This is one of a few short stories on the sea — and notably, how I relate to it and my fellow sailors. My hope is that I can convey with some accuracy, what it is about sailing, that makes it all-consuming in my life. In the manner of a mariner, I’ll be noting down a variety of observations, from various points in time. With luck, you’ll soon be able to get a fix on why boating makes me dream at my desk and wake at night, or suffer readily from the cockpit when the foredeck isn’t tidied up well enough.
I very rarely sail on my own and so all my essays will feature people that I know and care for. Out of respect for myself and others, these are true stories and my feelings are true — navigate this as you will. My thanks and blessings to all of you who feature in these tidy words and may fair winds and following seas be the norm, not the exception.
Friday afternoons are when I feel it most. Just over the edge of my workdesk and 26 floors down is the oscillating sea, the lick and shimmer of it drawing me over, a silent siren.
There are the Friday night races. Then there’s the weekend. In sum, the other side. If I’m lucky, I can sail for three consecutive days, with the third often devolving into a blowout, a saturated last hurrah. What professional sailors do on land, us recreational boaters take to the water — with sea-beer and sea-cigarettes always tasting so much more vital when there’s a relatively bleak work-week both ahead of, and behind us.
Last Friday, the feeling was potent — and sickening. I paced, ate lightly, pinched at my gut for affirmation of my own fitness, a nervous reflex. Will had a line on a boat at 1pm and I wanted to go, even if it meant a little jeopardy. Sailing — my casa chica, my little house built on ensconced love — is something I’ve furnished at great expense. For one, there is the fear that I have discounted the my life for it, that I’ve lost perspective on the blessings of steady work and grounded friends. I thought about this, as I pulled on my tights and street shoes… All the while, my laptop lay wide open, feigning attention, even while its tenant was gone.
“The sea is certainly common to all.” — Plautus
That sailing should be so embedded within us is no surprise, given the ascent of both Late Modern English and Western navies during the 18th century. The ship — perhaps the technology of greatest influence over civilizations, ever — was the vehicle of ideas, aspirations and culture, not to mention, great violence and suffering. From the Dutch East Indies to the Californian coast, entire regions met globalization for the first time — as waves of merchants, prospectors, convicts and adventure-seekers spilled upon their coasts, packing with them the language of sailors and seafaring.
While for some, sailing is a means to an end, for others, the means is all. Despite the high probability of disaster at sea, let it be by storm, scrape or sea-monster, the early mariners still found inspiration enough to profess their awe, if not love, for the deep blue. After what must have been an unforgiving lifetime of hard tack and the fray of sisal lines, Sir Francis Drake still professed, “It is not that life ashore is distasteful to me. But life at sea is better.”
And so, by the turn of the 20th century, when the common person could increasingly entertain the notion of sailing not just for profit, but primarily for pleasure, writers ran amok with the “romance” of the sea. Joshua Slocum published “Sailing Around the World” — an account of his 3-year solo adventure passage — in 1900. On his coattails, Jack London published “The Sea Wolf” in 1904. This begins as fairly grim tale of being pressed into maritime service (an occurrence that happened with some frequency in Gold Rush -era San Francisco), but turns into the now well-worn trope of being stranded on a solitary island — albeit, with a new-found love. I devoured both novels in a matter of days; over a 100 years of distance made both tales no less vital.
And so, like aircraft in the decades after it, recreational boating benefited from the mystique of belonging to the rich and highly adventurous for a time. Since then, cruising has benefited from an outsized reputation for leisure and luxury, as — unlike say, riding a $59 plane flight to Los Angeles with the hoi polloi — it still requires a luxurious abundance of time, money and just an ounce of skill to do.
That isn’t to discount the beauty of the ocean, the breathtaking golden glow of a western horizon at twilight, the sight of dolphins in a merry twirl at the bow, or the contented gaze of a helmsman sailing in a steady blow. One’s love of sailing is certainly made more profound by a knowledge of its words, the task’s inherent difficulty and its beautiful scenes, but I would argue that there’s something more intrinsic, perhaps an energy of sorts, that rides within all of us. Perhaps we need to look back further, to a time when we were all ancient mariners. Perhaps part of us are still primitive fish — and one’s yearning for the sea is in fact, a yearning for a home that we may have at some point, unwittingly left.
And so, I have made excuses enough for my infidelity to land life. Again, it is Friday and I am on the boat, just off the San Francisco shoreline crowded with upright buildings and lying bums, with the press of rickshaws, scooters and a million other conveyances whistling and whirring somewhere in between. I think of Herb Coen’s “Baghdad by the Bay”. But from this position, all I can hear is the quiet luff of the mainsail in the steady breeze. San Francisco is a maritime town, but the longshoremen are long gone. Left are rotting piles and a faded “Welcome Home” painted at end of Pier 31 — “friendly ghosts”, as my friend Chris would say.
I love the boat and I love the sport — I love how all of it has given me an intimate passage into San Francisco’s past. In the present, I love how my heart rises as we ascend and dip across the wake of the Alameda ferry. The passengers raise me with a friendly wave, as is time-honoured and understood as “to be ship-shape” or “three sheets to the wind”. So much is carried in a gesture.
In turn, I cast a look at my skipper. It is early evening now and in the dim light of the instrument panel, I can see his face, looking up, a measure of satisfaction softening his trademark look of concern. There is no need to ask him questions about love or reckoning, because it’s in his own love language — the expression of a greater life and inner peace that sailing brings, the energy, the yearning, the ancient thread, it’s all there — in his gaze, so concentrated on the flick-flick-flick of the windex aloft.