Go sailing simply for its own sake

May 2006

By Dodge Morgan

Teaching yourself to sail is quite like it was when you taught yourself to walk. There is a fresh innocence about the challenge, with the very first steps being the most intimidating because the act itself then appears to be beyond the reach of possibility. You watch others do it and wonder if there is a purpose for it besides simply having fun. That the walker gets somewhere fast makes no sense to you since there is nowhere past eye-range you need to go and the sailor doesn’t seem to get anywhere faster than if he was walking. You decide to try it anyway. Simply having fun makes sense.

In both cases, there is someone who already knows how to tell you what you are doing wrong. For some vacant reason, they commonly try to cheerlead your flops, a reverse concept of positive reinforcement where you learn “how” from a series of “how nots.” What you really learn is that the teacher-student process is over-rated and that you will be teaching yourself. Every step will belong to you.

When I worked as a grunt for the family boatyard on Cape Cod at age 16, the overriding rule was that I tended to the boats of others, a job like that of a golfer’s caddie or a gourmand’s waitress. I did not get to use a boat. But I did get to watch those who did, and with an increasing longing to do it myself. The longing became a compulsion.

I devoted my boatyard wages, after my budget for ice cream, to renting a catboat from a venerable codger named Frothington on the Bass River. Frothington’s first admonition to me was, “This boat, boy, will teach you patience.” My first several self-tutorials did not get me out of the river but did teach me the most critical sailing lesson of all, which is to keep asking, “where is the wind?” A Beetle Cat is an ideal pre-school, self-teaching tool, stable as a stage, one gaff-headed sail posing just one halyard and one sheet and spreading significant sail area at a forgiving low aspect. All the mistakes I could conjure up were small ones that evolved slowly.

I learned that trim was less critical in more wind, that tacking with the centerboard down in 100 degrees was a success and with the centerboard up was fruitless, that downwind work was easier but less exciting, that jibing had better be done with a short sheet, and that the boat would never outrun the mosquitoes.

The thrill on finally passing the jetty into Nantucket Sound was one of the most intense I have ever felt. So this is why people sail, I discovered. To sail with intense purpose to nowhere in particular. To sail simply for its own sake. The next fascination was to sail beyond the sight of land, quicker done in the fog, but the affect was the same. I had no compass early on so I used the wind and wave action for direction. With each sail I would penetrate the sound further. I was falling in love with a world of just sky and water. Some day, I thought, I will find that ocean spot that is the very furthest away from any land, and I began to study maps for where that spot might be.

Back to the mosquitoes. They were most fierce when sailing back up the Bass River to return the boat. This was usually a downwind run in the prevailing southwest wind, and the brutes had no trouble hanging in my intimate space and devouring my vital juices. My solution, not recommended by sailing instructors or anyone else with sense, was to jump overboard and hang on to the rudder. I could steer easily and rejoice that no bugs had diving skills.

My self-teaching catboat sagas are certainly to blame the credit for my eccentric sailing philosophy. Sailing simply to compete is over-civilized; sailing simply to go somewhere is dumb; and the farther away from land you sail, the safer and the more satisfying.

The most valid reason to go sailing is to do it for its own sake.

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.