The alchemy of sailing

The magic of running away to sea

HARRY BRUCE July 1 1973

The alchemy of sailing

The magic of running away to sea

HARRY BRUCE July 1 1973

The alchemy of sailing

The magic of running away to sea


All the dark winter she’s in our driveway, up on her trailer, dead as a boulder on the ocean floor, a pathetic reproof to the terrible season that keeps her there.

We tore up an old yellow tent in November and lashed it around her but it didn’t work. The blizzards off the ocean come screaming up the bay in a way you’d have to feel to believe, and they rip the tent and yank it around as though they had hands, and then they dump the wild snow in her, and it melts, and turns to ice in her fiberglass belly.

By March, the bay that lies for miles below our eastern windows begins to break up and turn from white to blue, and move again, and the days lengthen and the sun comes at us from a better height, and I remember that she’s not really as dead as a boulder, she’s no more dead than the sleeping trees, or a winter bear. She’s waiting, and so am I.

I begin to fiddle in the basement. I dust off her two small masts, touch things up with Pratt and Lambert Spar Varnish (Quick Drying), take her rusty brown mainsail downtown to get a tiny hole patched. I blow $1.50 on Yachting magazine, I go out to the driveway and run my hands along her teak gunwales, inspect her rose bottom, her white boot top, her seagreen topsides, her eager bow I love her plump conformation for the seven hundredth time and I know that, one sweet day soon, she’ll be back on the bay where she lives and, together, we’ll storm the glittering ocean, and I’ll be alive again in a way I’ve not known at any time since winter laid her low.

I’ll not be alone in this resurrection. In Canada, the sailboat industry is booming now as it has never boomed before.

Manufacturers’ sales of sailboats have almost doubled in four years, sailboat imports more than tripled between 1966 and 1971, and God alone knows exactly how many amateur sailboat builders were at work this past winter in the garages, basements and backyards of the country.

City people are increasingly desperate for evidence that they can be alive in a natural world, and there’s a connection in yearnings between the back-to-the-land movement we hear so much about these days and a back-to-the-water movement in sailing craft. Back to Nature. Back to something clean and simple. Back to a life in which the main worries are not other people and what they do to themselves and to us but, rather, the right time to sow and the right time to reap, the proper construction of a root cellar, rounding up a lost animal, how to sink a well . . .

Or the shape of the thunderheads over an empty horizon, how soon to run for harbor, whether you can lay the marker buoy on the tack you’re on now, whether or not to reef the main, the fog off the starboard bow, the mysterious breakers off the port bow, the biting flies under the hot sky of a sweaty calm, finding a safe anchorage, what the wind does as the sun dies, and the weather the morning may bring. Sailing reminds millions of men and women that they are alive and, during our moments afloat, a small part of each one of us becomes a Captain Joshua Slocum.

Lovers of literature about seafarers will know that on November 14, 1909, the great Joshua Slocum, Nova Scotia-born,

aged 65 left the New England port of Vineyard Haven in his famous and beloved little sloop the Spray, outward bound for what he’d told a friend were “some faraway places,” and that no one ever again saw either the captain or a trace of his vessel. Eleven sad years had passed since he and the Spray, all by themselves, had made their immortal voyage around the world, and by 1909 they were both in tatters. No one will ever know exactly what was on his mind that morning.

Perhaps, somewhere in the williwaws of this strange man’s head, there was an obsession blowing and it said the time had come for him to die at sea in the vessel he had come to know as well as any man had ever known anything. Perhaps not. But the thing that is clear — from his classic Sailing Alone Around The World — is that, throughout his middle age and maybe his whole life, he never experienced such fear and glory, such peace and high ecstasy, such visions and grace, such communion with the wild creatures of the seas of the spinning world or so deep and mystical an awareness of the fact of his being, as he did during the days and nights of his time alone with the Spray.

He loved her, and the meaning of his love is that sailing is not merely a sport;

Slocum was not comparable to a Sunday golfer or a lunchtime handball nut; and sailing craft are never just sports paraphernalia.

They do not belong to the family of baseball bats, lacrosse sticks, skates, shuttlecocks, Olympic pools and jockstraps.

Sailing is as old as riding horses. Men have been going down to the sea in ships to do business in great waters for as long as they’ve been building roads, raising cattle or writing words; but, despite thousands of years of accumulated sailing lore, no one will ever know all that we need to know about the relationships among sails and seas and winds and the powers of the sun and moon above No, sailing is not a sport. It’s a life, and MacAskill’s fine old photographs on these pages reveal this better than the most dramatic shots of the jazziest new Olympic sailing class ever could.

Sailing is active worship, a sacrifice of what we usually are to the children of God we might once have been, a reunion with blowing forces and unknowable chemistries and whirling planetary laws that must surely have something to do with the beginning of everything. Asleep in the black heart of February nights. I have dreams in which I am aboard gargantuan sailboats of unearthly grace and unspeakable power, and they rush me over massive cushions of green ocean toward destinations I never discover.

Slocum, says his biographer Walter Teller, was “a kind of prophet of the value of insecurity” and, though yachting experts have described the Spray as an unseaworthy old tub, Slocum himself knew she was beautiful beyond words and on the day he launched her he wrote simply, “She sat on the water like a swan.” We can’t all sail around the world. We can’t all own Sprays.

On the days we choose to sail, however, we can smell for a while just a breath of the value of insecurity. We can see the cat’s-paw of change move toward us over the water and we

can discover for ourselves, again and again, that no well-designed and usefully loved sailboat, no matter how small she may be, ever fails to sit on the water like a swan. (Except when the things none of us can control conspire against her.)

An eight-year-old girl, at the helm of a sawed-off sevenfoot plywood pram with a pink sail that’s smaller than her bedsheet, glides over a brown pond under city trees, through the shimmering reflections of skyscrapers, and across the park and down a long hot summer afternoon of her life. She is messing about with the same principles of propulsion that, each winter, drive tens of millions of dollars’ worth of impossibly gleaming yachts crashing and sliding their way through hundreds of miles of tumbling southern seas in the month-long Southern Ocean Racing Conference.

The yachts have dazzling equipment, towering grace, great white cloud after cloud of swinging, billowing, thundering

sails. But they are all sisters to the little girl’s pram, and the little girl is sister to the hard-drinking rich men who battle one another in the SORC because all winds are variations of an eternal wind, and those men would have to sail the pram pretty much the way she sails it.

It’s this same wind that brings to life hundreds of thousands of other sailboats, out of thousands of ports and clubs, sailing in hundreds of racing classes, in more regattas than any yachting magazine has ever been able to list, over putrid canals, lifeless reservoirs, greasy harbors, a world of lakes, and among utterly trustworthy tides, currents of treachery, icebergs moving south, buoys, bells, lightships, horns, whistles, flags, markers, hail, warm plopping rain, and out, too, among the strange birds, flying fish, hallucinations and the long swells of the Pacific Ocean at the equator’s line.

When the little girl hoists her sail, cleats her halyard, drops her centreboard, takes the mainsheet in one hand and the tiller in the other and starts across the park, she is not only joining a fraternity of experience that included Captain Slocum and everyone else who ever sailed a boat, she is not only offering herself to an infinity of possible adventures, she is also accepting the power of whatever laws govern the relationships between people, sails and hulls on the one hand and, on the other, moving water, the location of the stars, and the sundriven wind. She will watch what she’s doing this afternoon. She will consider the influences on the pond because, at the moment, the pond is exactly where she is alive.

Sailing restores your ability to hear things one at a time. The city may have wrecked for a while your ear’s readiness to discriminate. There is a sound I’ll know in my head even when I’ve lost all true hearing, and it is the gentle, ringing clap-clang of steel halyards slapping aluminum masts aboard boats at their moorings. If you’re trying to sleep on one of those boats it can be maddening, but this sound of insomnia is also the sound of evening peace in a perfect world, like cowbells in the pastures of your childhood; and it is


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SAILING from page 25

the sound, too, of a dew-wet sunny dawn in the fragrance of a port you’ve just awakened to see by daylight for the first time. It summons you to coffee you can count on tasting better than coffee has ever tasted before.

The halyards are a sound of port, like the clunk of ice cubes in plastic tumblers, the creak of rowlocks, or a greeting called across quiet water under the voluminous trees of a friendly shore. The seagoing sounds are more violent: the explosive thwack of a balloon spinnaker catching all the wind it can hold in a fantastic split second; the fluttering thunder of a luffing mainsail; the metallic rattle, the smooth, hard, ratcheting click of a jib-sheet winch. There is the sound, in our own boat, of the heavy centreboard vibrating in its trunk — a kind of dull, chattering, humming complaint against the pressures of the sea.

Every boat has her unique creaks, groans, rattles and noisemaking partnerships of things; and always, in addition to the wind’s whistling affair with the standing rigging, there is the sound of the water rushing against the thin, curvaceous skin of the hull that separates you from the depths. (When our fouryear-old was only two and three weeks out of his mother’s womb he was a bilious cranky babe, and the one place where he’d sleep for hours on end was down among the gurgling, slapping, bubbling harmonies in the bows of our 24-footer.) If I were to go blind, I’d want people to take me sailing.

The sounds are a part of being at the very centre of something important, and aboard a powerboat you do not hear them. Not the ones I mean. You do not glide. You shake your way through the water and things that are alive would rather not have much to do with you. “Porpoises,” Slocum observed, “always prefer sailing ships.” And today, whale researchers out of Halifax track the

great beasts of the sea by schooner.

Then there are the thing? you see. There is, of course, no end to them, which is another reason why I say sailing is not a sport but a life. You can’t record all the visual experiences of a life, even when they’re as moving, as astounding, as significant, as frightening and tranquilizing as they’re bound to be aboard a moving sailboat. The things you see are part of a great distance, and all of them swing with the motion of your craft, which obeys the motion of the water, and you can see all of the sky, a complete horizon, the dome above, the moving ceaseless plain below. Slocum knew.

Slocum was well off Nova Scotia, on the first leg of his circumnavigation of the globe, when he discovered the Spray’s amazing ability to hold a course on her own and, on the night of July 5, 1895, she was making eight knots, and he was feeling just fine: “The fog lifting before night, I was afforded a look at the sun just as it was touching the sea. I watched it go down and out of sight. Then I turned my face eastward, and there, apparently at the very end of the bowsprit, was the smiling full moon ris-

ing out of the sea. Neptune himself coming over the bows could not have startled me more. ‘Good morning, sir,’ I cried. ‘I’m glad to see you.’ ”

It pleases me to live in the province where Slocum was born, to share with the odd fishing boat (there are situations in which marine engines are forgivable) a stretch of the strange cruel shoreline and seagoing heritage of Nova Scotia. We live about four miles from the open ocean on a ijord near Halifax. Our current boat — the one in the driveway — is a chunky, open 18-footer with three loose-footed sails, lots of freeboard and, for her size, marvelous abilities in heavy weather. She must be one of the world’s smallest yawls and, though she looks like a converted fishing dory, she sails as an antelope runs.

We moor her a few hundred yards from our house and, since the wind usually comes up the bay, she tugs at her float with her nose raised toward the open sea and, all day, she mutely begs us to let her set us free. We buck out to the ocean, tacking between the slowly widening shores of scrubby spruce and bright, bald, salt-scoured rock, and we’re still close-hauled as we pass the ever barer islands and the midstream rocks that are deathtraps for vessels and heaven for cormorants . . . and then, beyond the farther islands on the long wave-corrugated skyline, we can see it all, blazing and gleaming under the summer sun, the whole, great, bouncing, marching, magnificent mess — the Atlantic Ocean — and just about then, the boat seems to slip up over one of the more gentle slopes on a roller coaster and we can feel the ride in our stomachs. Then she does it again. She slips up and over the ocean swell and moves on to the open sea, and the feeling is not quite like anything we ever knew in all the hours of happy sailing we spent during the years on Lake Ontario.

We reach back and forth along the coast, shuddering at the awful weight of ocean water on rock, watching it blam skyward like the cold bursts of white firecrackers, and considering uneasily the terrible suck of it as it slides home again.

We find secret islands, sweet anchorages in calm backwaters of such Caribbean clarity we can see the fish moving 10 or 12 feet below, and we unpack mountains of impossibly delicious sandwiches, grapes, oranges, soft cheese, and drinks that are exquisite under our own sun. Hawks sail, seagulls wheel and squawk, the ocean roars on the windward shore of the island, and we lie down on the hot sand here on the lee side, and watch our little vessel as she rides at anchor and sits on the water like a swan. Before dark, we run up the bay and home to supper.

Usually, we take our three kids on these southbound dashes to the ocean and, once, we all saw two slick black porpoises gamboling and arching and dancing through the cold rollers as though they were lovers in a field of grass, and the sight of them — the big, precious, utterly wild creatures out there exactly where they belonged — shocked us so that the memory is with us now, and for a long time.

There was a day, too, my wife and I left the kids at home because the wind was gusting beyond 40, and we got out there a few hundred yards off the real shore, the outer shore, and we saw a sumptuous 40-foot cruising sloop reaching inshore through the long beams of the late sun, heading for quieter water, and the whole ocean sparkled crazily and threw up such a commotion that this big, prudent deep-sea racer flew only her jib.

All three of our little sails were drawing beautifully and our boat charged up one side of the waves and shot down the other with a zest and courage that I was sure could not help but astound the sloop’s skipper. (How could he know we were too scared to lose way long enough to reef our main or, indeed, that for a while we were too scared even to try going about so we could go on home?)

But enough. You get a sailboat-lover reminiscing, and he’ll go on all night. The point is only this: you learn from sailing that, although you must forever deal with forces of wind and weather that predate all memory and still defy our understanding, no two days of sailing are ever the same. If we were capable of measuring the changes, we’d find that no two seconds of sailing are ever the same either. Sailing is as infinitely various as the. changing face of the sky, and once you begin to feel this you will be able to say with Captain Slocum, “The days passed happily with me wherever my ship sailed.” ■