If sailing is art, then these are the sculptors

April, 2002

By Dodge Morgan

I have been struggling with how to classify sailing, holistically speaking, that is. I mean what frame of mind do I feel best suits me when I sail or when I simply think about sailing? This is a very personal decision, I can see, because as I sort through the alternatives it is obvious that mine is not everyone’s.

Sailing is most often called a sport. It isn’t a sport to me because I think of a sport as always being a contest having a winner and losers made obvious by a score or elapsed time. I definitely do not sail to compete and feel the idea of competing is ah, belittling … well that’s the term I’m reaching for, isn’t it? Actually, it astounds me that when I make this personal point on sailing some otherwise kind and gentle people become enraged.

Sailing is not a past-time. Past-time sounds to me like something you did a long time ago and have now forgotten. Maybe the term is pass-time. Which is even further from what sailing means to me.

It is not a religion. It definitely lacks a formal hierarchy or a single “good book” or elaborate costumes or simple chants with vague meaning. Sailing also does not relegate non-believers to everlasting hell (ephemeral hell for powerboaters, perhaps) and holds no formal process to proselytize. Entire cultures do not decide to kill each other off over what amounts to small differences in the sailing jargon they employ.

Sailing is not an institution. Institutions start with an idea and then adorn the idea with symbols and then completely replace the idea with the silly symbols they have created. I mean you can yell, “screw the First Amendment” or “freedom sucks” in a crowded theater and be considered a nuisance but could do jail time if you desecrated Old Glory there. And there are people who think that makes good sense, forcrissake. Now we can see why Jefferson said we should destroy all institutions after 20 years and start over. I can’t even think of a symbol for sailing to desecrate.

Sailing is not a philosophy because people who engage in it are generally not smart enough to philosophize. Sometimes sailors get drunk enough to philosophize, but we all know what that sounds like. “A mackerel a day keeps the Coast Guard away!” “Starboard tack to you, Exxon Valdez!” And all kinds of laughable wisdom about holes in the water and rigs costing more than hulls.

An art form! That’s it! Sailing is an art form, the ideal art form even for those of us lacking the power to create something we might have to look at later. It is an art form but more like mime than sculpture.

The sailing art form does have sculptors, of course. They are not the sailors of boats but the builders of boats. Every boat I have ever owned, rubber ones aside, has been a sculpture, every one providing me a thrill each time rowing up to her. And each time I am reminded that this boat belongs to me only for awhile and only as I care for her. She will always belong to the artist who made her.

Dodge Morgan broke all sorts of records when he single-handed American Promise around the world without stopping in 1985 and ’86. He lives on Snow Island in Harpswell, Maine.