Monday, July 23, 2007

Why Sail?

Why do we sail? What is it about sailing that grabs our attention, fires our enthusiasm, and turns us into lifelong passionate devotees of the sport?

I came across some answers to these questions yesterday in an unlikely source...

1. As compared to other methods of transport the uncertainty of sailing is part of its charm. (Apparently the author had never had the pleasure of flying with Northwest Airlines.)

2. The fact that skill and attention are required at almost every instant of the journey makes it more satisfying than other methods of travel. (Please note, that guy on port tack in Newport. You know who you are.)

3. Sailing is a game in which the mental power and physical activity of the sailor are pitted against the forces of nature. All other games are essentially rivalries between opponents in the exercise of some skill. But all of life is not combat; it is often the exercise of our ingenuity in dealing with natural forces over which we have no direct control. So sailing gratifies one of our deepest human instincts: it mimics the struggle of humanity to progress by taking advantage of the forces of the natural world.

4. The sailor uses his skills and intelligence to beat against the wind, an apparently impossible act to the uninformed layman. Just as in life, the stupid or lazy person will drift with the wind and be buffeted wherever life takes him; but the smart, diligent person finds a way to make progress in life "against the wind" whatever that may mean in his vocation. Is the feeling of rounding the windward mark in first place after a long hard beat so different from the pleasure we feel from scoring well in an exam, finishing a tough project, or winning that promotion at work? It's all about the mental payback that comes from success after putting in the necessary hard work to achieve it.

5. In light winds the sailor is constantly on the lookout for small opportunities to make progress that may be missed by the less capable or careless. Also in life, the person with the skill for seeing small opportunities and taking advantage of them will often go far, whether we are talking about personal finance, looking after your own health, tending a garden, or... finding subjects to blog about.

Which brings me (somewhat prematurely) to the question of where the hell did I find these weird ideas to blog about? Well, they were in a long article by P.G. Hamerton entitled Sailing Analogies in an 1883 edition of The Contemporary Review. The sailing essay was tucked away between ones on The Saints of Islam and The Nonconformists and Church Reform. (Hey, I'm sure they were topical subjects when Capt. Nat was in his prime.)

Dear old PG goes on to draw analogies between sailing and life in such areas as putting on more sail (which apparently explained why the Poles, Italians and Egyptians were respectively getting more or less than what they deserved in the 1880s), the role of ballast (a somewhat contrived analogy to the power of moral energy), and lastly the similarities between the sinking of a sailing vessel and our own death. Heavy stuff man. PG sounds like a bundle of laughs.

And how the heck did I find this gem? Am I in the habit of perusing the local libraries for 19th century editions of The Contemporary Review? No. It was all thanks to our good friends at Google. This document was digitized by them as part of their Google Books project and discovered by their search engine when I was trying to find out more about that eerie quote in yesterday's post about one of my heroes.

Anyway I'm sure PG's style of sailing writing went down well in Victorian times. If alive and kicking today he would probably be writing The Horse's Mouth.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting...and some interesting parallels with our own Tillerman. P.G. Hamerton was also born in northern England and ended up in a seaside resort town (in France not Rhode Island).

Anonymous said...

I kind of like Boswell's quotation about sailors:
"No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into jail; for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned."

Although JFK's speech before the 1962 America's Cup is a little more positive:

"All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea -- whether it is to sail or to watch it -- we are going back from whence we came."

PeconicPuffin said...

I've always found every attempt to explain why I love sailing (windsurfing in my case) to utterly fall short of the mark. My best answer remains "I don't know, but I want to get back out on the water right now." (see blog entryhere.

(I've always love the Boswell quote)

Tillerman said...

JFK's point is very poetic but scientifically totally wrong. The concentration of salt in blood is only about a third of what it is in the oceans.

Interesting discussion about the salinity of the bodily fluids of various creatures here.

Unknown said...

WOW ! this is lovely and interesting, am from India, sailing here is not as big as what it is in western countires or what it is in AUS or NZ, I think i an use some of the words from your blog to appraise people here so as to set more apt perspective - Thank you - wish you fair winds - Jitendra Rami

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