The Aloneness of the long-distance Sailor

The absence of other boats remains one of the great delights of passagemaking. Beset as we are by the cacophonics of civilization and the need of peers to make us do things that simply do not feel right to us, there exists deep in all of us a compulsion to be alone or with, at most, one or two loving others. Aloneness is a condition rarely to be found on land. It is a condition that, happily, cannot be avoided at sea.

In ten years of bluewater passagemaking, I have passed other cruising yachts at far at sea only twice. In all the weeks and months of sea time and across all of the miles of oceans, there was only one of those times when we were able to heave to and have a talk.

The space in an ocean that you 'occupy' at a moment in time we shall call your Sailing Circle. You cross oceans and around the world, hauling this tiny, closed universe along with you. It is your space, as you have never so exclusively had space on land. You make it inviolable by your careful watchkeeping. You are faced only with those threats of the sea that happen within your circle. Everything that happens within your Sailing Circle is of overriding interest to you. Everything that happens outside it, you couldn't give a fig for.

The Sailing Circle

If you are in an ocean a thousand miles across, or perhaps a hundred miles across, you have only an infinitesimal chance of having another boat wander into your tiny Sailing Circle. At your given six knots you remain in any one Sailing Circle for only about an hour. Five miles away there could be a hundred yachts, all irrevocably over the horizon and out of your three mile wide ocean island. Whatever happens to port and starboard of your circle does not happen for you at all. And with other sailboats going at about the same speed and, by virtue of winds and currents, all going in the same sensible direction, (following Commodore Vanderbilt's advice that, 'a gentleman sails only with the wind') the chances of a fore or aft intersection of any two Sailing Circles is even less than a passing to port or starboard.

But the single most important factor opting against sighting another vessel is the remarkably small number of passagemakers that are in your ocean over the period of time during which you are making your passage. To consider this, let us look at a classic trade wind passage, one that you are most likely to include among your own first passages.


WEST INDIES       16 Degreess North Latitude       AFRICA

        11 Degrees North Latitude


This diagram roughly represents the passage westward from Africa to the West Indies at between 11 and 16 degrees North latitude. It is the dream tradewind passage and everybody does it. It was Columbus's passage and when you raise Barbados you have paid your personal respects to the Great Navigator. I have three times passaged the Atlantic, once Eastward toward Europe and twice back towards the Indies. On no occasion did I sight a sailing yacht. In fact, and even more surprising, on no passage did I even sight a merchant ship.

Let us consider how many yachts, in total, there might be in the 600,000 square miles during the month or so that you would be making the crossing. A good guess is that, even during the most trafficked crossing season, there are no more than 50 yachts spread from 11 to 16 degrees along the two thousand odd miles from Africa to the Indies.

When you consider that there are only 50 yachts in the area that you could sight in any hour and that there are 720 hours in the month and that you only pass through 10 square miles in any single hour then, according to my estimate of probability the mathematical chance of meeting another yacht in this passage, is a mind boggling 80,000 to 1 against !

The seas are a very large place. Part of their charm, perhaps most of their charm, is their lack of clutter. You are sufficiently deprived of human sensory input so that should stochastic events coalesce into a blinding co-incident, a meeting at sea, you will have gained the clarity to recognize, to savor, to appreciate and to be thankful for the gift of the touch of another human spirit.

On land companionship is thrust upon us, forcing us to be social long after we have had our fill of society. It is little wonder that we become cynics and misogynists. And that is too bad, for beyond the companionship of our neighbors (and for some lucky few the companionship of their God) we are quite alone in the Universe.

Only by seeking separation from the human herd can you come lovingly close to it. Just one more gift of paradox of which the sea is blessedly full.