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Living in the Moment at Sea

2010 February 24
One evening last December, while crewing aboard the supermaxi YuuZoo off the coast of Australia, the wind upped and steadied so that we were moving along at 18 knots with the waxing moon overhead and a shimmer on the water.

The watch captain was keeping an eye on the sail trim, responding to every order from the helm. The winches squeaked and moaned. The angle of the canting keel was adjusted until it looked like a torpedo racing alongside the boat. In the moonlight, a pod of dolphins darted playfully around the keel as though it was one of their own, but most of the sailors on deck seemed not to notice.

As I looked around, my crewmates were dozing or hanging off the windward rail, staring down vacantly at the keel and the rush of water. Only Marco Diena, an Italian heart surgeon from Torino, mentioned what a splendid show Mother Nature was putting on-a gift presented to anyone willing to accept it. Together we rest our backs against a massive headsail zipped in its bag and spread out along the deck.

For more than an hour we listened to the hiss of water as YuuZoo sliced through the surface. Far from land, light pollution was almost non-existent, giving us a rare view of the star-filled universe. We attempted to identify the constellations and the doctor quickly named four or five. It was that kind of sky, so that even astronomically challenged sailors like me were able to find the Southern Cross.

Part of me wanted to jostle the others on my watch and point to the moon, stars, sea, dolphins and the occasional flying fish, but after some quiet deliberation I decided to say nothing because they might not appreciate this perfect moment in the same way. My thinking had been honed by past experience, mostly while fleet racing on the North Shore of Massachusetts.

Whether aboard Sonars, Etchells, Vipers or Farr 40s, in weekend races around the cans there were sailors whose sole purpose for being out on the water was to win, to get across the line in the least amount of time. If a humpback whale breached off the starboard bow, let it be damned. No time to look. More often than not, when these races were over, the more hyper-competitive headed straight back to the yacht club to wait for the standings and, if necessary, to lodge protests.

The atmosphere was seldom as intense during chowder races, those mixed-bag competitions that pit high-tech screamers against sluggish cruising boats and anything else that floats. My wife and I often entered these races, if only to stay involved in the local club activities, coaxing our heavy old sloop along, usually near the back of the fleet, knowing our chances of winning could come only through corrected time based on our high PHRF rating.

Perhaps if we owned a speedier vessel, our desire to get from point A to point B as fast as possible would have blossomed different. As it was, we would often tire of the destination-only mentality and slip away. In doing so, we racked up our share of DNFs, but it was always worth it.

Instead of following the prescribed course, we would bear off on a tack where the sun could bathe the cockpit with warmth. Then we'd ease the sails, tie off the tiller, pop a couple of cold beers and crank up the tunes.

Having repeatedly abandoned races on sunny days in New England, we jokingly began telling our sailing friends who asked about our unremarkable finish times that we would be better off with a calendar than a clock. That attitude hasn't changed much over the years and seems to grow stronger as the world's pace gets faster.

Some days we can't keep up with everything we're supposed to do-jobs, house, kids, community, e-mail, voice mail, snail mail, text messages, FaceBook, Twitter -so that when we get out on the boat, it's a refuge, a place to get closer to the natural world, a setting where time, at least the notion of it measured in seconds, minutes and hours, seems to stop.

Aboard the supermaxi, the sails were military trim. We were competing in the Sydney-to-Hobart Yacht Race-a serious competition in which fortunes and reputations are at stake -so the whole exercise was about efficiency and speed.

When we entered a treacherous expanse of water called Bass Straight, which separates mainland Australia from the island state of Tasmania, we pushed YuuZoo to 26.6 knots. In the opinion of most sailors, that's cranking. And during that flat-out burst, everyone aboard was joyously on edge, focused on how the boat, all 90 feet of carbon fiber, was handling the wind and waves. Our exhilaration and concentration was understandable and it was an experience I'll never forget. Not many folks have gone that fast on a sailboat. It was an ah-ha moment for all, the kind every cruising sailor should pursue if only to better understand the thrill of racing.

But the previous night, with its moon and stars and dolphins, had its own ah-ha moment, one I sensed was not fully appreciated by the entire crew, perhaps because most eyes were on the prize, the destination and not the journey.

Certainly sailing means different things to different people. And, as is often said, it's all good. Time on the water is just that, time on the water. But measured time has a way of slyly going by if you don't occasionally absorb what's around you and live in the present.

Obviously you can't stop to smell the roses when you're aboard a race boat, but you can choose to toss the stopwatch overboard now and then and slow down long enough to marvel at your surroundings. When you live life in moments instead of minutes, it's a whole different world.