Home . Articles . Columns & Blogs . On the Wind . Sailing is the antidote for our cosseted world

Sailing is the antidote for our cosseted world

2008 December 8
T hree seemingly unrelated occurrences conspired recently to make me ponder the purest essence of sailing.

Item No. 1: We were driving down the street on the way to breakfast when, in an empty parking lot, we saw men putting a rock-climbing wall in place. You've seen them in malls or at adventure parks, but this was a mobile version, transported flat and then tilted into position. We stopped briefly to watch the spectacle, once reserved for the gods, of a cliff being created.

Item No. 2: I was helping a friend move his new 45-foot powerboat down the coast from the boatyard to a marina. It would have been easy to singlehand, but he said he liked having company, which meant he wanted some security. It was a warm, humid morning as we cleared the sea buoy and we decided to repair from the muggy bridge to the lower helm which, by sheerest coincidence, happened to be inside an air-conditioned cabin. Our excuse was that we were going to grab a couple of cold soft drinks from the fridge but, once in that cool cave, it didn't take much to keep us there.

Item No. 3: It is boat show season. The all-sailboat show is growing rare so, in my pilgrimages to see what boats I plan to covet and lust after for the next year, I've made a few detours aboard powerboats. These have been mostly trawlers, which appeal to me more than Euro-swoopy wave-crushers.

Yes, they all had wonderfully air-conditioned cabins and generators that powered blenders to make frothy drinks and king-sized berths that were actually squarish and humongous flat-screen televisions that weren't. They had electric anchor windlasses controlled by buttons at the helm, microwave ovens that could even make popcorn at sea and large windows to watch the world pass by.

What they didn't have were any two-speed winches or even any winch handles in pockets around the cockpit. They didn't have halyards or sheets or shrouds or cunninghams or uphauls or downhauls or, well, you get the picture.

There is something honest about a simple trawler yacht and, heaven knows, a lot of sailors have crossed over to The Dark Side when they found that they just, ooof! couldn't, aaaah! crank, unhhh! another, owww! winch.

I understand. I am considerably more creaky 40 years after I flung myself into the hiking straps of a Laser or Flying Dutchman without picturing what was happening to those disposable chunks I've learned are called the meniscus disks in my knees. I now prefer my beer cold, my sandwiches dry and my feet warm, rather than another way. I wear glasses because I kept poking myself in the eye looking at the AARP fine print.

I am no longer svelte, either. In fact, it's illegal to use svelte and Caswell in the same sentence. After gobbling Prednisone to cure some aches, I'm hungry all the time. Every morning, my wife checks to see if we still have a cat or if I had the munchies at two in the morning.

I'd gone to the boat show undecided as to whether I was going to get new sails this year or a new boat which, of course, might not actually need sails.

But it was Items No. 1 and No. 2 that convinced me that I'm not yet trawler-meat. A rock wall, you ask? A simple delivery trip?
Take the rock wall. Every school kid learns of Sir Edmund Hillary and his courageous and daring climb of Everest, and there are a lot of people that see a vertical surface as a challenge.

But the rock wall that they tilted up in the parking lot was a travesty, because it was completely surrounded by fat airbags that would pillow anyone who slipped off the wall. And, besides, they were fully harnessed to ropes from the top of the faux mountain so they'd only fall a few inches and could then continue upwards.

Where's the challenge in that? Why bother with faux rocks? Just tilt a ladder against a house and charge people five bucks to climb it. Except, they wouldn't pay for the ladder but they'll pay for pretending to be Hillary on a plaster wall with hand grips.
Same thing with the powerboat delivery. This was not, shall we say, man against the elements. In bare feet (the carpet cost more than my last boat) and shirt sleeves, there were no sunburnt noses, no wind in our faces, no salty taste on our lips. Had we been computer geeks, we could have linked GPS, throttles and an electric garage door clicker to let the boat deliver itself. We'd just drive down and meet it as it came into the dock.

Now what the hell kind of life is that?

I was telling my wife, She Who Must Be Obeyed, about my thoughts after the delivery and the boat show. She pondered for a moment and came up with The Word.

"Primal," she said. "That's what sailing is to you. It's a primal instinct." And she is so right.

From time immemorial, sailors have stood on the edge of the sea, felt the wind on their faces, and decided their fates. Whether they were wearing the skin of a saber-toothed tiger or epaulettes and a tri-crowned hat or $400 Gill foulies, they were and are one and the same.

Sailing is and always will be a challenge. It is not about twisting an ignition switch and getting from Point A to Point B. It is about feeling the wind and setting the sails and cool spray in the face and, yes, sometimes it's about warm beer and soggy sandwiches. All the better: Hillary didn't have five-star cuisine, either.

Sailing fulfills something primal in men and women and even kids. It is about individual responsibility, about charting your own course, and about doing something because it isn't easy or fake.

We live in a cosseted world. Like the rock wall, we are protected by labels that warn us not to drink the shampoo, don't forget the seat belts and this coffee is hot enough to scald you. Sailing is the antidote for all this madness.
Sorry, trawler salesmen. Not this year.

In fact, it's blowing about 25 today. I think I'm going sailing.