ATHENS, Greece – In an effort to explain how I spent a day last week on a boat in the Mediterranean watching other boats sail in the Mediterranean, let me first tell you what it is like covering the Olympics as a columnist.
No one thinks you work.
No one thinks you do anything, in fact, unless they consider turning $90 Ouzo bills into ''dinner with sources'' as something.
The prevailing wisdom is you are being paid to take an all-expense paid trip to Athens. For three weeks. Friends, family, coworkers. Whomever. This is what they think.
You can argue, but it never works. No one wants to hear about the drudgery of interviewing Jennie Finch.
No one wants to discuss how tired it was hanging around the pool and watching Amanda Beard and Natalie Coughlin.
So, since no one thinks I am working over here anyway I figured, why not just not work. Of course, I have to send some kind of column in or my slave-driving editors back at Yahoo! would start making me pay those Ouzo bills.
So the plan was to do the minimal amount of work, find the easiest and most enjoyable story possible to cover and call it a day of ''work.''
I asked my fellow journalists of the world for suggestions.
A guy from Perth, Australia, figured a feature on the beach volleyball dance team wouldn't be too stressful, but I didn't want my slave-driving editors getting distracted by the photos and forgetting to correct all my spelling errors.
A wise guy from Spain thought a story on the brothels of Greece would fascinate Americans since such things aren't legal in the States. But I told him he was mistaken; legal prostitution is thriving in some parts of Nevada and most parts of the United States Congress.
Besides, this is a sports column. I needed a sport to cover.
For a while, I was going with archery, if only because how difficult would the press conference be?
Journalist: What were you going for on that first shot?
Journalist: Yes, makes sense. How about the second shot?
But then along came sailing, which sounded like a most pleasant sport to cover. It entailed going down to a beautiful marina, having a nice woman named Barby set you up on the media boat and then taking a few hour cruise around the Mediterranean to watch boats sail around.
They don't even call their event a tournament. It is a regatta.
''You meet rich guys who say, 'you have the best job,' '' a British sailing writer told me later. "And I tell them, 'OK let's switch for six months. But paychecks, too.' ''
OK, if you are a real sailing writer – like Stuart Streuli of Sailing World Magazine or Bernie Wilson of the Associated Press, whose dispatches appear on Yahoo! – you work hard. You have to know a great deal about the nuanced technicalities of the sport, its equipment and its myriad personalities. Then deliver it to a relatively small but deeply knowledgeable fan base.
But I, who was looking to do as little work as possible, would naturally try to find out as little as possible about the nuanced technicalities of the sport, its equipment and its myriad personalities.
I would ride around on the boat and look at the scenery, catch some rays and only borrow the binoculars if we passed a nude beach.
So I called Barby MacGowan, the public relations woman at USA Sailing, and got the thing set up. She would send me out with the 49ers – named for its length, 4.9 meters – the new, hot, fast, exciting boat that is energizing the sport.
Not what you think
To me, sailing sounds pretty nice, but pretty boring. Obviously, it takes effort to pull all the rigging and stuff. And I am not downplaying how difficult it is to sail.
But I was thinking, well, exactly what you are thinking.
''The stereotypical comment you get when you tell someone you sail is, yeah, we have a 35-foot boat, we go out in the bay and a have a few drinks,'' said Tim Wadlow, one of the United States' 49ers. '' 'That's what you do too, right?' ''
Here is what a two-man crew on the 49ers do: They push their little boat to the absolute limit, nearly flipping it, always straining it, cutting corners, almost crashing into other boats in a desperate drive to the finish line.
In doing so these guys climb all over the boat, hang off the end, get wet, push and pull and strain and do it all. It's sort of NASCAR on water.
If you don't think it is a sport, know this, earlier this year a U.S. sailor was suspended from competition for two years for refusing to take a USADA drug test.
There is doping in sailing.
''It is just becoming a lot more exciting,'' said Wadlow, 28. ''We are pushing new boats to the edge of control. Boats are wiping out now.''
The boat ride
Unfortunately, I saw no boats wipe out, although one from India came close. I saw a bunch almost crash into each other. I even saw Wadlow try to jump the starting horn and get caught – ''you have to be aggressive,'' he shrugged later.
Most importantly though from our 33-foot, motor-powered press boat, I saw the most uniquely blue water in the world, the semi-pale Mediterranean. I saw sweeping views of Athens, rising from the shore, up past the Acropolis, into the Immitos Mountains and off into a sky that the Greek gods call home.
I saw the big, bright sails of the boats; each colored up into a national flag, brighten the seascape. I saw other big, sweet private boats cruise by with the few spectators of this sport leaning on the railings.
Entire races would be going off in front of the boat and I would be staring out the back at some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.
Occasionally I would turn back and pretend to watch the race since I didn't want the boat's captain to think I was a fraud and make me swab the deck or walk the plank or something like that.
I even tried to make small talk with the sailing writers but they began getting suspicious of me when I got the basics wrong.
Sailing writer: ''What do you think of the Yngling?''
Me: ''Why, you have beer on the boat?''
Ahh, who cares? Nothing was going to ruin my day of non-work on the sea.
By the time we returned to harbor, puttering in past the Olympic flags on the shore, Athens getting bigger and bigger, the sun starting to sag behind those mountains, I spotted the sailing complex's media lounge.
Conveniently located on top of the press workroom, it had a full bar, outdoor seating and prime views of a Greek sunset.
I figured a couple of cold Heinekens couldn't possibly hurt the writing process.
Work, it's a four-letter word.