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The Zen of sailing is the perfect escape from holiday fuss

2008 January 1
Because of the realities of publishing, I write these words as the holiday season is in full swing which, of course, means that it is time for me to start practicing for the Zen Master Sailing World Championships. There is a story that goes with this event and, of course, I'm going to share it with you.

This all started several years ago when The Relatives descended upon my wife and I in California for the holidays. It was a natural thing: the pleasantly warm winter weather was an escape for kin living in chilly climes, Disneyland was nearby and, of course, we had three bedrooms. A done deal.

Since that time, we have moved to Florida, where we have even warmer weather, Disney World, and four bedrooms. This year, the Relative Season started with the arrival of my wife's sister, who lives in Italy and is making her annual guilt trip to visit their mother. Then came the mother, followed in short order by the brother-in-law from Italy, plus his son and daughter-in-law, as well as a small child that seems to be under no one's control. There are a few others, but I'm not sure of the relationships.
The Italian side of the family and I share about the same number of words in each other's language. Mine are "ciao", "buon giorno," and "sambuca, per favore." Our communications involve lots of sign language, but the conversation drags when my hands get tired. I refer to our holiday relatives as the Lovembutts: I love them, but….

I am not an unsociable person by nature, but I grew up as a spoiled only child with no relatives aside from my parents, and so I am completely unprepared for the annual invasion. Having a house full of inlaws and relatives and God-knows-whats starts to wear thin for me after they launch into a discussion of Aunt Mary's sciatica for the eighteenth time.
My wife, She Who Must Be Obeyed, sensed my angst a few years ago and made an excuse for me to slip out of the house for the afternoon. "Go sailing," she said, adding pointedly, "and meditate."

It was one of those crystalline California winter days, when the sun is bright but not too hot, the sky is clear, and all seems right with the world.

I raised just the mainsail and, as I was sailing along, I did as I was told and slipped into a meditative state of mind that was receptive to my surrounds. I heard, as if for the first time, the burble of the wake. I could see with clarity the flow of wind across the Dacron. I felt really felt the coarse stiffness of the braided lines.

I had discovered sailing Zen: it is the sound of one sail flapping.

When I returned home later that afternoon, the relatives asked if I'd had a good time. Not really, I said and added, in what I now know to be a flash of sheer brilliance, "You know, I was practicing for the Zen Master Sailing World Championships."
And thus a tradition began.

It would, of course, be unthinkably rude, especially during the holiday season, for me to depart for an entire afternoon to go, say, to the library. But this was different. I have a goal that everyone can clearly understand. I credit the Olympics for really showing people how dedicated the true athlete must be to give up home and hearth for years, all in the quest for victory.
In my case, my relatives all understand that I am driven to win the Zen Master Worlds and, to that end, I must selflessly give up hours of pleasure with them in favor of endless hours of practice. They know that swimming medalist Michael Phelps and golfer Tiger Woods probably face this same lonely quest just as bravely as I.

So every afternoon during the training (holiday) period, I resolutely gather up my sailing gear and disappear to the boat. But here's the interesting thing: there really is a Zen side to sailing.

All it takes is to observe, really observe, the boat around you. In the chrome of a winch, there is a wonderful reflection of the sail overhead. If you are open, your fingertips can sense the grain of the mahogany tiller through layers of varnish.
Focus your mind, and you can feel the puff of wind on the water to windward before it hits. You ARE the puff of wind. BE the puff of wind.

Forgive me because I get a little confused by Zen and Buddhism, perhaps because I've seen too many Steven Seagal and David Carradine movies, but I know that disciples of one or the other make a sort of "Ommmmmm" sound to calm themselves. I've discovered that my Harken roller blocks make exactly that same sound as I feed out the mainsheet onto a reach. At least, they do as long as I keep them clean and oiled.

Yes, sailing alone allows me to achieve a oneness that I could never reach when surrounded by babbling relatives.
My Zen training sessions started before Thanksgiving this year, but I understand that our hordes may be departing for the Seven Wonders of Orlando before New Year's Eve, so I may wrap up training early this year.

I haven't yet won the Sailing Zen Master Worlds but I know that if I strive for perfection on a daily basis, I will someday reach my goal. Feel free to join me at the Zen Master Sailing Worlds.

Or, find your own excuse to go sailing.