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Looking for environmental awareness? Go sailing

2013 February 1

What do they mean when they say 'lift' or 'knock'?" asked the newbie.

An eclectic team had assembled in October to sail the J/30 North American Championship in New Orleans, Louisiana, including some of Team Zephyr's regulars: past champs, a sailmaker, a couple of teenagers, and the girl with the question­- a Wednesday night walk-on who was giddy, like me, to have a chance to crew in a major regatta.

Her question caught me a bit off guard, but it was a good one. Experienced sailors often forget that newcomers haven't learned to see or feel the vital signals. It's not just a matter of understanding the sailing lingo; sometimes a person's senses haven't yet been trained to sense the things that need observing.

Between tacks I tried to explain the idea of oscillation by painting a compass rose in the air, using an index finger as the wind angle, and my opposite hand to show an imaginary boat's bow nudging up and down a few degrees.

We listened and watched the tactical team chatter. They were looking at the water and sometimes at the sails. She looked where they were looking and asked, "So how do they see these lifts and knocks?"

"Well they don't always see them," I said. "Often they feel them. Something changes, they notice it, maybe in the boat, in sounds, in the speed, or the heel, and they verbalize it."

She smiled and seemed to be trying to connect her mind and senses to this new way of thinking. Within a couple of minutes, it was clear that she was feeling the shifts too; she was quicker to anticipate a tack and seemed anxious when we fell out of phase and excited when we gained.

Sensing shifts is something that the best sailors seem to do instinctively, but that the rest of us can learn, given some basic training or maybe some help from tools. Purists would say that computers are useful to confirm changes with data and analysis, but will argue that technology for decision-making dulls our ability to feel and respond quickly. That may or may not be true. I tend to think that when a person is exposed to an abstract concept (like feeling a change in wind direction and taking navigational advantage of it) they've been empowered and can nurture the skill through practice. Some will be better than others and some will need sensors to help, in the same way that hearing aids might help a septuagenarian.

The key to spotting change is knowing what to look for. How the change is measured is less important than understanding that it is happening. The key to using it well is knowing what to do with it once it's felt.

This one-with-the-wind sensibility isn't just a characteristic of sailors. Farmers observe weather and adapt constantly. Modern agrarians are direct descendants of the first to sow select seeds on a weather-sensitive schedule in the Mesopotamian fertile crescent around 9000 BC. And since before written history, fisherfolk have observed and keyed in on climate, ecosystems and the subtle unseen signals that tell where the fish are.

The skipper who nudges the bow down on a knock walks in the well-worn tracks of the environmentally aware. It's one of the great joys and grand benefits of sailing, and it's bigger than just acting "sustainably" or "green." Instead of only observing nature, or worse, finding ourselves befuddled by it, sailing can connect us to it and then we can learn to track with it. Once we feel and respond to small changes, we might learn to sense other, bigger shifts. Some find it deeply spiritual.

If you've dabbled here, as my New Orleans friend and I did last month, consider that weather awareness gives sailors a unique opportunity to talk about the new breeze.

In October, three men on the 31-foot fiberglass sloop Belzebub II completed an improbable record-setting sailing voyage from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean via the McClure Strait in the Canadian Arctic. They sailed where ice was assumed to be permanent but the rapid recent melt has opened a new lane. Around-the-world racing may never be the same.
Also in October, Hurricane Sandy tore up the East Coast and altered the lives of millions, ending some, and causing many to rethink their relationship with the sea. One insurance report estimated almost $700 million in lost recreational watercraft.

Sailing clubs on Lake Pontchartrain had not fully recovered from Katrina when Isaac blew through in August and left a second destructive wake, sinking sailboats in the tattered remnants of slips that you can see today if you visit.

The Midwest no longer has real winters. Without snow and freezing, Great Lakes' water levels are plummeting, impacting shipping, the economy, and of course, recreational sailing. Experts think the decline might have started with poorly planned dredging, but add that decades of ample precipitation will be vital for recovery. Boat owners there are unsure if they'll be able to launch their deep-draft boats next spring.

But sailing needn't be a victim of climate change. Indeed, it might play a role in a manageable climate future.

We may debate the cause of climate change forever, but its effects are hard to miss. Some think that reversing climate change seems out of reach and adapting to it will be our best option. But how? A smart and quick response begins, in small part, by helping newcomers to learn to sense lifts and knocks. Build awareness where a person can feel and connect to the breeze, and you've created a powerful force of understanding and responsibility. Because those who are climate aware will anticipate the tack, become anxious when we fall out of phase and excited when we gain.