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Leave lawn mowers, cigarette boats and the rest of the din in your wake

2010 September 1

For many of us who live north of latitude 43 north, summer is sacred. It's an elemental imperative of our being, a compulsion imprinted on our DNA, to experience as many minutes of the fleeting season of light and warmth as possible. This cannot be done inside, so moments when we don't have to be in an office or a house are doubly precious. Fortunate seaside worker that I am, I can make a beeline to my boat, moored a scant block away from my office, when the workday ends. Or just go home, where the deck awaits, along with the First Mate and a glass of wine. This is a place well suited for the passive enjoyment of summer, embraced by garden blooms and foliage and rugged stands of trees that need a good trimming but still allow avenues of views of Lake Michigan, whose water is typically rendered a rich shade of cobalt blue this time of the day by the remains of the sea breeze.

If summer is sacred, then it's fitting that the ambience described above inspires a certain reverence. We tend to talk about the happenings of the day in muted tones so as not to shut out the rustle of the garden grasses, the calls of the resident birds and the whisper of small waves breaking at the base of the bluff.

When these sounds-you might call them, with apologies to Simon and Garfunkel, the sounds of silence-are drowned out by noxious man-made noise, it is as though precious moments of summer are stolen, never to be replaced.

We can't see our neighbors through the leafy screens between our properties, but at times we can certainly hear them. They are good people, but their idea of enjoying summer often involves operating equipment powered by internal combustion engines at the very time we are savoring the late afternoon quiet. The south neighbor's new John Deere riding lawn mower is so loud that I suspect the manufacturer intentionally left it inadequately muffled to satisfy the inner tractor driver of a typical male owner. The north neighbor tills his garden with an antique machine dating to an era when it was not understood that loud noise causes hearing loss. To appreciate its impact on the ear, think of a dentist's drill amplified a few hundred times.

We could escape the din by going inside, shutting the doors and windows and turning on the AC and TV. Since that would be a lot like winter, it's not an acceptable option. I am fortunate to have a better alternative that I'll get to shortly, but still I worry that the ever present and ever growing blight of noise is a sign of a civilization going backward. I tried to imagine the other evening, when the south neighbor fired up his tractor five minutes after I came home from the office, how much quieter the world must have been before the gas-powered lawn mower was invented and grass had to be cut with a pushed reel mower. Besides less noise, most of us would have a lot less grass to look at, hardly a bad thing in the scheme of things. (Disclosure: As the owner and user of lawn mowers, a chain saw and a leaf blower, all I can say in my defense is that I never use them during cocktail hour.)

It would be one thing if the noise blight were being forced on society, but a big portion of the human population seems to want it, indeed can't get along without it. How else to explain that even expensive restaurants of high repute feel they are pleasing customers by inflicting a music soundtrack on their diners? Stores do the same thing to shoppers. People go to parks and beaches in search of natural beauty and take their noise with them, polluting the atmosphere with radio music or, infinitely worse, talk radio blather.

At least it can be said that sort of noise is incidental to some folks' enjoyment of life, but other noise that deprives us of the enjoyment of summer is premeditated. Making noise is the goal and the racket is the reward. I know, the appeal of motorcycles is the wind in your face, the freedom of the open road, the thrill of G-pulling acceleration, etc. etc. That's part of it, but another part, maybe the biggest part, is generating noise that can make my neighbor's garden root-canal machine seem like a purring kitten. Harley-Davidson is perfectly capable of making quiet motorcycles. It doesn't because so many motorcycle riders need to announce they are free spirits of the open road by detonating thundering exhaust explosions near as many forced listeners as possible.

I said I was lucky, and so are most of the people reading this column. We can go sailing. Of all the wonderful things about sailing, the one that gets more wonderful everyday, because the world gets noisier everyday, is that it's our ticket to escape the clatter, for not only are sailboats quiet, but they can take us to where there is no noise.

Not that getting there is easy. The places where many sailboats live can be noisy. The other day, the owner of a boat on a pier near where my boat is docked, a sailboat no less, spent two hours cleaning his deck with a gasoline-powered pressure washer, the kind whose manufacturers warn should not be used without hearing protection. I went home to listen to a John Deere tractor.

Even away from a slip or mooring, there are auditory hurdles to clear on the way to the quiet. Jet Skis, for example. Or, if you are truly unfortunate, you can find yourself within earshot of what may be the most offensive noisemaker in the universe, on water or land. The purpose of the cigarette boat when it was invented was reputedly drug smuggling, but now it has morphed into something arguably more harmful to society-making eardrum-crushing noise that is utterly out of place in the marine environment for the express purpose of showing off. Boatbuilders have all the technology they need to produce long, sleek, sexy powerboats that can cruise at 60 miles per hour or more without excessive noise, but when catering to the cigarette boat crowd they don't-because making noise is the whole point of these ultimate narcissist's toys. Regular readers of this column will recognize the name of one of these boats I frequently come across that speaks volumes about the cigarette boat phenomenon-Mine's Bigger. (No, I'm not making this up.) There has been some speculation as to what the name means. I guess it refers to the boat's decibel output.

One of the reasons sailing allows us to get away from such din is that the noisemakers don't want to go where there is nobody to hear their noise. Sail far enough offshore, and you're in aural nirvana.

It's not that sailboats are silent. They exist in a world of sound. The wind and sea can be loud. Blocks, lines and sails are all soundmakers. Modern, thin-skinned boats amplify the bubbling and surging of the water against the hull and are veritable symphonies of sound below deck.

Sounds, yes, but not noise. What you hear when you're sailing are the sounds of silence.