The Debt to Unlikely
And of all the designs
Thus far formulated by humans
None have been
As adequately anticipatory
Of probable reoccurrences
Of yesterdays experiences-
Positive and negative,
Large and small,
Frequent and infrequent,
Sudden and slow,
And therefore as
And regeneratively reinspiring
To further evolutionary perfection
The sailing ship
R. Buckminster Fuller
She was called Unlikely, not an attractive name, because the first time I found myself in a serious sailboat on a serious ocean I was struck with a revelation.
It was clear, crystal clear, that I was on this cockleshell, at the mercy of forces that I did not begin to comprehend, through a complicated series of absurd, implausible and unlikely events. Logic never inserts itself in a life decision to go to sea.
I believe that it all started, in great innocence, because I believed that being a sailor was an easy way to get girls. Getting girls, for a young man is a difficult and sometimes exhausting process which sailoring, I felt, would ease the path.
What I did not count on was that the the business of Sailoring would take on a life force of its own. True, Sailoring did indeed make getting girls easier. Sailoring somehow certifies virility. Sailoring aways titillates. Sailoring imposes an otherworldly patina which lubes and moistens conjugate activities.
Actually most sailboat owners, as distinguished from real Sailors, have boats primarily for reasons of image. They rarely untie from the dock and most almost never go out at night. For these folk, sailboats, which have about them the smell of adventure and money, are a bottled sexual phrenome.
For some of us, who commenced our Sailoring careers with no less ignoble motives, our boats inveigle and beguile us to conform with their agenda rather than with our shallow libidic concerns.
Given the opportunity, our boats reveal to us a larger view with broader meanings than we have known and teach that a new life awaits us ‘beyond the blue horizons.’ The transition takes place suddenly and totally. We become, witlessly, forever lost in the wonderment of our good fortune in being hoodwinked into a new and marvelous life. It is a decision not taken by us, at least not in my case. It is decision, a moment of epiphany, which happens to us. Unlike most unexpected turns of fate this happenstance is extraordinary in that, unlike most unexpected episodes, this one is good for us.
The change, a true Sea Change, does not descend upon everyone. Too many minor factors call a halt to entering into a new life. The wife does not sail. Too many children. A promotion expected or just received. Seasickness (you would be shocked at how many turn their backs on the good life of adventure and freedom because of nausea). The list is a long one but the dimensions of the resisting events is small compared to the payback.
The most cogent argument inveighing against the Sailoring is logic. Sailoring defies logic and stands in proud disagreement with common sense, sweet reasonableness and 'what everybody knows.' If you were to place all of the rational arguments in favor of Sailoring on one pan of the scale and all the rational arguments against, the pan against prevails and you will never go to sea. One needs a strong thread of irrationality to sail. Indeed, if you can logically explain why you have chosen the Sailorly life then you are either deceiving yourself or are trying too hard to impress others.
Chaos, confusion, illucidity, and general murkiness of thought are the prerequisites for serious Sailoring. The only rational, if you can call it that, answer came from a madman who climbs mountains who said,
I climb them because they are there.
If that answer does not satisfy, do not go Sailoring.
At some eotic moment we all emerged, a jelly like blob from the delicious protective shell of seawater, onto rocky, sandy and uncomfortable ground. No longer supported in the cradle of flotation, our weight, formerly unnoticed suddenly oppressed us. As we rolled our jelly eyes upward we found a burning bright sun killing us (as it still does) with death rays and heat. Considering the sand abrading our bottoms and the sun searing our tops and gravity compounding the felonies of landlife, it is to wonder that we all did not immediately undulate back into the sea forever, as did the whales.
We now return to the seas in our boats, in my case my beloved Unlikely. She is 46 feet long and 13 feet wide. She has a long keel which grips the sea when the sea is not too severe and, when the sea gets out of mind in disarray, she knows when to give in. She is a great resister and a timely giver inner, both of which are de riguer for sea survival. Indeed knowing when to resist and precisely when to give in is not a bad prescription for life in general.
We were sailing north from Milos toward Athens in the Aegean, a most unpalatable and disagreeable sea in spite of what the Greek Tourist Board claims, when we ran into a nasty little storm. The typical square waves of the Aegean arose, we could not make anything good to windward. We did not feel like turning tail and running back to Milos. Besides, in the Aegean running with nasty seas and pushy winds is not the greater part of discretion. The more we efforted the boat the more unruly she became, much like a willful child or a cantankerous ass (much the same) when pushed to act against their natures.
We had tried reefing and heaving to and all of the other tactics of control we knew. Finally we realized the Unlikely was asking to be decontrolled, to be allowed to do what she knew best, to survive.
Go below, she seemed to say,
and leave this bit of nastiness to me. And so we did. Sails down and furled, engine off, tiller tied amidships we gratefully went below, sealed the boat against noise and water, tucked ourselves tightly into our bunks and left Unlikely alone. This tactic is called lying ahull, which simply means get out of your boats face. Nine hours later, Unlikely picked her head up out of the subsiding storm, with no damage and infinitely less strain on the boat than when we were pressing her to do what we wanted. Unlikely had simply bobbed about like a cork and drifted to lee. When we measured her drift, which could be a problem on a lee shore, we found that she had made only 3 miles to lee in the whole nine hours.
But although Unlikely is perfectly attuned to the natural medium she lives in, she, and all boats, violate naturalness. Boats do all of the things that, in a natural condition, they are not meant to do.
They are hollow when almost nothing in nature is hollow. They are constructed of materials far heavier than the water they live in. They resist the sideways thrust of tide and current. Most obstinately they sail against the wind which boats have been doing with increasing degrees of success for 500 years.
My Unlikely is aptly named, not only for the strange and implausible supercargo she carries but, by her very nature, she is absurdly aberrant to nature while, at the same time, perfectly attuned to the forces with which she must deal.
The moment you come to understand that your sailing boat teeters on the brink of the abyss of natural law, that she violates every natural directive, in that moment you begin to understand the wonders of a modern sailing boat.
She is not so much paradigm as she is paradox, more contrived and bizarre in her mastery of the sea than almost any other common artifact of mankind. She is a bundle of disparate contradictions.
Let me count the ways that I love her.
I love her for her contradictions, for her ability to do with elegance and wit what she should not be able to do.
I love her for the manner in which she cozens and protects me. Since I have come to know her limits, which are vast, I feel no fear and can comfort those newly come aboard. One day, early in my sailorly life, I was sailing in the Virgins with my youngest daughter. As I came up on the high hills that protect Virgin Gorda, we were struck by a williwaw, that vicious little wind that falls off the face of high hills. My boat went right over on her beam ends and I looked down to see Toby lying in the gunwale.
Promise me, she said,
that we will come up. I did and Unlikely did and she always has.
I love her for the separation she provides me from too many people, too much information and too much interference with my head. When at sea she is my own private, circumscribed universe in which I can come to know myself. On my boat, at sea there is no one to mind fuck me with either praise or blame. I can, and have, taken a look at my soul as I look at an ineffable sunset. Soul and sunset fuse and unexpected lights flash on.
And to demonstrate how ultimately shallow I am (as perhaps we are all) she allows me a prideful swagger when I go ashore. I am a sailor, separate from most of humanity, doing different things, not playing golf in Miami, not locked to the couch, no time for viewing as I am too much taken up with doing.
From all of this I distill, unfairly but who cares, a comforting, belly warming sense of my own self worth. Is it really a sin to come, in your seventh decade, to decide that you are better than most.
I think not.