Sailing, at least sailing small boats long distances far from shore, is a technology often practiced in discomfort and occasionally fear, practiced in a realm of enormous forces that cannot possibly be controlled and sometimes not even survived. A sailor can manage risk by playing probabilities, by carefully choosing routes and time of passage, but the risks of sailing small boats across oceans are still significantly greater than vacationing onboard the Royal Caribbean Cruise line. So why do we do it? Why do sailors go to such expense and effort to place themselves in harm’s way?
Why do people climb mountains where the air is too thin to breathe, where nothing but windblown spiders and lichen live? There are more direct, less problematic ways to travel, whether to Mt Everest or the backside of Bora Bora. It’s obviously far cheaper, faster, and statistically safer to fly to Bora Bora and charter a boat than to cross the immense Pacific under sail.
Certainly in the case of sailing, it’s the voyage rather than the destination but that begs the question. Why is the voyage so compelling? Anyone who repeatedly sails across oceans will inevitably be scared witless or, at the very least, immeasurably impressed. The storms that sweep across the deep oceans are the spirit of God moving upon the face of the waters—an awful, awesome, Old Testament sort of God. At the risk of sounding cynical (not my intent), ocean passages are often long spells of boredom punctuated by acute anxiety.
But boredom isn’t a bad thing necessarily despite the fact that we shy from it like it was a flesh eating bacteria. In fact, boredom can be redemptive.
Delivery crews (and I suspect most small boat crews) typically consist of three people. A passage from Hawaii to San Francisco often takes three weeks from departure to landfall. The math is obvious. With so few crew, the watch stander is usually alone on deck, the off watch in their bunks below dreaming of the smell of fresh water and trying to recover from too little sleep. When you’re on watch, you’re steering; when you’re off watch, you’re asleep. There’s very little that lies between.
And at sea the horizon stretches uniformly in every direction. The clouds begin at a uniform height and are segregated a uniform distance like boys and girls at a middle school dance. There is nothing to catch the eye or establish scale. The sameness of the sea and sky reflect your thoughts like a polished mirror. It is a state of sensory deprivation.
For most of us with lives cluttered to capacity, the enforced simplicity of a long ocean passage—life without television or cinema, newspapers, magazines or books, without even conversation—is a startling experience. For the first time we hear the chatter that goes on constantly in our heads, the muttered conversation that provides the subtext of our lives.
For me, the experience was more than startling. It was appalling. My interior monologue was nasty and embittered, mean spirited, as harshly critical of myself as it was of others. And it went on forever. It never stopped, never relented, never paused for breath. It was like some archetypal mother-in-law yammering endlessly. It never shut up.
Fifteen years have passed since my first ocean crossing and I’m still integrating the meaning of that experience.
Perhaps that’s the attraction of voyaging in small boats across oceans—enforced simplicity. It’s not the same attraction as traveling by Orient Express. There are no quaint customs to observe, no piquant local scenes, no amusing anecdotes to collect like luggage stickers. There is just the vast emptiness and ourselves and the endless mirrored reflections.