Professor studies - and dreams - at sea

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Aboard his 16-foot Compac sloop, Yale scholar links bottom-paint toxin with deafness in some marine life

Aboard his 16-foot Compac sloop, Yale scholar links bottom-paint toxin with deafness in some marine life

The sailboat pitches in the chopped-up, windswept waters, spray flying over the rail.

The captain, tiller tucked firmly between his knees, tears at a chunk of dry Italian sausage with his teeth, and follows with a hearty gulp of grog.

No, it’s not Blackbeard, the pirate of the Carolinas, or Captain Kidd, bounding along on the Spanish Main.

It’s professor Joseph Santos-Sacchi, out for a brisk sail on the wide waters of Long Island Sound in his 16-foot Compac sloop.

Not all of Santos-Sacchi’s cruises are so picturesque, even fewer are such “tumultuous excursion[s],” as he puts it. But the 55-year-old professor of surgery, neurobiology and physiology at the Yale School of Medicine admits he pursues his passion for sailing with gusto. And all this while studying the relation between deafness in marine mammals and the toxic chemical tributyltin (TBT), once used extensively in bottom paint.

“I love water — to look at, be on or in — and sailing is clearly for me,” says the professor, who has a poetical — as well as piratical — side. “Of course, with the water come beautiful skies and sunsets, mixtures of clouds and my favorite [sky] blues. An hour on the water can satisfy me. But day outings are a treat, especially with a swim and a meal on board.”

It’s all about having fun, and using his sailing skills. “I like to move steadily through the water, not race. But I also like approaching, yet keeping her from tipping [over],” he says. And stay alert if you’re out with him. “I especially remember one outing with my seasoned sailor brother-in-law,” he says. “[Approaching] on a straight return to the dock at an unheard-of speed, I managed to scare him silly prior to swiftly turning back into the wind to softly touch the dock.”

Raised near the East River in the Bronx, Santos-Sacchi first experienced “boating of a kind” on a wooden raft, crafted from boat debris, which he powered by sort of swimming with it. When, a few years later, he found himself sailing a “real boat,” a wooden sailing dinghy, all alone at the tiller on a lake in Maine, the youth, like many before him, fell for the solitude of small craft. “I was also happy to move around without kicking my legs,” he adds.

He’s stayed with small craft ever since. In fact, the boat he really began to learn on as an adult — and the body of water where he got his experience — were both small, but effective. On the surprisingly challenging waters of LakeQuonnipaug, in Guilford, Conn., Santos-Sacchi got his feet wet — literally, on occasion — in a 10-foot Dyer Dhow. “That was a windy lake,” he says. “I learned a lot about handling a boat — even recovering from unexpected and violent [capsizes]. I even sewed a small jib to make my forays more challenging.” Santos-Sacchi slipped down to the dock “every chance I could.”

He stepped up to the 16-foot Compac, named Fava Bean, about 10 years ago, and the Dyer has been retired, bottom-up, to the professor’s yard for now. “[The Compac] is a beautiful, but slow, little boat, and I use it mostly solo for day trips on the Sound,” he says. “It has a furling jib, which helps it to move a bit faster, and on a windy Sound with a couple of feet of splash, it really is fun.”

The next sweetheart of the Santos-Sacchi fleet was a 26-foot Grampian, named Cochlea (the spiral-shaped cavity in the inner ear), and it’s a classic back-from-the-dead used boat story. “I bought it from Pilot’s Point Marina [in Westbrook, Conn.],” he says. “It sat there untended for many years and since it was in very bad shape I got it at a bargain: $3,000.” There was a long list of things to do to the old boat, but Santos-Sacchi says he was unfazed through the work. “The first summer with the boat I had as much fun fixing it up as I did after I got her in the water,” he says. After years of fun, Cochlea was given away to a thrilled college student to make way for an upgrade.

The queen of the Santos-Sacchi fleet is a 31-foot Allmand sailboat named Melody. She is tied up at Brewer Bruce & Johnson’s Branford Marina, in Branford, Conn. These days, the 1983 Melody patiently awaits the professor’s attention, but Santos-Sacchi admits she requires far less work than the Grampian did. Most of the time is spent with hands on the wheel rather than wrench in the hand. “I mainly stay on the Sound and often visit the ShortBeach area — it is very pretty there,” says Santos-Sacchi, who sails alone, with friends and with his wife, Milla, and their twins, Tommy and Betsy, 13. “We typically stay out for the afternoon with no destination in mind. I like a steady strong breeze, though my wife prefers something calmer. [There’s been] no real rough weather, though once a fog rolled in and it was tricky getting back to the slip. I have a handheld GPS, fortunately.”

One thing the professor can’t get away from on the water is his work. In fact, sailing seems, at times, to be an inspiration. Santos-Sacchi has studied the mammalian hearing mechanism for more than 30 years, especially the activity of auditory receptors called hair cells. These sensitive cells can be damaged by the chemical tributyltin, a now-banned anti-fouling component found in some bottom paints. Studies have found TBT leeches into the water in amounts that can affect whales and other marine mammals that navigate at least partially by hearing, he says. Thus, TBT could play a part in marine mammal navigation mishaps, Santos-Sacchi theorizes.

With the sea all around, “I do find myself thinking about problems while sailing, oftentimes having to turn back to shore with that new idea,” the professor says. “To me, this does not diminish the pleasure of sailing, though.” Instead, Santos-Sacchi and his wife see far shores and more sea time beckoning.

“We plan on getting a bit larger boat some day, and, yes, we dream about those [cruising] stories we read about in Soundings,” he says. “Perhaps a life on the boat … hovering about the Caribbean … ”