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On this we can agree: On a boat we’re all friends

2020 May 1

Sailing boasts unmatched power to make quick comrades from nemeses.

For example, when climate change provocateur Greta Thunberg chose to sail across the Atlantic Ocean instead of flying, sailing social networks exploded in a fiery, albeit brief, debate.

The lucky activist caught a ride on a speedy IMOCA 60 from the UK to New York where she would give a speech at the United Nations while making the point that one can get where they want to go without burning fossil fuel. Sailors who are climate change skeptics called it a stunt and complained that her carbon fiber boat wasn’t green at all. Sailors concerned about climate change applauded and felt that she was elevating the activity, giving sailing symbolic purpose again, like in ancient times when we invented navigation and commerce. Furious tweeting ensued.

But in just a few hours a refreshing consensus was reached: On one hand, sailing might save the planet, so we should go sailing, and on the other, the planet may not need saving, so we should go sailing. You’ll get no argument from me. At least about the sailing part.

Amicable reconciliation is a sailing skill and a key reason that sailing rises above the other things we do in our lives and deserves this unique position in our psyche. Sailors find ways to get along in tough times, despite differences in opinion, culture, upbringing, voting record or means. Sailboat crews that stick together become resilient groups, because they learn both interdependence and prioritization. The important work of safety, speed and wellness is tackled while opinions are set aside. In fact, the apolitical nature of sailing may be its greatest asset, rooted in an “all for one, one for all” psychology that is also found in remote villages, island cultures and military platoons and that springs organically on a sailboat. 

Our team includes a self-described communist, an Ayn Rand libertarian, and a Christian conservative who have
had each other’s backs for decades. Nobody unfriends
a crewmate.

In fact, it is not a stretch to say that ageism, racism, sexism (and all the other -isms) have no place on a boat and in fact, are revealed by sailing as contrived. It seems basic: Confined to tiny quarters and forced to share, folks find ways to get along and it feels good so they do more of it.

Camaraderie, by definition, is “mutual trust and friendship among people who spend a lot of time together.” (Note that this definition does not say that the people must look or think the same way, only that they be and remain together.) Importantly, camaraderie—an exalted form of human relationship—is something that we can make. We don’t have to wait for it or hope it finds us.

Take, for example, the Ulster Project, a program created in 1975 by an Episcopalian minister who partnered with a priest from the Church of Ireland. The clergymen saw that teens growing up stifled by religious conflict in war-torn Northern Ireland never had a chance at shared experience, so they built one for the kids from the ground up and it continues today. Boys and girls from different backgrounds travel together in summer to cities in the United States to participate in group activities including, of course, sailing. 

Last summer two dozen teens visited our club, split into teams, and six kids from Belfast, Derry and Portadown formed our crew, took turns driving, trimming and grinding in an ad hoc race to the buoy and back. The experience was as touching and uplifting for those of us who donated boats and PFDs as it was for the kids, who are forming lifelong friendships, despite generational cultural barriers back home.

It’s hard to find peace and happiness as a pawn among angry tweets and raging relatives, but peace is an absolute necessity on a sailboat. This is not to say that there won’t be disagreement—only that the work to resolve those disagreements is the way that sailors live well.