27 August 2010

There are things you don't think about, sailing, until you do it.

For example, you see a well-handled boat, close-hauled, its sails full and the ship bent over with the wind, water breaking across its bow. What you do not consider, until you've done it, is that the people on that boat are living at thirty degrees to the vertical. The world is crooked.

More than that, you're on the water, which, if there's wind, is not flat. The ship doesn't go up and down tidily on the waves. It lurches like some ungainly beast, shambling across the sea forever unsure of its footing. The ship pitches up and down, rolls side to side, and yaws back and forth as the wind and water try mightily to dissuade it from its course.

In short, it's like a roller coaster designed to the blueprints of a demented, palsied engineer. That lasts for days. With no seatbelt.

When you're under sail, every motion has to be planned out in advance and alternates drawn up, because the ship may not be where you expected it to be when you started taking a step. Everything must be tied down, stowed away. On deck, you wear a tether to hook yourself to the ship, so that if you slip, you won't be tossed into the water. Probably.

In case that wasn't enough, you're also expected to keep to the high side of the boat, so your weight can help keep it from tipping too far.

Things you take for granted are no longer true at thirty degrees. It requires effort to lie down, as your body tries to find a position to lie level in an environment that is not only never level, but never at the same angle.

Everything around you creaks and groans with the strain of hundreds of thousands of pounds of force on the sails. The ship is desperate to escape the strain; it constantly tries to point away, up, into the wind where the sails will fall slack and it can rest its metal bones and nylon sinews.

It's an intensely mechanical creature. There are ropes and pulleys everywhere, winches and cranks and locks. Rigging runs back and forth across every part of the boat from stem to stern and for every purpose, from holding up sails to bending the mast. The sails rise fifty feet above you, every inch of them straining to contain the wind.

And so you sit, and invisible speck on an enormous lake, surrounded in every direction by water and air. It's quiet. There's the creaking of the ship and the lapping of the water and the rush of the wind, but never the roar of an engine or the buzz of electric lines. There's no pedals to push, no oars to pull, no road to pound along.

You don't relax--it's impossible to relax when even sleeping requires effort--but neither are you powering the boat. It moves.

That's sailing.

Photo: flickr/mnorri