of wind and water

written 23 June 2008
Allen Harbor, at dock
7:00-8:00 pm

You can’t get much closer to the basic elements of life than sailing. Water is essential; wind is the sun’s heat once removed. In a big boat, one can ignore the pull of current and drift of air – why depend on puffs when the diesel switch makes such subtle signs moot?
I’m not so bad at steering, but the matter of aim is the Captain’s call.
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She’s an expert at combining previous knowledge, inexact forecasts, slight shifts in the direction of the wind, and scheduled tide corrections per location with the actual conditions of the moment. The seascape changes constantly. Each cat’s paw and swirling eddy is stable enough as it’s own phenomena, but in combination with waves from passing ships – seen and unseen – variances in temperature, and inconsistent winds, where one needs to aim in order to arrive at a chosen destination is no simple matter.
There’s tons of science and experience accrued in that noggin! Not to mention an independent (stubborn, ahem) streak fit to beat the band. Her specialty is single-handed sailing. (Which does mean it’s rather annoying to have me – the stupendous novice – along!) Our thoughtfulness tends to go in different directions – she’s conscientiously and systematically crafting strategy for whatever comes next: leaving dock, securing shore support, tacking out of the harbor (with or against the tide? with or against the wind? amidst traffic? solo? avoiding sandbars, reefs, wind shadow, boats on moorings, even lobster pots when the motor’s down in the water), networking with boatbuilders and sailing buddies, charting course to the next desirable location made possible by predicted wind, weather and tide conditions, plotting how to replace her crew (!), envisioning which will be the safest and quietest anchorage, noting whether all equipment is functional or properly stowed, creating the next supply list, designing improvements for the boat, designing her other/upcoming boat, counting the days until we (have to) turn around, keeping fit, eating well, feeding her crew, coordinating schedules among crew, shore supporters, and visitors.
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Did I mention keeping the boat – including the open cockpit – dry? If you didn’t see the pre-departure list, it’s worth checking out. Then there’s recording times and relevant details as we pass buoys and cans and other landmarks (lighthouses, bridges, prominent or known places…) in order to assess progress and consider changes to the itinerary. Oh yes, there’s also training the crew in emergency procedures:

“Mayday mayday mayday.
This is sailing vessel Serenity, 14 foot with a blue-hull.
We are in Allen Harbor, Narragansett Bay.
There are two people aboard.
We are having a moment!” ­čśë

(No, we do not have our lifejackets on.)
I asked Captain if there are any noticeable differences sailing these days compared with when she sailed solo back at the raw age of fourteen – or with her dad before and after that time. “You mean, as in evidence of global warming?” Yea, that is what I had in mind. I keep thinking of “Statler” the surfer, telling me how the once-regular, annual rhythms of the swell have become unreliable in recent years. “No, not really,” the Captain said. “The only change is that no one used to sail in August, because there was no wind.” At the Summer Solstice, the earth hits the peak of its orbital tilt toward the sun, which is what leads us into the seasons of fall and then winter. The heating action of the sun (its convection action on the earth’s atmosphere) levels out, maintaining some consistency – and thus whipping up less wind – before starting to cool.

(Ahem. Self-conscious moment: the preceding phrasing is – i hope! – evidence that I learned something from those conversations about climatology!)

Actually, I learn the most from my friends, and from my friends’ friends. My thoughtfulness, such as it is, attempts to take in the particulars of whatever specific activity we’re in and view it in relationship to larger contexts. I suppose I could invent some hierarchy of spheres (such as others already have) to describe the layers I perceive as “present” in most daily actions – but that would be tedious and besides, they’re circumstantial. Different layers come into view according to various conditions – charting that dynamical geometry is not something I’m inclined to . . . I’m more interested in what seems called up in/through/by certain interactions – and how these patterns get entrenched (and why), and how to effect the patterns that lead to undesirable outcomes so that at least they produce unpredictable results. (Of course I want “better” results, but I’ve not yet acquired that much magic! If I get something different than I got before, then that seems at least evidence of change, which – in itself – is requisite prior to any conceivable improvement.)
What has been so extraordinary about sailing, specifically as crew and not captain, is an incredibly wonderful spacetime in which my mind can rest uni-dimensionally. Hours pass without deliberate thought. There’s the press of the tiller against my palm, the rush of fresh sea air in my nose and lungs, the gurgle of water reconfiguring itself into wake. We roll with the waves; sometimes popping up high enough to land resoundingly, the flat bottom meeting ocean surface decisively. Under these conditions, a snippit of conversation sparks a lecture, a methodological strategy for research, a creative writing piece, blogposts.
I grow.
Cut by wind, molded by current, I aim by steering.

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