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In Pursuit of the Sailing Life
                                                It's not far down to paradise
                                                At least it's not for me
                                                And if the wind is right you can sail away
                                                And find tranquility
                                                The canvas can do miracles
                                                Just you wait and see
                                                Believe me

                                                Christopher Cross

sailing image

By Randy Heuston

If you’re serious about vitalistic living, perhaps you understand naturalist John Muir when he said: “Most people are on the world, not in it—having no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them—undiffused, separate and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate.”

And you may agree that of all activities at work or play none is more “in” the natural world than sailing a boat. You have to be one with the wind and the weather and the currents and the tides. As Ray Grigg writes in The Tao of Sailing: “[In sailing] we move with the body of sea and the breath of air, changing in abidance with a breathing that is larger than ourselves.”

For me, learning to sail has been a lifelong goal—as a boy, imagining myself onto the quarterdeck with Horatio Hornblower; as an adult, teaching high school juniors symbolism in Melville’s Moby Dick. “Call me Ishmael,” famously begins the narrator, setting sail for the meaning of life.

Then there’s the challenge of it. We raised two daughters waterskiing on the Mississippi River and had plenty of exciting moments. But it’s not sailing. Our Maxim runabout’s 230-horse Merc IO covers a multitude of sins. On a sailboat you really have to know what you’re doing. They don’t put brakes on a sailboat.

Our fondest memories are sailing with another couple off Florida’s west coast—from their home in Venice up to Sarasota or down to Captiva or into Charlotte Harbor. Actually, they did the sailing and we went along for the ride, for the joy of friendship… and the occasional rum and Cokes. We’d slide up the shimmering Intracoastal Waterway beside one of Florida’s spectacular sunsets, past kamikaze pelicans and elegant egrets primping in the sea grass. The breeze and spray cooled our sunburn. Dolphins giggled around our bow. All senses go.

We were in the planet, not just on it.

It was way past time to heed Mark Twain: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away.”

I Googled in and lined up two classes—basic keelboat sailing and basic coastal cruising—certified by the American Sailing Association (ASA), compressed into three days. Docked at Punta Gorda, the classroom was a 31-foot Catalina called Nauti Dream, with a GPS system and a self-furling jib and mainsail. More complicated than the textbook Captain Tim Benson had sent me, or the four videos I watched, but clearly we wouldn’t be playing around. This was the real deal. As was my instructor, Charlie Atha.
Charlie lives what John Muir advocates. He grew up sailing at San Diego, got dissatisfied with city living and bought a poultry farm in Arkansas. Then a horrific auto accident nearly took his life. His neck and back were smashed to pieces and both lungs punctured. The surgeons nearly gave up on him, but he rose like Jonah from the deep, though so messed up his chiropractor daughter-in-law won’t touch him to this day. After his long recovery, his wife suggested they try sailing again.

“The exercise sailing demands probably helped the recovery,” Charlie says. “One trip led to another, and Phyllis and I ended up cruising for 10 years.” They lived aboard boats, made great friends from around the world, and strolled the sand in the Bahamas and other ports of paradise. Along the way Charlie developed not only impressive practical skills—he’s made a living by fixing up and reselling damaged boats—and but also the humility, patience and a dry humor that make him an ideal instructor. Like Ishmael, the wanderer, Charlie savors the sailing life, and he and his wife soon will go cruising again.
Author J.R.R. Tolkien wrote: “Not all who wander are lost.” Charlie is a case in point.

The first thing you’re supposed to do is check the weather, and the textbook has a scary warning about hypothermia. After I had arranged to sleep aboard, they said the boat had no heater—it’s south Florida after all; they handed me a couple of blankets and said it would be fine. Nobody expected the worst cold snap in recent history. I spent three nights shuddering in the fetal position with my clothes on—thermal underwear, jeans, heavy wool socks, my warmest wool sweater, a pair of ski pants and a wool fleece—worrying I’d get hypothermia without leaving the dock. One morning ice etched the hatch covers, and there are photos to prove it. Nauti Dream had become a nightmare. So much for the romance of the sailing life!

The cold was good in one respect. Few other idiots ventured onto frigid Charlotte Harbor, so Charlie didn’t have to worry about my colliding with other boats. The problem was the crowded marina. There’s this force called “prop walk,” which means the propeller’s rotation arbitrarily pushes the stern to one side, in our case to port. That and the three-second delay between when I’d turn the wheel and the boat obeyed—well, let’s just say there were some tense moments. “An eighth of a turn, that’s all,” Charlie muttered a half dozen times. “Make it a smaller eighth.”

An important aspect of certification is terminology. You must know the parts of the sailboat—hull, stern, bow, keel, cockpit, mast, headstay, backstay, shrouds, rudder, tiller, boom, topping lift and boom vang—to name a few. (If you think a binnacle is a little critter that attaches itself to the hull, study harder.) And the parts of the sail—head, tack, clew, luff, leach and foot.

And the “points of sail.” A boat can sail no closer than 45 degrees into the wind, a position called close-hauled. Moving through the points of sail away from the wind are close reach, beam reach (90 degrees off the wind), broad reach and finally a run, with the wind directly over the stern. Each requires a different angle, or trim, to the sails.  

If you see sailing as a metaphor of life, as I do, consider this: Running with the wind is not the fastest point of sail. When sailing against the wind, the sail acts like an airplane wing, lifting the boat ahead. If you’re running with the wind, all it can do is push the canvas and the heavy boat. Moral? In life, going with the flow isn’t the best way to get ahead.

If you want to be a sailor, you’ll have to learn navigation—reading markers and nautical charts, which are far from standardized. Then there’s knot tying. You want knots that take tremendous strain but are easily untied; the “best knot in the world,” according to Charlie, “is the bowline (pronounced bowlin).” Here’s how they teach kids to tie a bowline: “Make a loop, that’s the hole. Your rabbit comes out of the hole, around the tree and down the hole again.” My rabbit hopped off a few times.

THE DIFFERENCE between tacking and jibing to change directions is the difference between NUCCA and B.J. Palmer’s famous hair-flying toggle recoil. Tacking is moving the bow through the wind, then adjusting the jib (or foresail) and the mainsail to the other side of the boat. Jibing can be downright dangerous. As you bring the stern across the wind, the wind catches the mainsail, slamming the boom over the cockpit. Many a distracted sailor has been coldcocked or even knocked overboard.

We practiced dropping, setting and pulling in the anchor, which I learned is something of an art. Then we “hove to,” which stops the boat without dropping or furling the sails. This is when you go below and make a sandwich.
The biggest challenge was rescuing a “man overboard.” Charlie tossed a floatable cushion into the bay, and I had to sail in a figure-eight to retrieve our victim without running over him or waving goodbye as the wind carried us over the horizon. See if you follow this: First you sail on a beam reach away from your drowning friend, then head up into the wind, next come about, then bear away (called falling off the wind), then head up to a close reach, luffing both sails. Finally, haul him aboard, with a line under his armpits and around a winch if necessary. I rescued mister cushion on the first try—probably helped by 30 years of picking up water skiers. Charlie was dumbfounded.  We quit while we were ahead.

All this SOUNDS pretty straightforward, even predictable. Of course it’s not. The wind is always gusting and/or shifting directions. There are little issues like not running aground, dodging obstacles and making headway through fog. As I said, it’s challenging. To say nothing of what it’s really like beyond the harbor, out of sight of land, in the “howling of the shrieking, slanting storm,” as Herman Melville would terrorize it. Did you hear about the clipper ship sent to the bottom by a storm just a couple of weeks ago?  Yet the danger’s part of the draw, isn’t it?

My instructor said I passed with flying colors, which he judged remarkable given I’d never sailed before. I got my ASA certification log, packed my duffle bag, said goodbye and headed to the parking lot.

More classes? Probably. Buy a sailboat? Possibly. Go sailing again? God willing. As it says on a 5th Century Roman coin: “Navigare Necesse Est—To Sail Is Necessary.”

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth,” says the existential Ishmael in the great American novel, “whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul… I account it high time to get to sea…. As in landlessness alone resides the highest truth.”

Don’t we all secretly want to wander far from civilization’s marbles of polished stone, to diffuse into the natural world, to really come alive in abidance with a breathing larger than ourselves? Perhaps we can even find some higher truth aboard a boat. Shall we throw off the bowlines and sail away?
That’s right, call us Ishmael.


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