that this boy - who like all boys of that age, considers himself invincible - will have a precautionary thought. This is the same boy who cheered when he and his shipmate managed to capsize their small sailboat, end for end, bow over stern, by first swamping it in a bailer fight, then crowding the stern to help it flip. They turtled the boat, danced on the upturned hull, then righted it again, amid cheers from classmates who'd all tried to do the same thing. This is the same boy who is now rated "confident in all winds" and just made "Skipper" at the awards night.

For his younger sister (or for myself, for that matter), the greater difficulty would be to let the reef out from the sail on first thought. Again, first instincts tend to be correct and the timid sailor isn't necessarily the safer sailor. In matters of hull speed and racing, an overzealous reefing is a drag, quite literally. Fortunately, removing a reef is a simple matter, easily and quickly accomplished, once undertaken. For greatest efficiency, sooner is better.

My real pleasure came on another night around the dinner table, when the conversation turned to the subject of charitable donations. Speaking to my husband, I mentioned that I'd sent off a check for a community cause we'd spoken of supporting together. Confirming his trust in the decision I had made during a busy time, he said, "Yeah, you have to just do it when you think of it."

Our 12-year-old spoke then and made an interesting connection that convinced me he'd understood both lessons: "It's like reefing. You have to do it when you first think of it."

It's true. Think of the donations that poured in right after 9/11. Think of the donations pouring into Florida, right now, for the hurricane victims. Our best instincts, in these matters, are often our first thoughts. On second consideration, we're more apt to hang back, to delay, to put off the charitable thought or active help. You have to do it when you first think of it.

Martha White is a freelance writer and editor from the coast of Maine.

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