Flight of the ‘Eagle’ Ship goes where the law ought not to tread

May, 1998

By Dodge Morgan

I have this nightmare, a wacky, “Help! Help! The paranoids are after me!” kind of nightmare. It goes this way: I am about to drop my mooring pennant for a sail on Eagle when suddenly a guy with a badge shows up and orders me to stay put. The guy is puffed up with an oversized PFD (in plain English, that’s “lifejacket”), carries a clipboard, packs a sidearm and has acronyms stenciled all over his clothing. His head appears as a loud hailer wearing a baseball cap.

“Secure your vessel and remain in position,” he bellows. Instead of responding rationally with the F-word followed by “you,” I am shocked into politely asking him why I am being so ordered. He answers me with an array of regulation numbers which I find baffling because I know none of them and intimidating because he obviously assumes I know all of them. In the fright of the moment, I simultaneously forget that I was about to go for a sail. I drop the mooring pennant.

Oh, oh.

“Secure your vessel and remain in position” hits me again with more volume punctuated by a gun report. Since the old schooner knows how to sail herself, she does so while I panic helplessly over the meaning of his order and the possible reasons for him giving it to me.

I think maybe he knows my chart and flare kit are 21 years old. Maybe I am not properly festooned with safety gear, PFD, harness with lifeline, big orange whistle, reflective patches, mini EPIRB. Or maybe he sees Eagle as a vessel that doesn’t meet government specifications for its intended use.

Perhaps he is trying to save me from the storm front I can’t see. It could be that I don’t have some proper license to operate or that I am missing one or another official document. Could be I am breaking a law defining the allowable age for sailing alone.

As I agonize over these matters, Eagle accelerates herself in an elegant close reach and the guy with the badge hazes into the distance. My nightmare ends as I come to my senses and softly speak the F-word with “you.”

The problem is that this dream does not stretch reality very far. I truly fear that one day in some way this guy with the badge will in fact show up. It will be a natural extension of some of the well-meaning but dumb things we see going on in our shore lives. Snowblowers display signs, “Do not place hands or feet in blade area.” Cigarette packs carry the Surgeon General’s warning. Plaques on self-serve fuel pumps advise us not to ingest the gasoline. Blockades are set up to arrest drunken snowmobile drivers.

Even though such admonitions and actions can be justified one by one, a case can be made that together they deliver the subtle lesson that we are not responsible for our own judgments and actions. If we haven’t figured such risks out by ourselves, then perhaps our mothers are to blame.

The sea, whether over blue water or on the bay, is no place to extend this concept. The bureaucracy won’t work when afloat. This may be our last oasis of physical and spiritual independence. When that mooring pennant is dropped, the boat becomes one’s total existence, and it must be this way. It is imperative we keep governments off our boats and out of our way on the water. The day we go for a sail depending on regulations and men with badges for protection is the day we accept stupidity as a given. The real joy of the sail is gone.

Please leave me the right to cope on my own. And let the Darwinian process unfold.

Dodge Morgan can say what he wants because he owns a couple of drop-dead gorgeous sailboats and holds a record for sailing around the world alone. He lives in Portland.