In Which I Justify My Obsession

I don’t know exactly why boat building became one of my life goals, but I can guess.

The seeds of this dream were certainly planted in childhood when my family owned a cabin on a small lake in upstate New York. We lived there almost full time for several summers and I, in turn, practically lived on the small sailboat we kept tied to the dock. I was young—between eight and eleven—but my parents either had enough faith in my skills or faith in the lake’s small size to let me go out on my own and explore. Wet with spray, sunburned, my shaggy 70’s hair bleached by the sun, I plied the waters of Round Lake for hours at a time.

I was never taught to sail; like all children who master a skill, it came though simple practice until it formed an intuitive understanding. I learned how to find a breeze on a still day (look for ripples), I knew how to get the most speed (tighten the sail and adjust the rudder until–snap!–it felt like the boat was suddenly being pulled by a race car), and I knew how to slide into a the dock with the precision of a train pulling alongside a platform at Penn Station. In an emergency, when the boat threatened to capsize, I knew to relinquish dignity and let go of the sail. Not once did I go overboard.

On land, I was as powerless as any ten-year-old, but on water I was in control of my fate and in control of the elements. I was strong and competent—more competent than the adults around me. My father also liked to sail, but he was a busy professional and rarely went out. When he did, I watched with expert eyes and marveled at his awkwardness. He could drive a car and do important things in an office, but he flopped around the lake like a drunken duck, becalmed one minute, nearly capsizing the next. I didn’t think less of him for it, but it heightened my own sense of competence.

A few years later we moved and stopped visiting the cabin. I became a teenager and rarely thought of the water, but I never fully lost my sense of fellowship with wind and water. On a few occasions I was able to go out into other lakes and bays and found that, with small practice, the old skills returned. My feelings of power and freedom were less intense, but the sense of excitement remained.

It seems easy enough to conclude that I want to recover a small measure of the freedom I experienced as a young sailor. While I am an adult with the power and autonomy of an adult, day-to-day life lacks the purity and empowerment I felt as a small boy on small boat in a small lake. It is not at all surprising that I look back to my childhood for guidance and inspiration.

Still, I am not the first man to contemplate his age and then look to the sea. I wonder, if fact, if there is a single man who has not—at least briefly—considered sailing as an escape from the disappointments and indignities of everyday life. We work so hard to pay the bills, raise the kids, mow the grass, and clean the gutters. No one can fault our steadiness and sense of responsibility as we wake up, dress, and get ready for another day. But in a quiet moment of reflection—or perhaps during a surge or anger and frustration—we see a glimpse of something different: an exotic port, a quiet bay, a boat responding to our expert hands. We feel the pull of adventure and a delicious repudiation of traffic jams, business meetings, office memos, dirty laundry, and conventionality. The bonds are cut and we are free.

There are many ways to escape—on a bike, in a plane, in a Winnebago. But none so fully symbolize independence as a sailboat. A motor home drives down a highway, follows the flow of traffic on predetermined routes and under the eye of state troopers with radar guns. It needs gas and, if it breaks down, the attention of an authorized mechanic. Planes can take us to foreign lands, but we are shoehorned into tiny seats and subjected to countless indignities by the airline industry and the TSA. We pay for every bag, every peanut, and treated like criminals at security check points. No romance here; we are many years past the golden age of flight when we could pack our Samsonite suitcase, grab a passport, and “jet” to foreign lands.

Only sailboats allow us the fantasy of true freedom and self sufficiency. We can stock our cabin with food for weeks at a time–and even pull dinner from the sea. Our power comes from the wind, and that doesn’t cost a dime. Outside of harbors and channels, we set our own course—north, south, east or west and no one can tell us otherwise. The sea isn’t lawless, to be sure, but once we are on the water and, especially, in the open seas, we are as free as we can be in the modern age.

And then there is the romance of literature. From Homer’s Odyssey to semi-autobiographical novels of Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville, I quickly learned to associate sailing with drama and exotic lands. Conrad was my favorite; he made me feel the thrum of a riverboat engine as it crawled through the greasy waters of an African river in the Heart of Darkness. As a teenager, I hacked through the dense prose and murky symbolism so that I could stand at the captain’s side steaming in the Belgian Congo.

Of course there was also danger, and in modern sea tales, these dangers and mishaps often take center stage. The Perfect Storm, published in 1997, is entirely about a doomed fishing trawler. The author wasn’t aboard as the ship goes down (obviously…), but this doesn’t prevent him from speculating in graphic detail what it is like to spend the last few minutes of life drowning in the cold North Sea. If I had read too many books like this at an impressionable age, I probably would have little interest in sailing. Plus, I really hate how the book’s title became a hackneyed cliché.

But the old writers were refreshingly matter of fact about capsizing, sinking, and the other day-to-day catastrophes of a sailor’s life. They were able to make such events exciting, but not too alarming. Indeed, many of the first person accounts are so blasé in their discussion of dangers and disasters, it’s almost possible to miss them the first time around. “I had been nearly twenty years a shipmaster when I quit her deck on the coast of Brazil, where she was wrecked,” wrote Joseph Slocum in the first pages of his classic tale, Sailing Alone Around the World. “My home voyage to New York with my family was made in the canoe Liberdade, without accident.” I read this, started to move on, then paused. Wait, did he just say that he was wrecked in Brazil, and then sailed home—to the United States–in a canoe, with his family?

Indeed he did. But it was the style of the day, it seems, to manfully accept these sorts of inconveniences. In such books it’s pro forma to say that the storm they just survived made them feel “a bit anxious” even as they explain that the very same storm sank a much larger ship “with all hands.” It might be bluster and lies, but it gives armchair sailors hope that they, too, will be able to stare down a storm and do just the right thing and the right moment to avert disaster. Skill and luck will save the day and provide a good yarn for the telling.

Sedated by the steely calm of the writers, I was able to focus, instead, on the writer’s descriptions of transcendent beauty, which are presented with spare but often elegant prose. Taciturn sailors of an earlier age can be remarkably effusive when they talk of their boats. Once Slocum sets sail, he had this to say about the first days at the helm of the Spray:

“Waves dancing joyously across Massachusetts Bay met her coming out of the harbor to dash them into myriads of sparkling gems that hung about her at every surge. The day was perfect, the sunlight clear and strong. Every particle of water thrown into the air became a gem, and the Spray, bounding ahead, snatched necklace after necklace from the sea, and as often threw them away. We have all seen miniature rainbows about a ship’s prow, but the Spray flung out a bow of her own that day, such as I had never seen before.”

It’s words like these, combined with childhood memories, adult dissatisfactions, and restless dreams that shook me out of inaction. It’s a mix of fiction and fantasy, I know, and wholly irresponsible for a man of my age of standing, I’m sure. But at least you now know that there is at least one person in this world who is less rational than you, which must be of some comfort in these troubled times.

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2 Responses to In Which I Justify My Obsession

  1. Sean G says:

    Paul,

    This article is going to really, help me explain myself to my wife!

    I’ve recently found myself in a similar position in life, and had a very vivid dream that drove me to start building my own boat. Not particularly rational, I know, but I suppose that’s why they are called dreams.

    The same lure of adventure, the same freedoms, the same romanticism with a bygone age, a similar dissatisfaction with my modern life attracts me to the sea–or at least my nearest local lake–as is expressed here.

    Here is another description, not unlike the one you mentioned from Slocum, that has always captured my fancy: Dana writes in Two Years Before the Mast regarding the La Carolina, of Harve, “She lunged her head into the sea, and then, her stern settling gradually down, her huge bows rose up, showing the bright copper, and her stern, and bresthooks dripping, like old Neptune’s locks, with the brine.”

    Thank you for this well-written and thoughtful article.

    Fair winds and following seas,

    Sean
    New Brighton, PA

    • Paul Boyer says:

      Wonderful quote! Thank you.

      Good luck with your project. Send photos and updates! Let me know if you plan to sail south.

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