The Soul of Sailing

Even though composed of dead materials such as wood, steel or plastic, ropes, canvas, shackles and blocks, a sailing boat appears to me the nearest thing humans have come to construct an organic, living thing. A creature that lives on the boundary between water and sky, shaped like a fish below and like a bird above.

The way it moves through the water is a subtle, integrated, response to the forces of the wind and the water. The human person steering is not ‘driving’ her but only tuning some lines and the position of the rudder to find an optimal balance between those forces, often stronger than him/her.

This is most obvious when ‘close hauled’ – at the smallest angle to the direction of the wind. It is impossible to predetermine the position of the rudder and the sails to get ‘in the groove’, as sailors call it, because it varies with all the mentioned factors, the strength of the wind, the trim of the sails, and the waves. Only through actual practice we can develop the feeling for how to achieve it. A bit too high towards the wind and the boat slows down, a tad too low and the ‘velocity made good’ – its speed in the direction of the wind – becomes sub-optimal. One has to continuously ‘nudge’ the ship, as if asking her: “does this perhaps feel a bit better?”. But finally it becomes instinctive, creating a direct connection between the ship and one’s muscles, nerves and spine, while conscious thought can roam elsewhere.

Once we find the ‘groove’ for a given set of conditions, and the wind is stable, a good ship can often steer herself. Then we can sit back, relax and admire her own movements. I never learnt to drive a horse but could this not be comparable? If so, then a sailing ship is like a living thing. Sort of a Turing test for ships.

“Tri-Sisters” a Corsair 750 Sprint

Best is to learn sailing on small boats which give the most direct and sensitive feedback – ‘intimate’ so to speak. When describing the above I was thinking of an experience on my 24 ft Corsair trimaran in Vietnam. Once I sailed it for 30 miles alone from Whale Island in Ninh Van bay back to Nha Trang. You don’t want to steer all the time, you need to free your hands to do something else, like getting something to drink or eat. We were close on the wind and with an elastic cord wound on the tiller I experimented until I found the right tension. After that I could sit anywhere and enjoy the ride for more than 30 minutes without touching anything.

Even more remarkable was that at one point the wind stopped abruptly, the sails flapped and the boat was going nowhere. Then, after about two minutes or so, the wind came back – under the same angle from the course we had to go – but over the other bow! I only needed to release the jib and let the wind blow it to the other side and off she went again, towards the same goal. She had tacked to accommodate a wind change of 90 degrees and the rudder just needed a tiny correction.

When the wind increased and the waves became bigger we were suddenly surrounded by a swarm of flying fish, their wings glittering with dazzling iridescent colours in the sun. Perhaps they greeted a living soul similar to them: half swimming – half flying.

Each ship is different of course and it will take considerable time to learn how the Spirit behaves under all conditions. She, of course, does have an autopilot, and the steering is hydraulic which gives much less feedback about the pressure on the rudder. Yet, especially for an autopilot it is important to get the sails in the right balance, otherwise it has to work too hard, using a lot of electric energy and the course will be more ‘jerky’. I cannot wait to start with that learning curve.

The attraction of sailing is also to be close to nature’s reality, the feeling of the wind, the wetness of the sea, feeling hot or cold. It is a way to feel being a part of the Universe that I never experienced when in a house or walking in a city (except perhaps by listening to music with closed eyes). And it works strongest when sailing solo.

Robert M. Pirsig, in his book “Lila – An Inquiry Into Morals” describes it this way:

“An alternative — and better — definition of reality can be found by naming some of its components: air, sunlight, wind, water, the motion of waves, the patterns of clouds before a coming storm. These elements, unlike 20th-century office routines, have been here since before life appeared on this planet, and they will continue long after office routines are gone. They are understood by everyone, not just a small segment of a highly advanced society. When considered on purely logical grounds, they are more real than the extremely transitory lifestyles of the modern civilization the depressed ones want to return to. If this is so, then it follows that those who see sailing as an escape from reality have their understanding of sailing and reality backward. Sailing is not an escape, but a return to and a confrontation of a reality from which modern civilization is itself an escape.

Of course, the reality can also be harsh and utterly uncomfortable, especially during storms at sea which all sailors deeply fear. This quote from Joseph Conrad:

“For all that has been said of the love that certain natures (on shore) have professed for it, for all the celebrations it has been the object of in prose and song, the sea has never been friendly to man. At most it has been the accomplice of human restlessness.”

echoed how my father (albeit less eloquently) reacted when I dared to show too much love for the sea. Like: “We don’t go to sea for our pleasure! The sea is unpredictable and can be cruel without mercy. The only good thing of my job is that I can retire early (he could, at 60). Then I will bind an anchor on my back and walk inland until people ask me “Sir, what is that thing you are carrying on your back?” That is where I will stay.” Yet, obviously both were still enchanted by their work.

Impressive evidence that sailors have since long felt this ambiguity can be found in Richard Henry Dana’s “Two Years Before The Mast – A Personal Narrative of Life at Sea”. This life was experienced around 1836, a time when very few sailing ships were made for pleasure and implied extremely hard work as well as suffering for the crew. Yet we find this description:

“One night, while we were in these tropics, I went out to the end of the flying-jib-boom, upon some duty, and, having finished it, turned round, and lay over the boom for a long time, admiring the beauty of the sight before me. Being so far out from the deck, I could look at the ship, as at a separate vessel;–and there rose up from the water, supported only by the small black hull, a pyramid of canvas, spreading out far beyond the hull, and towering up almost, as it seemed in the indistinct night air, to the clouds. The sea was as still as an inland lake; the light trade-wind was gently and steadily breathing from astern; the dark blue sky was studded with the tropical stars; there was no sound but the rippling of the water under the stem; and the sails were spread out, wide and high;–the two lower studding-sails stretching, on each side, far beyond the deck; the topmast studding-sails, like wings to the topsails; the top-gallant studding-sails spreading fearlessly out above them; still higher, the two royal studding-sails, looking like two kites flying from the same string; and, highest of all, the little skysail, the apex of the pyramid, seeming actually to touch the stars, and to be out of reach of human hand. So quiet, too, was the sea, and so steady the breeze, that if these sails had been sculptured marble, they could not have been more motionless. Not a ripple upon the surface of the canvas; not even a quivering of the extreme edges of the sail–so perfectly were they distended by the breeze. I was so lost in the sight, that I forgot the presence of the man who came out with me, until he said, (for he, too, rough old man-of-war’s-man as he was, had been gazing at the show,) half to himself, still looking at the marble sails–“How quietly they do their work!”

This is written in a book that was expressly not meant to glorify sailing but, oppositely, as a ‘report’ to protest against the terribly harsh working conditions that the common crews had to endure on such sailing ships. Dana, later becoming a lawyer, wrote in the Preface of his book: “My design is, and it is this which has induced me to publish the book, to present the life of a common sailor at sea as it really is,–the light and the dark together.”  He wanted to become the voice of the common sailors “Before the Mast”, also describing injustice and sufferings, instead of that life seen through the eyes of the higher ranked officers – as in most of the books about life at sea.

‘Before the mast’ is the ‘forecastle’ of the ship  where the lowest ranked crew were accommodated. It is usually pronounced, and often spelled by sea writers, as “foc’sl”. Maybe because ‘castle’ does not evoke the right association for this often squalid, very small and low-ceilinged, place where all their hammocks and scant belongings were hanging next to each other.

Yet, even though there is one blood-curdling description of the flogging of two men for almost nothing by a bad-humoured captain and several gripping accounts of how they had to work on the yards, swaying high above the deck and sea for hours to take away frozen sails with bare hands during severe gales when rounding Cape Horn on the way home, and one man sadly lost in that way, his writing mostly shows his fascination for how such ships were sailed, technically described in every detail. And even contains an honest measure of admiration for certain officers – when they deserved it.

Dana’s ‘protest’ has thus become classic sailing literature and has undoubtedly attracted, more than repulsed, young people to the world of big sailing ships.

I can not avoid to include John Masefield’s famous poem ‘Sea Fever’. This is less about the ship than about the environment in which it lives – the sea and the weather. Near the end it also touches on the sailors’ way of life at sea.

Sea Fever  (John Masefield)

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,                                 And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;                                                       And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,                     And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide                                Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;                                                  And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,                                              And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,                                         To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;      And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,                                      And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.

This beautifully portrays the experience of the sea at the higher latitudes – where I was born and raised. In the tropics the wind is not like a ‘whetted knife’, nor do you hear ‘sea-gulls crying’. But tropical seas have their own charms and for that I will refer (in other posts) mostly to Joseph Conrad’s writings. He also offers us much about that ‘vagrant gypsy life’; the communality of sailors in spite of their nomadic living. At least as it was in his time.

Surely it will be true, as someone said, that “If you want to learn to pray, go to sea”. But there is also truth in this:

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”

Hunter S. Thompson (The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967)

2 thoughts on “The Soul of Sailing”

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