Category Archives: Wind


Like wind – In it, with it, of it. Of it just like a sail, so light and strong that, even when it is bent flat, it gathers all the power of the wind without hampering its course.
Like light – In light, lit through by light, transformed into light. Like the lens which disappears in the light it focuses.
Like wind. Like light.
Just this – on these expanses, on these heights.
―Dag Hammarskjöld, Markings, 1963

The Economy of Sail

My wife isn’t keen on the idea of hauling freight under sail. When I begin talking about the inevitable decline in oil production and the relentless rise of energy costs, her eyes glaze and her attention strays to something more interesting like the annual yield of winter wheat in the Ukraine.

She’s not entirely convinced our future is an economy of scarcity.


And frankly, I’m her husband. Why should she believe me? It isn’t even my idea, hauling cargo under sail, but it’s an idea that resonates.

There already are people delivering produce to market across the Puget Sound from the organic farms of Sequim to the docks of Ballard. They pile their produce onto the deck of a Catalina 34. It’s not the most seaworthy arrangement. Any offshore sailor would cringe at the sight but there’s not a lot of cargo space on a fiberglass production boat. You use the tools at hand until better tools are available.

The Soliton carrying produce to market across the Puget Sound. Photo credit: Ballard News-Tribune. A soliton a mysterious wave that can travel without dissipating energy through non-linear systems, behaving both like a particle and a wave.

A better tool might be a wooden schooner designed for the trade with wide beam, broad decks, large hatches and a cargo hold. A broad beam provides stability and cargo capacity on deck and below. (Schooners often carried deckloads of lumber or livestock—sheep or pigs or even cattle in temporary pens rigged on deck.) And wooden construction relies upon a renewable resource easily repaired and commonly available in the Pacific NW. As well, the harvesting and shaping of wood can be done with little dependence upon fossil fuels if you have none.

It would be lovely to see the Sound fill with working sail again, patched and threadbare sails but still serviceable, standing out to sea or working inshore at the end of day, the westering sun silhouetting their squat hulls and pedestrian rigs like a flock of sea birds settling on the water. Lovely, perhaps, but it begs the question—why?

A schooner leaves little wake or impact upon the earth by its passage. It’s remarkably self-contained, efficient, and cost effective if it isn’t competing against time. The conceit of time—time as money—unmade the age of sail and replaced it with the machine, the age of internal combustion. But the machine has proved a less human tool.

A schooner’s schedule isn’t a promise but a proposition, a negotiation with wind and weather and current.


There is a grace in shaping your course by wind and current, reaching your destination through skill and persistence, acknowledging the wider world rather than willfully disregarding it but the economy of sail can’t compete against cheap oil and a predictable schedule. As oil becomes increasingly expensive and then increasingly difficult to buy at whatever cost, sail becomes a more attractive method of transport. And, I’d argue, a more human method.

I think the question isn’t whether commercial sail will become viable again but when. My guess is sooner rather than later. So many significant factors—climate change, population density, peak oil production, the scarcity of arable land and clean water—are converging to create a perfect storm of change. That storm will overtake us unprepared. We’ll remain convinced of the certainty of our lives until they’re changed forever in an instant and only afterwards will it seem self-evident. Perhaps that’s by design.

Photo credit: Gloucester Schooner Festival. 


We had expected a strong wind, and we had no idea what to expect. NOAA forecasts indicated a front with steep pressure gradients. We had bought the house among the tall trees only a few months before. The wind had always been muted among the Douglas-fir and Western Red Cedar, passing distantly through the crowns of trees several hundred feet tall and several hundred years old. We had never experienced a windstorm among the trees. Until that night.

That night the wind raged among the trees, demented. Branches broke with the sound of small arms fire; entire trees fell to the ground with the sound of artillery. That night the sky was at war with the earth.

In the morning the ground was concealed beneath layers of sheared Olympic_Blowdown_3evergreen branches. Both roads leading to the highway were blocked by downed trees, some tightly entangled as if for support but overtaken by the same fate. Houses had been stove like wooden hulls dashed upon the rocks. Enormous trees littered the ground, sticks scattered in a children’s game. Until that morning I hadn’t realized the vulnerability of trees.

Trees don’t always die singly. Sometimes entire forests die in a single tempest. In January 1921 a windstorm swept the Olympic Peninsula and felled billions of board feet of timber, the equivalent of 20% of the annual US consumption by one estimate; enough lumber to build 600,000 wood frame homes. There was an eye witness.

We left the machines and started to run down the road toward a space in the forest where the timber was lighter. Just after leaving the car, I chanced to look up and saw a limb sailing through the air toward us; I caught Mrs. Hill by the hand and we ran; and instant later the limb, which was about 12 inches in diameter, crashed where had stood. In three or four minutes we had climbed over two immense tree trunks and reached the place in which I thought was our only chance to escape serious injury or possibly death. The southeast wind roared through the forest, the falling trees crashed to the ground in every direction from where we stood. Many were broken off where their diameter was as much as 4 feet. A giant spruce fell across the roadway burying itself through the planks within 10 feet of where we stood. Three tops broke off and sailed through the air, some of the trees fell with a crash, others toppled over slowly as their roots were torn from the earth.

Huge stands of hemlock were “literally torn from the ground and tossed into impenetrable tangles.” An entire herd of 200 Roosevelt elk were killed by falling timber. The storm was afterwards known as the Olympic Blowdown of 1921.

It’s called windthow by scientists who study the destructive effect of wind upon trees but blowdown is still the common Olympic_Blowdown_2name in the Pacific NW. Windthrow can result from any number of reasons: weakness induced by disease; reduced holding power of saturated soil; shallow root structure; the impact of falling trees; or the overwhelming strength of the wind. During the Olympic Blowdown the winds were measured in excess of 100 miles per hour – hurricane strength.

Now when I hear the wind moving through the canopy of tall trees, when I see the trees bend and sway in the wind, I think of them differently. Once I thought them impervious. Now I know they’re vulnerable, individually and en masse. Now I know that living among them is both a cause for wonder and concern.

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