WSJ Contest — Friday, June 18, 2021

Grid: 25 minutes; meta: slept on it  


Matt Gaffney’s Wall Street Journal contest crossword, “A Sail of Two Cities” — Conrad’s review

This week we’re told, The answer to this week’s contest crossword is a five-letter word. There are five long themers, each containing an odd compound word:

  • [16a: Headgear only worn while serving in tennis? (302 miles)]: BASELINEBONNET
  • [22a: The new hive being way less cool than expected, e.g.? (6,329 miles)]: APIANANTICLIMAX
  • [37a: Alloys used only for anchors and ships? (14 miles)]: NAUTICALCHROMES
  • [46a: Suggestive behavior in a Canadian city? (81 miles)]: CALGARYRACINESS
  • [55a: Decorative molding that’s sort of pumpkin-colored? (694 miles)]: ORANGEYCORNICES

Step 1: each word contains city, but there is ambiguity, for example is it CALGARY or GARY? Racine (Wisconsin) helped me nail it down: Google Maps shows that it’s 81 miles from Gary, Indiana (across Lake Michigan). Protip: during my various map-related searches I discovered that you can right click-on Google maps, and choose “Measure Distance.” I was stuck on ROME (Italy) for a while, and then realized ROME (New York) is close to UTICA. I thumped along for awhile, and worked out four of the five city pairs, but BASELINEBONNET proved challenging. BASEL (Switzerland) and BONN (Germany) were the obvious pair, but they are 22o miles apart (as the crow flies), not 302.

So I punted and set the meta aside. I tried applying the title word “sail” the next morning. In hindsight: I made step one overly challenging by initially missing that fact that each of the four city pairs were connected by the same body of water (so you could “sail” between them). BASEL and BONN are connected by the Rhine, which does not flow in a straight line. My Googling didn’t reveal a site that measures the sailing distance between the two (I’m sure there’s one out there), but driving distance is about 300 miles. That reveals the five cities (and most of the corresponding bodies of water):

  • BASEL Switzerland/BONN Germany: Rhine River
  • APIA Samoa/LIMA Peru: Pacific Ocean
  • UTICA New York/ROME New York: Erie Canal or Mohawk River
  • GARY Indiana/RACINE Wisconsin: Lake Michigan
  • ORAN Algeria/NICE Italy: Mediterranean Sea

Now what? I tried to make 3-letter words from the O in ORAN and the N in NICE (mapping to 61a, “OWN”), but that approach fizzled out quickly. Also: UTICA and ROME seem to be connected by two bodies of water: a river and a canal. I figured the Erie Canal was more likely (since we already had the Rhine River). I put the meta down for an hour and went for a walk. Upon return: what if I made three letter entries from the bodies of water (and not the cities)? My “aha” moment came when that approached worked:

  • 56d: R(W)R – Rhine River
  • 53A: P(A)O – Pacific Ocean
  • 57d: E(T)C – Erie Canal
  • 66a: L(E)M – Lake Michigan
  • 64a: M(R)S – Mediterranean Sea

The middle letters spell WATER, our meta solution. Turns out I had the right idea (map to three-letter entries), but tried to apply it at the wrong step. The Erie Canal/Mohawk River ambiguity was resolved by the E.C entry (with none matching M.R).

Whew! That was a workout. This meta was a grinder, but I thought it was very fair. Each step flowed logically to the next, and the answer tied everything together (in fact, it does that so well that I predict a bunch of successful Hail Mary guesses). There was zero ambiguity once I completed all of the steps. Metas come in all shapes and sizes, and this one paid off for folks who were willing to roll up their sleeves and get to work. Al Green will now take us to the river, with a little help from some friends.




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23 Responses to WSJ Contest — Friday, June 18, 2021

  1. jefe says:

    Aw crap, I’m an idiot. It’s the same (or similar) mechanism as last week’s MGWCC where each themer yields two letters and the extract is the middle letter of the corresponding 3-letter grid entry, about which I’d remarked that it had been overused around a year ago but took me forever to come up with that time.

  2. carolynchey says:

    I got as far as figuring out that the bodies of water were the correct distance from the cities, but their names didn’t get me anywhere because I didn’t get to the three letter entry step. I also had an error because, interestingly, you can make a route from Ange, France to Nice via the Loire River. I also went with the Mohawk River between Utica and Rome, so the resulting bodies of water didn’t look like anything. But I’m proud of myself for getting as far as I did!

  3. sharkicicles says:

    As a Chicagoan GARY and RACINE stuck out right away. I figured maybe the bodes of water would have been it. I finally got it but I had the Mohawk River rather than the Erie Canal, so I had to backsolve that letter.

  4. ant says:

    ENIAC is one changed letter from OCEAN, LEAH is one letter from LAKE, and STE is one letter from SEA. I couldn’t find the corresponding words for RIVER or CANAL, but with _-I-_-H-T, I was sure I was onto something. Thought the G words in the grid would give me that third changed word for canal, but no.

    • Icdogg says:


    • Sheik Yerbouti says:

      Yeah, I started down that path too. But CONAN is also one letter changed from OCEAN, and there are multiple answers that are one off from SEA. So that told me pretty quickly that it wasn’t the right mechanism.

  5. Derryl says:

    I’m always one step short in solving the metas. BUT I think they are helping me think “out of the box” a little better. And I’m slowly catching on to some of the basics. I look forward to every Friday, but for the last few weeks I’ve been like Charlie Brown, “Rats!”

  6. John F. Ervin says:

    I don’t understand the three letter business, but when I connected the cities and the title word “sail”, WATER came to me and I went with it and looked no further- five letters.

  7. Harry says:

    If you look for the kind of boats you could take from one place to the other, you get ROCKS (riverboat-ocean liner-canal boat – ketch – sea farer. Admittedly the last two are a bit sketchy, but this seemed good enough to stop me from looking elsewhere. And they’re in order of the clues.

  8. David Bromsey says:

    Impossible! I don’t understand the 3 letter words. RWR is not a word!

    • BarbaraK says:

      They are all grid entries, not necessarily words.

      RWR is 56down – “President before GHWB”

  9. David Roll says:

    Xhosa was a bridge too far–glad I didn’t waste any more time on this. I’m not sure I even know his second language.

    • Austin says:

      a bridge too far for what? XHOSA as an entry is not unheard of in crosswords, it’s a language spoken by over 20 million people and has a very famous person associated with it

      also i’m not sure what his second language has to do with anything but he pretty famously also spoke english

      • David Roll says:

        If you say so–it may not be unheard of in crosswords, but 20 million people isn’t very many in a world of over 7 billion. I am sure there are a lot of dialects that I am unfamiliar with, and I imagine even you haven’t heard of either.

        • Austin says:

          in which case i’d learn a new language/dialect, which i don’t have an issue with.

          still not sure why this entry (that wasn’t even meta-related!) was enough for you to not “waste any more time on” the puzzle

  10. alan askins says:

    Good learning experience. I got the first step and I noticed the high number of 3 letter abbreviation fills. Rather thhan put 2 and 2 together, I went down a couple of widiculous wabbit trails, then surrendered to the Father’s Day lure of beer and cigars.

    Its a learning experience and I look forward to solving my first Gaffney meta in the near future.

  11. Neal says:

    Solving this very challenging puzzle made my Father’s Day complete. In addition to multiple (so many) websites, I had to use the giant world map I put up just a few weeks ago, totally justifying its purchase.

  12. Garrett says:

    I got all the cities and the water transit paths, but couldn’t think of the next step. I set it aside and worked the MGWCC, which I got really into. I was car hunting Sunday and the day just got away from me, so I never got the next step. I like it, though!

  13. JohnH says:

    I feel like I should have done better with this, as geography is a mainstay for at least older crosswords. Indeed, it’s become a byword for what Maleska abused and Shortz is supposed to have rescued us from. But I failed.

    I got right off that the first long across had two (German) cities, but then that idea of two seemed to let me down. I should have known APIA from crosswords, even if I’ve never seen it elsewhere, but I missed it and a couple of others as well. (Gee, I should have known ORAN from Albert Camus and his life.) I kinda sorta think I’ve seen RACINE before.

    Had I got even that far, would I have made it to the very thought, much less knowledge, or connecting bodies of water. (So ROME is also in New York, and I’m a New Yorker? I guess.) Would I have made it from those to two-letter initialisms and from those to three-letter grid fill? You got me. But congrats to those who made all those steps.

  14. Lulu Mohr says:

    This is the reason I never even bother attempting the contest. I just do the puzzle on Friday and let it go! Once a while I see a really obvious one.

  15. Thomas Brendel says:

    MGWCC 504 (from 2018) used a similar mechanism with a different way to get the paired cities.

  16. just stopping by says:

    Welp. Good try, everyone. Count me among those who discovered the pairs of cities, realized they were all connected by bodies of water, but then found no reasonable pointers to the next step. It never occurred to me to start looking for three letter words. I kept trying to make something with the remaining letters in the long entries or find something in the crossings, but nothing made sense.

    In retrospect, I suppose I should have realized that “RWR” was a pretty fishy entry, but I didn’t.

  17. GR says:

    I found “OSLO” (straddling the black square, the S is in 35 across/down)

    So thought “fjord” fit as a sixth class of body of water (given that each of the five bodies represented a different type – Sea, Ocean, Canal, Lake, River)

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