Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, the seas turn unruly. You awake to news that the famed tea clipper ship, Cutty Sark, sat ablaze in a London dry dock for much of the night. This, on the heels of word from the America's Cup off Valencia, Spain, that this year's USA challenger proved to be the true "slow boat to China."

You should have seen it coming. There were omens aplenty that pointed toward a slump. Earlier, a mother-daughter pair of humpback whales cruised up the Sacramento River while, at about the same time, an obscure clan of freshwater crustaceans were running amok on the subsurface streets of Ray Broadhead National Crawdad Sanctuary up at Haws Point on Strawberry Reservoir.

Go figure! What is it that's shifting the paradigm? What has happened to the old comfortable "norm?" Obviously, something is amiss. Maybe it's something in the water or, quite possibly, something in the air -- something besides nitrogen and oxygen and the lesser smatterings of argon and carbon dioxide.

Maybe it's an overabundance of nitrous oxide -- good old N2O. That might explain a few recent aberrations -- like, for instance, catching sight of Vice President Cheney coming off the ninth green at the Roosevelt Golf Course over on the eastern edge of Duchesne County earlier the same day as the crawdad riots up at Strawberry.

A hallucination? Quite possibly! Media consensus certainly had it that our friend Dick had made a surprise visit to the Middle East that very day to shore up his piece of the soon-to-be-privatized petroleum pie and, unless there's more oil out Roosevelt way than was originally thought, it probably wasn't really him. Can your "laughing gas" do that?

Now, admittedly, N2O would normally only occur in densities of one-half parts-per-million in the air that we breathe -- not nearly enough to account for Dick Cheney sightings or crustacean rampages.

And, unless you get into spontaneous combustion, it's probably a stretch to blame the Cutty Sark conflagration on the periodic table and the imbalance thereof. But when you're snorting the kind of chemicals that are just out there in the air for the taking, it's "hard telling not knowing." The whole planet does seem a bit goofy.

Actually, the ol' clipper ship, although heavily damaged, appears to have come through the fire somewhat intact. Not to say that all the Queen's men won't be pulling a bit of overtime to continue the refurbishing that was already underway. Only now there's a charred hull to add to the job. But, nothing money can't fix, as they say.

As we speak, the forensic folk are busy, forgive the expression, burning the candle at both ends in an attempt to come up with how the fire got started in the first place. Hopefully, the old "booze bilge" is still intact. Legend holds that they never left home without topping it off.

Constructed during the British Empire's 19th-century tea trade with China, the Cutty Sark, designed to be the fastest ship of its day, flaunted both elegance and horsepower and, as the sole survivor of its class, became one of London's most proud relics -- not unlike, say, the Rolling Stones.

There was a time when the image of the ol' square-rigger was rather prevalent in the local environment. In fact, following a ski-in, stumble-out birthday celebration along the lower reaches of Treasure Mountain Resort back in the day, the countertops were littered with ever-so-artful reproductions of the legendary vessel in black-on-yellow renderings that had been affixed to green glass. Many were the times when art was in the eye of the imbiber.

The "schooner" America was quite a different species, however, when it arrived to challenge "the Brits" to a bit of racing in 1851. Radical is what it was. Sporting two masts with fore-and-aft sails on each, the craft was sleekness itself as it swiftly outdistanced the fleet and took home to the New World the Royal Yacht Squadron's 100 Guinea cup.

The ethic of what has become known as America's Cup racing was stated beautifully that August day off the Isle of Wight when Queen Victoria asked who was in second place. "Your Majesty, there is no second," came the reply. There are times when four words can say it all.

Well, these many years later, they are back at it this time jibing and tacking and shucking and jiving upon the Spanish Riviera off Valencia -- who happened to be awarded the venue by Switzerland, the landlocked bunch currently defending the Cup. You can't make this stuff up.

Water is no longer an issue. You can now sail upon letters of credit strung end-to-end. As long as you keep winning your head-to-head matches, that is. Currently, it's all about the "Louis Vuitton Cup" a preliminary bracket wherein the winner gets to challenge the defender.

The sole American boat, sailing with the challengers, was named, only somewhat ironically, "BMW Oracle Racing." A proud craft it was, until it came up short in the semi-finals against the Italian "Luna Rosa Challenge." Thrashed is what it got! Roundly beaten about the "fore deck" and "after guard."

Well, so it goes. I can live with it. Never being one to join the chanting of "USA! USA!" anyway, except, I suppose, with rugby and sailing and Ryder Cup golf, overcoming disappointments in the sporting life has become almost de rigueur.

After all, tomorrow is another day. Oh, say it ain't so! When one is reduced to quoting Scarlett O'Hara, the cognitive mainsail has, indeed, shredded. Another round of nitrous oxide, anyone?

Which leaves us with the whale wranglers out on the Sacramento River and their ploy of using sheer cacophony to drive the wandering humpbacks back into San Francisco Bay and out through the Golden Gate.

Not to interfere, but there was a time not all that long ago when speakers playing Ladysmith Black Mambazo were lowered through holes punched in the Arctic icecap in order to direct trapped California Gray Whales toward breathing space. It worked! Not to say there wasn't a smidgen of N2O involved.