Sex, the sea and the quantification of wisdom

August, 2001

By Dodge Morgan
My relationship with the sea is as complex and as unfathomable as my relationships with people I love. I am not at all sure of the how or why of it. The answer is a confusing combination of the spiritual and the practical and is influenced by more variables than I can count, much less than I can understand. To explain this relationship precisely is impossible for me. The dilemma I have is not unlike that when my teen-age daughter asked me for advice about sex. I told her that she will learn 95 percent of all there is to know about it in her first meaningful 15 minutes of experiences, and then she will spend the rest of her life trying and failing to understand the remaining 5 percent. This was not a satisfactory lesson to her, I knew, but was the very best I could honestly do. It is, I told her, like climbing a ladder from ignorance to knowledge and for every rung up achieved you see two rungs added to the top. The more you “know,” the farther from understanding you are.

I have sailed over some quarter-million nautical miles of sea, maybe more, but I have not really kept count because once I passed “the first 15 minutes test,” the number became rather insignificant. I feel I must have gotten more technically competent along the way but do not feel any gains in expertise have added much to the experience. I know many sailors more technically competent than I even as I know many more who are not and see very few important differences in the two. I find myself more entranced by those sailors who are discovering that technical competence adds up to no more than a coping capability at sea and in no way defines the true experience. I find detailed discussions of sail trim, of storm tactics, of celestial navigation techniques, of high-tech gear performance, to be boring. And I find those who believe these details are the essence of sailing to be even more boring. I would rather spend a block of time with Robin Knox-Johnston than with Dennis Connor, with Roger Duncan than with the current Halifax race winner, with the kid who has just sailed beyond the tether of land than with the commodore of the New York Yacht Club. I would rather read Slocum than Chapman. I have carefully read “Bowditch Navigation” cover to cover (that could be some kind of record) and learned little of consequence. I have read “The Venturesome Voyages of Captain Voss” and “The Boy, Me and The Cat” and felt wiser and enriched.

My miles of sailing have been about half alone and half with others. I love both experiences and find them substantially different. When sailing with others, my mates take a high priority in my awareness of the world around me. I see a sunset bursting or a squall roiling and my instinct is to instantly share it. When alone, these occurrences belong exclusively to me. The joy of sharing is replaced by the intensity of involvement in the event itself. I am a more careful sailor when alone and find that fewer mistakes are made because the simple, step-by-step procedures I have worked out to accommodate the lack of help are followed as ritual. The solo sailor’s obvious lack of need to communicate a sequence of actions gets in the way when there are others working on the same objective. Interestingly, the more experienced my mates the more likely the task screw-ups because the less I communicate and the more I assume.

If this tome has not enlightened you on the spiritual aspects of the sea under sail, dear reader, then that, perhaps, is the core of the message. I am now going to sail Eagle aimlessly around Quahog Bay. The wind is easy from the south and the bay is flat and it will be just as satisfying as when I rounded Cape Horn with American Promise so many years ago.

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.