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The fabric of sailing life is woven with camaraderie

2008 January 17
There are any number of well-respected philosophical sayings about how the destination is not important: It's the journey itself that really matters. Hmmm.

As a sailor, I've always bought into those theories because, hey, let's admit it, there are a lot of faster, drier, cheaper and less muscle-intensive ways of getting from Point A to Point B. I've subscribed to the theory that we plod along at 7 knots, ducking spray and cranking winches not because we really care about getting to Nantucket or Catalina or Mackinac, but because we love the wind in our face and the motion of the boat.

I was thinking recently (I do this regularly because, as Socrates said, the life unexamined is not worth living) and I decided that this whole concept is wrong.

The reality, at least for me and a lot of sailors I know, is this: first, the destination isn't as important as the journey; second, and even more important, the journey isn't as important as the preparation. A regatta, a cruise, a voyage somewhere, any journey or adventure is simply the end result. For many of us, our lifestyle is more about the preparation.

Let me take you back to when I was a teenager (yeah, yeah, way back in the mists of time when dinosaurs roamed…). I raced a popular fiberglass dinghy and I would become quite compulsive before a big regatta. I was like a major league pitcher who felt he could only win if he wore his left sock inside out.

First, I turned the boat over and carefully went over every inch of the hull to find any scratches or dings, fill them and buff them out. Then I would apply a gooey-thick coat of paste wax and I'd buff that until the hull gleamed.
I have to admit that there was a period in small boat racing where the waxed-hull-is-fastest theory gave way to the slightly-rough-so-water-adheres theory of slipperiness, and it was a grave concern to me because I really loved a shiny hull.

Nevertheless, I would go over every block and slide, disassemble the jamb cleats and clean them thoroughly, even touch up the varnish on the centerboard trunk as though it contributed a damn thing to speed. It was, in short, as much a mental ritual as it was one of making the boat perfect. It was, in its own way, more of an event than the event itself.

I never, ever, did this in my own garage where I would be out of the sun and everything would be easier. No, I did it in the boatyard at the yacht club, because it involved a social side as well. As other kids arrived and departed, they'd stop and watch me work, sometimes sharing a Coke and occasionally even lending a hand. It was, as I said, a social event.

I went through the same process when I decided to give the Olympics a shot with my Flying Dutchman. This was an even bigger project, because it had far more blocks and tracks and rollers and sliders to clean and lube.
Again, I did it at the yacht club. By this time, the Cokes had been replaced by beer and the friends now included babes in bikinis. See what I mean about the preparation being as important as the journey?

Fast forward more years. I keep my boat in a marina and I'm now as much a cruising sailor as a racer. But before I set off on any cruise of more than a day, I go through those same rituals. As much as I look forward to spending that week at Catalina or the month in Mexico, I probably invest three weeks or three months in the preparation mode.
If you're getting my drift, you'll understand that the preparation mode always involves a great deal of standing around the dock with friends, sitting on the dock box drinking beer and talking about boats, or simply lounging in the cockpit gazing into space.

This, of course, is all completely justifiable. While sitting in the cockpit with an icy brew in my hand, I might think of something I'd otherwise forget. Therefore, the time is well spent.

While BS-ing with the other guys on the dock, I might learn that the best anchorage on Espiritu Santo is in the farthest corner of the bay. Again, a very wise investment of my time.

Oh, sure, occasionally I get around to twanging the rigging or tightening a turnbuckle or actually squirting something with WD-40 before it freezes solid. It's all part and parcel of the preparation process.

There is a seamless fabric to the sailing life for me and for others. We start with a dream, whether it's that long cruise or winning the championship regatta. But it's so much more than that.

If all I want is to spend two weeks on a sunny beach in Mexico, I can do that with a call to my travel agent and the flick of an American Express card. If all I want is an often ugly bowl with my name on it, well, the local gift shop can have it done by Friday. So it's clearly not the destination.

I'll grant that the journey is a large part of the package for me, but it's not everything. Sure, we love the sweep of white sails overhead, the feel of the wind, the challenge of steering and trimming and actually being responsible for our own fate.

But it wouldn't be the same if someone handed me a perfectly prepared boat, whether it's ready to win the regatta or cruise for a thousand miles.

No, it's the enjoyment of the whole lifestyle of having a goal and sharing it with friends, of laughter and a few bloodied knuckles. It's about making lists and buying charts and agonizing over who makes the fastest spinnaker and, yes, even putting that unnecessary coat of varnish on the centerboard cap-just because.

I long for the destination, I savor the journey, but I wouldn't give up the preparation for anything.

It turns out that Ratty was right. He knew it all along. It isn't about getting someplace or even in the getting there, it is simply messing about in boats.