Roger Angell* has written of the relationship between the wind, water, boat and the man at the helm, who “…sits at ease, his right hand on the windward coaming and his left on the tiller; his sneakered right leg is comfortably up on the seat, and his gaze, behind shades and a faded Red Sox cap, is contented, for he has been here many times before.”
“Even at this easy level, I am dealing with shifts and forces and counterflows – wind and tide and current – that are nearly invisible to the hapless nonsailing friend…”
“What the landsman senses and perhaps envies is exactly what grabs me at odd moments in a small boat in August. Here – for the length of this puff, this lift and heel – I am almost in touch with the motions of my planet…”
Words such as these and the imagery they evoke drew me to sailing. I envisioned myself in a Winslow Homer painting, off the shore of Gloucester, Narragansett, or Bar Harbor, in a classic gaff-rigged catboat.
A small sloop of my own permitted entry into the world described by Angell, access to the experience of a summer sailor, minus the romance of traditional design or famous Down East waters. And the truth is there were more eventless moments in that small well-worn production fiberglass sailboat than those of the oh-my-god-how-did-I-get-us-into-this kind.
Sailing never seeped into my soul in the way Angell describes. I owned and sailed that boat. I did not become the summer skipper of Angell’s kind, natural, effortless, at one with the boat and the elements.
Sailing seemed never to allow my consciousness to escape the details, the set of the sails, the direction of the wind, the angle of heel and the myriad of subtle, interconnected matters which constantly demanded attention. My dance with the boat was stiff, inelegant, lacking in grace or poise.
It was not until my QCC kayak that I discovered the transcendence of feeling the mechanics recede into the background, of becoming more aware of the water, wind, sun, sky, of simply being afloat, rather than of stroke, course, balance, paddle position, angle of entry of the blade into the water. In the kayak, the escape from earth-bound functions reliably happens after the first hundred strokes or so, the shifts, forces, motions, reactions are relegated to second nature. I become merely an inhabitant of the water world, rather than a human operating a paddle in a long skinny boat.
Colin Fletcher, a walker who famously carried his house on his back, suggested the less there is between us and the environment, the more we are able to appreciate that environment. In my kayak, I discovered his thought applies to being on the water as well.
* Let Me Finish, by Roger Angell, copyright 2006 by Roger Angell, Harcourt