Sea vs. Land (or, Why I Chose the Sea)

Sea vs. Land (or, Why I Chose the Sea)

I’m just now getting around to reading the 70-page orders for my new post. Perhaps this seems odd – that I took a job without knowing what is required of me. Thing is, I wasn’t worried about the details. All I needed to know was that we’d be sailing.

I realize I keep waxing metaphysical about this business of going sailing, my “sea call.” I’m not the first one to feel this way – if you read Moby Dick and Joshua Slocum and the accounts of thousands of sailors before and after, you will hear the same mystical sea-talk. But it may be hard to comprehend if you’ve never been in a sailboat, exactly what these guys are talking about.

When I was growing up, I remember listening to songs like “Boots of Spanish Leather” and “Brandy” and thinking that sailing was merely a means for men to get away. To simply be… away. For why would you choose the sea over a woman, over love?

But as I get older, and after having learned to sail, I get it.

The Backstory 
In the past week I’ve met a dozen new people and they usually ask about my new job. I often get the question: “So did you grow up sailing?”

The answer is no. In the spring of 2009, I quit my corporate job. I planned to roam around the U.S. in a motorhome looking for a place to put down roots. But when all my passengers on The Great American Roadtrip bailed, I was left sitting at my parents’ house wondering what to do with myself. “If I were you,” my father said, “I would go and live on your grandfather’s sailboat.”
My father and my grandfather sailing near Long Beach.

The Boat 
My grandfather is almost 80 years old. He lost one leg in a motorcycle accident around 2002. He still goes to work every day as a machinist in southern California. My grandmother takes him dancing once a week. Recently he sold his red corvette in order to build a new hot rod. And for some odd reason, a few years ago, he bought a sailboat. A 27’ Newport. He got it for around $3000. He did not know how to sail.

He took it out a few times with a friend who knew how to sail, but he didn’t fall in love with it the way he thought he would. During the summer of 2009, he was planning to sell the boat when I called and asked if I could come live on it for a month and learn how to sail.

Looking back, I can’t believe how little we knew when we took it out the first time. For all of the things that went wrong, it’s amazing I still wanted to learn. Our first trip out? Engine failure. Twice. My grandfather stood in the cabin with the engine compartment open fiddling with it (engines being his expertise, I figured I was in good hands), while I stood on deck, watching the tide push us closer and closer to the rock embankments that line the harbor. I didn’t know how to use the radio. I didn’t know how to put down an anchor. And since neither of us understood how to sail, we didn’t even think to raise the sails.

Early Lessons
The next time we went out, I hired an instructor to come aboard with us. We didn’t tell him about the engine. The winds were already over 20 knots when we set out that day, so our first lesson was on how to reef a sail. I will never forget it. Even with the sail reefed, which means it’s smaller and therefore reduces the amount of power the boat can capture from the wind, even then – we were racing along.

When we prepared to take down sail and return to the marina, the engine failed. The instructor, an experienced sailor, looked visibly distressed. The winds had increased to around 30 knots and we had a downwind slip – making it risky to bring the boat in without an engine. (With an upwind slip you can easily sail right into the slip, since going into the wind will stall the sails, but in a downwind slip, even without any sails up, the wind is pushing on the back of the boat and unless you have an engine, there is no way to “break” – except perhaps by jumping off the boat at lightning speed and using the lines to secure it.) Fortunately, the problem with the engine was sporadic, as we’d noted on our previous outing, and the engine grunted back to life just in time to bring the boat in.

Did I still want to sail? Hell yes. I got out every chance I could with anyone at the marina that would accompany me. I met a guy my parents’ age who was preparing to sail around the world, and we spent hours tightening the stays (the wire lines that create tension on either side of the mast, essentially holding it in place). We even replaced the back stay. He showed me how to use a climbing harness to get to the top of the mast in order to repair things, like the spreader lights and the caps on the ends of the spreaders.

Lessons = Adventures
Other  adventures were to follow – like the morning I sat on the telephone with a friend in Sweden and suddenly noticed water pooling at my feet. I quickly hung up and drove to the marine store in order to buy a new bilge pump. On another occasion, while making our way up the California coastline, our jib sheets – the ropes that control the front sail – fell underneath the boat and got wrapped around the propeller.

My friend jumped in and untangled them while the boat bounced up and down on the waves (and on his head). Yet another time we took the boat through the channel in the Port of Los Angeles unaware that one should radio to the drawbridge an hour ahead of time and request them to lift it. We had to keep the boat heeled over in order to clear the bridge. I swear we were an inch away from losing our mast.

After all this – and more – I still loved that boat. I loved being at sea. I think like most sailors, I lived for that moment, just after the mainsail is up, when you turn off the motor and the world is suddenly still. The skyline recedes. It’s only you and the wind and the waves.

The Sea and the Absolute 
The sea is often compared to god, to truth. It is one of the few absolutes. When there is no human life left on this planet, there will probably still be water. When you are at sea, you are forced into solitude. Even if you are on a boat with two or sixteen other people, you are aware of your finality in a whole new way when you’re surrounded by water on all sides.

One of the competitors in the Golden Globe race, after rounding Cape Horn and beginning the stretch back to England, realized that winning was not the point. He decided to go where the wind would carry him. When the wind changed direction, he abandoned course, turned around, and started sailing around the world a second time.  “At sea,” he said, “man is an atom and a god at the same time.”

When you’re out there, sailing, you are nothing to anyone. The universe could crush you and no one would see. At the same time, you are everything – you and the boat are the only things that matter.

Another one of the Golden Globe competitors, a former submarine commander, got teary-eyed when asked about his experience, “I never felt lonely. It’s all so beautiful. No, you never get depressed. At least I didn’t. You are sort of alone with god. You aren’t chasing some wee girl or trying to get money or do anything else. There’s no opportunity to sin. Time means nothing. You just live – for the moment. You’re happy. Happy. Well, you’re not happy when you’re upside down, but otherwise you’re happy.”

This morning as I read through the 70-pages of ship’s orders, I realized that for me, excluding my father, the sea is both more constant and comprehensible than any man I’ve ever known.

Despite being liquid, it is a solid thing – ever-changing yet ever-present. If going becomes difficult, or the winds come up suddenly, or something goes wrong with the engine or the lines, all that is fixable. Or at least, it is up to me and my ingenuity and perseverance to find a way.

And that is why I have chosen to go to sea again. That is why I chose the sea over men. Over a city. Over roots. That’s why I was able to say yes, I accept these orders, without having read a single page.