The Older, The Better

The sailing life gives us old folk the opportunity to escape from the probing eyes of our children who are intent to discern in us the earliest evidence of faculty lost, says Palley.


Every time I see another picture of hale, young human beings lolling about in an immaculate sailboat on a quiet sea, I want to shout from the rooftops, "No, no, it's all a lie!" Such photos imply that cruising under sail is a sport for the young. After all, when was the last time you saw a sailboat ad in which the lolling about was done by a beat-up old guy and his less than sylphlike mate?

In sailboat brochures and in any popular film that might include sailors, old folk do not exist. Sailing is perceived as an activity for young, smooth-skinned male juveniles, whose large pectorals are displayed as progenitive encouragement for their unwrinkled, upthrust female crew. Sag and droop have no place in the iconography of sailing. Wrinkled skin is worse than a wrinkled luff and any sign of aging (of boat, crew or line) that cannot be cured with fiberglass, face-lift or money, bans vessel and sailor from the spotlight of modern culture.

Please note that I emphatically did not say that racing as a sport for the, young is a lie. Indeed it is one of the great truths that only the young are equipped with the fortitude, femurs and foolishness necessary for the racing of sailboats. The involvement in racing, as I see it, is a simple extension of sexual aggression. The winners get the girls (or the guys). In racing it is all about rauscle, speed, dexterity and the ability to endure unnecessary pain for short and critical periods of time. These are the attributes of the feisty young animal.

But while racing is for the young and daring at heart, the overall sailing and cruising lifestyle is the ultimate sport and pastime for those of us who have lost the youthful passion to compete and to win. We ancients may have lost some muscle, some dexterity, some vision and some hearing, but in the great compensatory biological game we have replaced those items with patience, experience and respect for nature. The Sailing Life is truly a sport for the old. Let us count the ways.

The Sailing Life gives us old folk the opportunity to escape from the probing eyes of our children who are intent to discern in us the earliest evidence of faculty lost. Our progeny too closely count our remaining days while all we old folk want to do is ignore our mortality. To be in your own boat, unjudged and unmeasured, not only adds years to your life, it adds to your enjoyment of whatever life you have left.

To live like some grandpops and grandmoms, in an inevitable downward spiral of life, is not living at all. My generation must escape from the tyranny of the young and avoid relegation to those holding tanks for the truly old and decrepit.

There are two socially acceptable alternatives offered to "ancients." The first is to live (if you call that living) amid the worried eyes of our children as an appendix soon to be disposed of. The second is to be impacted within a flock of gray-skinned, knobby-kneed and aimless oldies. Both are unacceptable modes of living out the last thirds of our lives.

Participation in physical activity does, indeed, come to an end sometime. Our bodies do have time limits that vary with each sport. A gymnast at 20 is 100 years old. Boxing is questionable at 30. Football is virtually out of the question at 40. Golf scores soar at 60. But there are sports, given congenial genes, in which youth is not tity the first and last requirement. The king of the Danes played a good game of tennis at 90 and a friend of mine is still jumping out of airplanes at 65. As long as you are not driven to win, most sports have a long, drawn-out endgame.

So let us consider debility, the loss of physical skills. What is really required to sail a boat? What are the real endgame skills? First is experience, that irreplaceable store of information, and the sure knowledge, characteristic among old folk, that they have faced similar crises before and have survived worse. Vast sailing experience equals the passage of time plus the committed act of sailing. It is, for example, almost impossible to teach someone verbally how to reef a sail. That experience is etched into muscle. And like riding a bike, the learning can only be achieved by doing; once mastered, the etching is ineradicable.

There are so many things that have to be done on a sailboat and have to be done well, that experience becomes the only way to develop all the skills required. The doing, and the time to do, is the best definition of experience. The irony here is that experience, the antonym of youth, can be acquired by the young only by growing old.

Onboard a vessel manned by young and energetic sailors, a crisis is met with instant response- as if a tenth of a second counts. Frenetic barreling about too often results in a catapult over the lifeline or, with boring regularity, a broken bone or a deck slippery with blood.

Old folk are, thank goodness, unable to respond with high alacrity, so we are spared the sea dunk or the bone break and our vessel is spared the need to face up to a compounded crisis. When you do things too quickly on a sailboat, one damn thing leads to another damn thing. Few single problems ever sunk a sailboat, but when the original event is burdened with fast and thoughtless activity, disaster looms. Old guys and gals are better sailors than young ones because we simply cannot move fast enough to magnify disaster.

A nice old guy I know once described to me his mode of dealing with crisis: "I ease the sheets, then I carefully find a course that the boat likes. Then I go below and have a small glass of wine and I think about the problem. By this time the crisis has either cured itself -which they do without my assistance nine times out of 10 -or, when I return on deck I have a dear idea of what I shall do."

This fits into my conviction and my experience that almost nothing on a sailboat must be done in a hurry. Speed in response to drama is best replaced by careful preparation for potentially dangerous contingencies. Thus we are back to experience. Because it takes a long time for all the bad things that can happen to a sailor to happen, a great sailor must, by definition, be an old sailor.

Harelike leaping about is demonstrably more dangerous than a tortoiselike crawl. The devilment that a sailboat can inflict appears slowly, with great dignity and gentlemanly forewarning. Your response should be the same. Dignity, with which we old folk replace derring-do, is inherent in age. Dignity is the shield behind which we hide our infirmities. It is the even pacing which allows us to do stuff slowly, which in reality we can no longer do quickly. Let me recall an example.

It was in my earliest days of sailing. I had chartered a boat in the Virgins and after the long, "brave" six-hour passage across Sir Francis Drake Channel, I entered Tortola Harbor where my anchoring was accomplished with the maximum of passion, accompanied by high decibels of screaming, as five young people scurried about mindlessly on deck. There was a small flotilla of boats already anchored and we terrorized them so much that some got up steam in preparation to depart and one quickly left the area altogether, with great disdain.

We finally got our hook down. Naturally, at 3 a.m. we dragged to within a few feet of the seawall. This entailed additional screaming. Our neighbors seemed less than grateful.

Morning came. I was on the anchor watch, which we had failed to post the night before (I was learning). At dawn a lovely little dark-painted wood sloop quietly entered the harbor under sail alone. There was one lone, very old and very sparse-looking fellow at the wheel. He brought her in, gently pointed her head to wind in a nice clear space and tied off the wheel as she stopped. The old gentleman creakily hobbled forward, dropped and secured his jib, struck his main and put his hook down without sound and certainly without fury. The little sloop was named Mary Rose. The exercise took about 15 minutes, after which the dignified ancient disappeared below and slept till noon

I had been taught a lesson by the master of the Mary Rose, the founding Admiral of the Ocean Cruising Club. Since that day 1 have likewise ambled about my boat, keeping my head while others have been losing theirs and murmuring thanks to the memory of Sir Humphrey Barton.

Barring fire or collision with an uncaring whale, there is no crisis that must be addressed quickly on a sailboat that could not have been avoided in the first place with forethought. Even in the case of fire, if extinguishers are readily placed and at hand and you've conducted proper fire drills, there will be limited damage. In the case of a whale who neither sees or feels you, there is little to be done except to step up quietly into your life raft as your boat slips away beneath you. Collision with another ship does not even enter into my lexicon of sailing. If you are so shortsighted, in a big ocean, to fail to mount a continuous and careful watch, then you won't live long enough to grow old enough to fit my argument.

Of all of our senses, touch is the most useful of all to a sailor, especially at night, which is fully half of most of our passage time. Thankfully, this is the last sense to go. Taste is irrelevant and the sense of smell stays with you a long while. I once made a landfall in Senegal after all my instruments went out, by following the smell of the desert down the coast of Africa until we encountered the rich and pungent smell of the city of Dakar. 1 simply turned left at the odor and followed my nose into the harbor.

Hearing is less important because, with radar, no longer are we dependent upon our ears to pick out the bells and whistles of government marks. Sounds that are really important to a sailor are not those distant sounds anyway; they are the creakings and the clangings and the swishes of the boat itself. These are vibratory sounds, more felt in the body than heard in the head.

The loss of sight is the great fear of old sailors. But sight does not shut down like a diesel with air in its lines. It fades slowly and, as with most biological events, there are accommodating parallels. Your vision loses acuity but, as sailors know, it is not what you actually "see" at sea, as what you sense you are seeing that counts. Long before you can pick out the two masts of a ketch on the horizon, you already know that what you are seeing feels like a ketch. Long before you can delineate the masts that a big ship carries and from which you can with surety determine its speed and heading, you will have decided, without actually seeing the ship, whether or not you are in any immediate danger.

My advice, therefore, to my circle of an- cients is to just keep sailing. Do not let adventure and new horizons. Do not let your doctor dissuade you, for while he may know much about death, what does he really know about life? Do not let society impose its "shoulds" and its "should nots." Tell your accountants-and your stockbrokers that, in this best time of your life/they are simply redundant. Tell your lawyers to take a hike.

And my advice to young sailors is to await with eagerness the coming of old age, the time in which the best of the Sailing Life resides.