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The simple joy of sailing is an oasis in the economic storm

2009 August 1
I was recently asked by a professional trade magazine for the boatbuilding industry to write a story about how boatyards and boatbuilders were responding to what we might laughingly call "a down economy," which is akin to saying that Niagara is a waterfall.

In one way, it was a daunting project to call up men who had been building and repairing boats for decades to ask what they were doing to survive, as they laid off longtime workers and watched their savings dwindle. But in another way, it was a remarkably uplifting tale of American toughness and ingenuity in the worst of times.

One builder, when asked what he was doing, was candid: "Well, we've stopped crying." And that was the case with many others: they were rolling up their sleeves and buckling down to make the best of a bad situation. And out of all my interviews came one common theme.

"We're going back to our roots."

Whether it was a boatbuilder who was returning to the commercial boats they built before moving into yachts or a boatyard that was focusing on their bread-and-butter of painting bottoms and fixing bilge pumps, it was clear that I had mined a common theme. Go back to better times. Rethink priorities that have become muddied in the swirl and bustle of the modern world. Simplify.

With all of these words still fresh in my mind, I looked at my morning batch of forwarded e-mails from my wife's aunt, who has discovered the Internet with a vengeance. Every day, my e-mail inbox is filled with a dozen or more missives that she has forwarded. About half of them are religious tracts of some sort and a few are warnings about dire happenings so unlikely they are laughable. Can a cell phone in a car really blow up a gas station? Not likely.

But mixed in with this lovingly misdirected onslaught are a few gems. Some are laugh-'til-your-stomach-aches and some are touching enough to bring tears. Over the past few months, I've noticed a trend in these, and in e-mail forwardings from others who think I have nothing else to do except browse their messages or join their chain e-mail letters. It is one that the boatyards and builders already know.

Go back to better times.

A recent e-mail is a good example, when it spoke of the simple pleasures of playing dodgeball or kickball until dusk, when a parent would step onto a porch and call you in for dinner (and not on a cell phone or pager!). It talked about lying on your back and picking out the shapes of dragons and bears and castles in the clouds, about hearing the sound of crickets through open windows in the evening. About hopscotch and jump ropes and "You're It!" About digging for the prize in a box of cereal or Cracker Jack. Of the smell of chalk erasers and Kool-Aid, long before anyone thought immediately of Jim Jones. Of the Cisco Kid and Boston Blackie in the Saturday morning movie serials.

In the background, She Who Must Be Obeyed is muttering at me, "Get to the point." And the point is this: sailing is that better time.

How can you possibly spend an afternoon on the water with a blue sky overhead and white sails filled with enough breeze to put the rail down and not feel immense satisfaction? It doesn't matter if you have 30 square feet or 3,000 square feet of sail-it is a sheer delight.

Long before anyone knew the words Playstation or Nintendo, Atari or Sega, there was sailing. Before cell phones and CDs, voicemail and e-mail, we found a simpler pleasure in sun and wind and water. Before kids were so bored with their hundred-dollar toys and coddled lives that they actually looked forward to spending time with their parents, trimming the sails and steering the boat.

I realized that there is a growing movement across the country that is like a defiant finger in the eye of economic woes. It is as though we are saying that we can overcome this by concentrating on the basics.

Like those boatbuilders and yard owners that I interviewed for the story, it's time to get back to our roots. Barraged with discouraging headlines in the news, we need to retake control of our lives and focus on the things that give us real satisfaction.

Think about the last time you went to bed genuinely tired, but completely satisfied. It certainly wasn't after a day at work. It probably wasn't after you mowed the lawn or did the household chores or paid the bills.

I bet it was the last time you went sailing. You might even have tucked into a bunk on board your boat but, even at home, you had that lovely weariness combined with the sheer pleasure of sailing. Your skin might tingle from a touch of sun, your muscles might have been challenged by trimming the sails, but you dropped quickly into sleep.

For most of us, this economic climate has brought a sense of helplessness, of feeling that we don't have any control over our lives. But there is an antidote: Go sailing.

Sailing returns your sense of control, because it is entirely up to you to decide on your course and then set the sails. You may not be able to decipher the financial pages of your newspaper, but you can look at a chart and choose where to go.

Even better, there is an immediate gratification. Push the tiller or spin the wheel, and the boat responds. Ease the sheets a bit and feel the boat immediately accelerate. Your life ashore is left far behind you. On the water, you are the master of your own destiny.

If one good thing must come from this morass of mortgages and banks and economic woe, it should be this: It is time to rediscover the simple pleasures of sailing. Christopher Cross had it right in his song: "Canvas can do miracles."

Go sailing!