Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

Every sailboat is different. Each has its own signature, its own nuance, its best point of sailing. This fact is lost in a crude world of motorboats who plow the oceans and lakes with dogged monotony, in a rush to get from here to there by the straightest line. Sailing is not a game for the hurried. You zig and zag, back and forth, from tack to tack, crawling your way up wind and down. Mastering a ship requires patience and a concert master's ear for the wind in the rigging... tweaking, tightening, loosening, adding sail and taking away sail.

Those who know no better assume the fastest way to travel is directly opposite of the wind with as much sail as possible. But these sailors are barbarians with little sense. The true masters know a ship's best point of sailing is several points off the direct line of the wind... and in strong breezes, more sail can actually slow you down rather than speeding you along. This is true of life as well, where turning yourself directly into the wind will eventually leave your sails fluttering... and it is best to keep your options open by following the direction, but not too closely.

The winds do not obey you or I. They simply blow, or not. We created steamships and motorboats for this very reason. And so we plow forward now on strict time tables on direct lines. We forget the power of patience that are necessary when dealing with the doldrums. The power of listening to the wind in the rigging to hear the subtle changes that we must make to get from A to B. And we forget the white knuckled terror that strikes us when the winds and storms catch us, when all there is to do is pull down the sails, and turn into the waves and hold on.

But it is the doldrums that I think about now. For that is where I am. Sitting and waiting for the gusts to blow on my cheek to tell me that the waiting is over and it is time again to move. But sitting still and waiting is not the only option in sailing. There is a technique called "kedging". In large sailing ships, a small rowboat is sent out carrying the ship's anchor. The men row ahead of the ship and push the anchor overboard. Then the men on the main ship turn a crank to slowly pull the ship forward a few feet. The anchor is then pulled out again and the process is repeated. It is ridiculously hard work. But it keeps us from slipping backward, and keeps us moving forward, however slowly, until the winds pick up again.

Knowing what to do at sea does not come from an owner's manual. Certainly there is training, and basic skills necessary. But at the end of training comes instinct. A finely tuned ability to understand the subtle reactions that a ship takes based on your actions. Being in the doldrums can suck the instinct from you. It can pull you into a lull, addling your brain into contentment. And pulling one self out of this requires a ridiculous amount of labor.

Perhaps it is time to get out the kedge and start rowing.


  1. just don't pull the sails in too tight or they spill air and cause a luft. hang on to the stays and try to drive the boat to a finer edge.

    it's been years now since i've been sailing and i still miss it.

  2. @Char... look at you with the nautical terms... luft... growl...

  3. Thank anchor-in-the-ocean thing confuses me. What if it's too deep to set the anchor?

  4. I know, look at Char all showing off.
    I'm like. uh don't fall overboard and watch out for the BOOM or whatever.
    That's it.
    Great writing, though.

  5. Interesting post with a lot of nuance...

    Sometimes I think we could all use a good kedging!


  6. @mandy... this is why it is wise to stick to shallow water along the shores.

    @pina... i was expecting a poop deck joke at least.

    @pearl... thanks. I think I might use that... "We could all use a good kedging". And the people will all be like "huh, wha?"

  7. The key is just to keep moving no matter how little and no matter the means, right?

  8. life feels like one big kedge these days. And like Mandy above, I'm wondering about what happens if the water's too deep.

  9. I love words like "doldrums"...they feel exactly like they sound.