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Sailing is the ultimate and best method of social distancing

2020 June 1

It had never occurred to me, until this pandemic put everyone into self-imposed exile, that sailing is a magnificently and spectacularly solitary endeavor. I now realize that many of my best memories are of being alone on the water, white sail curved overhead, breeze in the hair I once had, the hint of spray in my face.  

And solitary doesn’t have to mean being alone on the boat, because sitting in the cockpit as the sun rises is a special time, and I often ask for the dawn watch, knowing the rest of the crew will be busy in the cabin, leaving me alone.

As barely a teenager, I was master and commander of my very own 8-foot pram, on which I sailed far and wide by myself, unless I was lucky enough to find a girl who also enjoyed sitting with her rear in a puddle.  I was Lord Nelson and Ernest Shackleton and Thor Heyerdahl, or simply a kid enjoying a sail around a large bay.

Several years ago, I went for a test sail aboard a Wally yacht in the 80-foot range for a story, but when I arrived at the dock, I was surprised to see that there weren’t six or eight crew getting the boat ready. There was just the captain. Even more startling was, once clear of the harbor and with the sails hoisted and unfurled at the touch of a button, he turned to me and said, “I had a long night and I’m beat. I’m going below for a nap. Wake me when you’re ready to go back.”

He showed me some buttons on the console and with that, he departed. It was wonderful, all alone, trimming the main and jib with buttons, easing sheets with a fingertip. 

I realize that I seemed to have gravitated toward singlehanded boats. I raced a Laser with some success for several years, and sailed a Finn I named Sinn Fein, for the Irish IRA slogan, “We stand alone.” And I would, on occasion, take my larger boats on solitary pleasant afternoons to clear my mind, erase business challenges and just to feel good.

As an only child, I’ve always been comfortable with solitude and my own thoughts. Even now, sharing space with She Who Must Be Obeyed, I don’t feel crowded, but I know friends who are going stir crazy in quarantine. I try to counsel them that isolation can be a good thing. It’s a time to reflect and to grow spiritually, mentally and physically.  

As I write this, many of our waterways and marinas are closed, but for those with access to their boat, take advantage of it (I envy you).  Even with your family aboard for an afternoon daysail, you are as much exiled as Napoleon was on Elba. There is no one else in your sphere. Your “social distancing” is complete and secure.  

When the dust settles after this speed bump, as it surely will, our world will be a different place. SWMBO and I laugh about re-inventing ourselves every 10 years, shedding our skin like snakes being renewed.  This isn’t a planned re-invention for us (or for the world), but it can serve the same purpose.

As we return to a new normal, remember the things that were important to you before and kick-start them again. Rather than letting your boat sit idle in a slip or on a trailer as you couch-potato your way through old movies, don’t let this precious world of wind and sail and sea go to waste. 

We live in Florida, where we can sail year around, and yet I see marinas that would better be called “boat cemeteries,”  because it’s where boats go to die. They haven’t been used in months, perhaps years. 

There is a saying, from someone now long forgotten, that remains both poignant and true: “The tragedy of life is not that it ends so soon, but that we wait so long to begin it.”  

Whether it is or not, use it to re-invent yourself.  You obviously love sailing or you wouldn’t be holding this magazine in your hands. If you have a boat, start making use of it, and not just a couple of times a month. Use it for therapy, for introspection, for solitude, for solace.  

If you don’t have a boat, now is the time to get one.  Don’t wait, do it now.  Even if it’s just a puddlejumper to sail around a bay or lake near home, now is the time to start sailing.  

I can’t claim that sailing is the cure-all we’ve been hoping to find to eradicate this particular virus, but I do know that it can make all the difference in how you feel when life’s challenges come your way.  

Sailing is good for your soul, and it’s a proven cure for many things that ail you. Don’t overlook it.