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All but the most passionate sailors admit to Ulysses moments

2009 July 1
Won't you ever get sick of it?"

The question came from a college friend I see infrequently who finds it hard to believe that after all these years I'm still devoting big chunks of my life to sailing.

My honest answer: Yes.

I have been sick of sailing, tired of it, jaded, disgusted with it.

There have been times when I wanted to walk in the footsteps of Ulysses, who according to one interpreter of the legend was "sick of the sea and said he was going to place an oar over his shoulder and walk inland until he met someone who asked, 'what's that?,' and there he would settle down and make his home."

An oar is recognizable just about everywhere in this country, so that would make for an awfully long walk. I'd choose something more arcane to put over my shoulder, maybe a Danforth anchor. That might get me to Kansas City.

The Ulysses impulse can be triggered by a cruise from hell (unrelenting raw, cold headwinds, miserable seas, wet and freezing on deck, squalid below) or a race gone bad (becalmed in a private parking lot while the rest of your class sails by). Once it resulted from an equipment failure on an almost-new boat that could have been catastrophic but proved to be only infuriating and really inconvenient.

The prop shaft fell out of the boat. By the time it was discovered the cabin was a rapidly deepening swimming pool. The only good news was that among the floating items swirling around below was a thick wool sock, which proved to be salvation. I held my breath, ducked my head, followed the jet of incoming water to its source and stuffed the sock into the shaft aperture. Sinking was averted, but not a bad attitude about sailing, which was exacerbated on the 80-mile engineless sail home by making an unintended landfall in a dying breeze and an opaque fog and having to anchor in earshot of breaking waves and barking dogs. Becalmed in the gray gloom, on the hook for hours rolling in the leftover seas, there was ample time to plot selling the boat and taking up a new hobby.

So, sure, I've been sick of sailing. But I always get over it. Sometimes all it takes is to leave the boat at the dock, settle into my favorite chair, which happens to be in a room crammed with sailing books, sailing art, sailing photographs and sailing trophies, and work my way through a generous glass of dark and bracing cabernet. Before long I'm leafing (admiringly, of course) through a stack of SAILING Magazines and planning the next sailing adventure.

This phenomenon, which no doubt many readers of this magazine will recognize, marks me as a sailing lifer, someone for whom sailing is not a passion, but an abiding feature of living, something that is not always wonderful, but is nonetheless always there as an enduring source of satisfaction.

A passion for sailing is something else. I've met people who have it, and it's refreshing to see. Often they've just discovered sailing, and it's all new and shiny, full of wonder and free of irritants. I met a fellow the other day who was clearly in the throes of sailing passion. He explained that he had such a good time on a couple of charter cruises that he and his wife have decided to drop everything and take up the sailing life-quitting jobs, selling the house, taking their three kids out of school, buying a cruising catamaran and spending the next two years as full-time sailors in the Caribbean and perhaps beyond. I didn't have the heart to warn him that there would be some Ulysses moments in his future.

Just talking with someone like that is enough to get a jaded sailing lifer excited.

He had recently turned 40, but you can be any age and not necessarily new to sailing and still be smitten in that way. One passionate sailor I came across recently is a septuagenarian who's been sailing for a long time.

That was Morgan Freeman, the movie star. I didn't meet him personally, but was introduced to his sailing passion in a Q and A interview on the back page of Men's Journal. Asked what single adventure most changed his life, Freeman answered:

"In 1967 I was doing summer stock in Vermont. On a day off, the head of the theater banged on the door and asked if we'd like to go sailing. Fine, even though I'd never
sailed. He took us to this little 18-foot boat on a reservoir and asked who was going to be the skipper. I said, 'Well, me.' He said, 'OK, this is the mainsail, this is the jib, this is the tiller, push it this way and the boat will go that way, you'll get it.' So I spent a wonderful day pushing the boat off sandbars and untangling it from trees. But I got totally hooked. Now I own a 43-foot ketch I keep in the Virgin Islands. Being introduced to sailing absolutely changed my life."

See what I mean about passion? Sailing changed his life.

I notice that like a lot of people who are agog about sailing, Freeman manages to steer any conversation to his favorite subject. Talking to Mike Wallace on "60 Minutes," he gave this answer to a question about acting: "If you live a life of make believe, your life isn't worth anything until you do something that does challenge your reality. To me, sailing the open ocean is a real challenge because it's life or death."

That was a little melodramatic, or maybe just passionate, like when he told a USA Today reporter about a stormy passage to Bermuda and added, "You can't just go hiding and hoping that something is going to save you. The only way you can measure life is by testing it."

I was hoping to get ahold of Morgan to talk about his passion for sailing and maybe trade some sailing stories, but that would have taken a lengthy negotiation with his publicist, and I didn't have the time. But I am going to watch for his boat, which is a Shannon 43, in the Caribbean and if I find it I'm going to dinghy over and chat a bit. I'll ask whether he's ever had to stick a sock in a hole in his boat or experienced any other Ulysses moments in his sailing life. If he says he hasn't, he's either had a charmed life or is a mighty good actor.