I have a confession to make. It’s been six months and six thousand miles since me and my mate James set sail from Portland, England, on a round the world adventure aboard our 32 foot Nicholson, Blue Eye. That’s not the confession… our families do know where we are. Indeed, we’ve met up with them on our way through the three continents and fourteen countries we’ve visited thus far; as well as squeezing a few friends on board and making some new ones too.
For the latter – though hopefully not the former – the nature of James’s and my relationship can be a source of curiosity. Given we are two guys who have opted to live together in the tight confines of a ten-metre boat, we’ve borne the occasional prying question: “So do you share the bed together up forward…?”. Commence a hasty outpouring of guffaws and frantic explanations that one of us sleeps in that bunk and the other in that bunk, all the four feet over there. For good measure, this is quickly followed by me explaining I have a long-term girlfriend, James animatedly telling the questioner how attractive various females are, and – just to leave no doubt in the questioner’s mind – of how repulsively ugly we find one another.
Where was I? Yes, confessing. That wasn’t the declaration either, although our six-month anniversary did fall rather romantically on Valentines Day. And it was on that evening, as we night-sailed the hundred-odd nautical miles from Bonaire to Aruba – two of the ABC Islands just off the coast of Venezuela – that I was struck by this strange and discomforting thought (here we go).
I don’t know what sailing is.
Now, hear me out, because I can feel you frowning down at this imbecilic young man who has somehow drifted all the way from the UK, though Biscay, across the Gibraltar Strait, and even over the Atlantic, and he now finds himself in the Caribbean Sea without an inkling as to what he’s doing. Well let’s just back things up a bit.
I know how to get a boat to a point where it is sailing, and I know what it is to not be sailing. I know what sailing looks like, and I know what it feels like. What I do not know, is at what point I am sailing.
Let me explain. When Blue Eye is on the desired course with the appropriate amount of sail hoisted, and we’ve trimmed her so as to be moving along at the optimum – albeit often slow – speed, this is when the boat can be described as sailing. Indeed, this will likely be confirmed by an inner voice smugly announcing something along the lines of “Oh yeah, now we’re sailing!”
But consider this. It is precisely at that point where the state of sailing is attained that I – the alleged sailor – am now doing nothing. I am not, after all, racing; I’m a liveaboard looking to do the bare minimum to sail safely from A to B. Or B to A, as in the case of a Bonaire to Aruba passage.
So perhaps occasionally I’m tweaking the jib sheet or slightly altering our course, whilst obviously keeping an eye out for other boats and hazards, but really these are minor tasks that take a mere fraction of the time that I might be described as sailing. Indeed, we are fortunate that Blue Eye can take care of herself mostly, so long as we have balanced the sails and set up Victor the Vane correctly (Victor is our Aries self-steering windvane. He is so-named because it reflects his steadfast reliability in all manner of weather, and because alliteration is fun.)
Anyway, given all this it appears to me an impasse is reached. Through the process of setting up the sails, the boat is not yet sailing. But at the moment that the boat is sailing, the sailor is doing nothing. As such, the sailor’s actions are a prerequisite to the state of sailing, and so we might define sailing as the act of trying to achieve itself. At best, this is unsatisfying; at worst, it is a fallacious circular argument.
Was there enough sailings in there for you? Perhaps this might be better explained by analogy.
When one is engaging in a game of garden croquet – as many a Brit surely will on a sunny summers day amidst a haze of Pimms, Wimbledon and red trousers – the setting up of the lawn does not constitute one as ‘croqueting’. Rather, it is of course the swinging of a weighty wooden pendulum between ones red trousers, in vain efforts to knock heavy balls through some grounded hoops, which would deem one to be ‘croqueting’. So the term applies to the period of time in which one is actively engaged in the sport. (To those questioning the extent to which croquet might be considered a sport, I suggest you don some colourful trousers and pick up a heavy croquet stick for yourself, before poking fun at this demanding tradition.)
If you think about it then – and apparently I have – sailing is a peculiar activity in that the physical actions of the sailor is not what it is to be sailing at all, but it is rather the act of not sailing that is thought of as sailing.
At least this is certainly the case for the lazy liveaboard such as myself. Rather what I am doing at the point that I am “sailing” is just about anything to distract myself from that very fact: I’m finding out if anything new has appeared in my nostrils in the last few minutes, I’m looking pleadingly to the fishing line to suddenly snatch taut, or, as on this particular occasion, I’m considering the juxtaposition posed by the extensional and intensional definitions of what it means to be sailing.
I turned to the Oxford English Dictionary for help (whilst I was there I checked that the long words used above were vaguely correct. I think they are). It defines sailing as: “The action of sailing in a ship or boat”. To someone who by this point owned a face in danger of irreversible scrunched-upness, having spent a six-hour watch trying to set straight what was once so simple, this was achingly vague.
Sod it, I thought to myself, as we glided through the Caribbean waters on that moonlit night, leaving Bonaire behind us and heading to the bright lights of Aruba. What is sailing? It is what it is, as a mad galley chef I once knew used to say. I gazed from the sails carrying us along beneath the stars, to the illuminated waves licking at the hull, to Victor the Vane doing all the hardwork. It was plain sailing, I mused, whatever that might be…