A Meditation on Sailing Fundamentals
Sailing fundamentals, the basic knowledge of how to guide a vessel over the liquid fields of the ocean, have produced a prodigious amount of theory, but little of it has washed ashore on the coasts of your average land lover. Even those that often spend their weekends skimming the windy shores near their homes, spend little time thinking about the philosophy of sailing fundamentals that under-girds their maritime activities.
Yet, the natural forces that allow us to cut across the watery surfaces of our planet’s oceans and our ability to interact with them to produce purposeful and directed motion, tells us quite a bit not only about human ingenuity but also about the contract that we strike with nature when we sail. Few places are we so aware of our bargain with nature than when we find ourselves alone on a sea of glass, dependent on Mother Nature’s breath and our abilities to harness that breath to guide us safely back to our home shore.
Not by Sail Alone
One of the most common misapprehensions that those with feet planted on firm ground sport, is that sailing is mainly about mastering the wind and forcing it to move the vessel along the ocean surface. The false analogy is that the sailboat is like a covered wagon pulled along the watery prairie by the “horse” power of the sails. The sailor become like the driver in a Conestoga guiding the sails and whipping them along.
What such an analogy leaves out is the fundamental role that keel and rudder play in the movement of a skiff. As any experienced sailor knows, the ocean currents and water conditions contribute as much to the sailboat’s movement as do the fabric of the rigging. This is not to say that the wind and sails are irrelevant, but rather that the movement of a sailboat is an interaction between wind and water; gusts, breezes, waves and currents. Like a motor-less glider rising on whirlpools of warm air and slicing through pools of cool clearness, the pilot of a skiff too must negotiate the differences between air and water. In fact, sailing is always a negotiation of difference between wind speed and ocean current. Just as a dead calm will thwart all attempts at motion so too will the conjoining of breeze and current. Without a difference in these twin forces, even the best pilot is left to drift. It is only when wind and water quarrel that their countervailing energies can be exploited to produce meaningful motion.
Tacking Before the Wind
No motion of the sailboat is more symbolic of this mediation between sky and sea than tacking, or coming about. Tacking is the back and forth motion by which sail and rudder can be employed to produce movement towards prevailing winds. Even though one can never really sail directly into the oncoming wind (not in traditional sailboats anyway—I am taking no account of “windmill” boats), by tacking one can move at a diagonal towards it, zigzagging along the water like a skier along a down hill course turning back and forth, right and left, hither and thither.
The deeper lessen that we can draw from sailing fundamentals is a lesson about what our attitude to nature should be if we had the proper respect for Her. Nature is not a resource to be plundered and punctured and pillaged, but a partner with whom we should respectfully bargain. To disregard the demands of our air, and sea, and land is to risk capsizing and drowning, or running ashore. Only by tacking carefully and mindfully through the winding narrows that nature provides us can we hope to arrive at our destination safely and with integrity.