The rewards of uncertainty

July 2008

By David Roper

Remember responding to that “double dare” as a kid? Remember looking down off that ledge or that railroad bridge on that hot summer’s day and feeling pressure from your peers overcoming your basic survival instincts? Many of us jumped. Stupid.

I remember responding to such a double dare from two friends while zooming along in a 13-foot Boston Whaler outboard at age 13. “Stand up in the bow Roper; see if you can hang on while we spin out at full throttle,” came the dare. I took the bait; friend Robbie whipped the wheel hard to starboard, and the boat spun around. In just two or three seconds, a number of things happened: I flew through the air; for some odd reason I started laughing at this time and also for a moment while underwater; finally, I saw a propeller whip by a few feet from my face while I was popping to the surface. For an immortal teenager, it had become my first true reaffirmation of life experience.

Some of the by-products of adulthood are usually caution, contingency planning, calculation and reservation. Rightly so. It’s a tough world. But what about “controlled adventure?” As cruisers, are we getting so well equipped, forewarned and cautious that we sacrifice the vitality of adventure or some of the primal thrill of the double dare? I remember talking to a friend with a marina-tethered sailboat last year. “Going out today?” I asked. “Nice breeze blowing.” He looked up at the sky, saw a bit of haze and a few looming clouds. “Don’t think so,” he replied. “My back-up GPS is on the fritz. I’d love to go,” he said, hesitating, “but there could be some fog later, you never know.”

That’s true: you never know. But in always hesitating, we can never really go anywhere.


Goethe wrote in “Faust”:


Until one is committed, there is hesitancy,
the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness.
Concerning all acts of initiative and creation there is
one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills
countless ideas and splendid plans:
That the moment one definitely commits oneself,
then Providence moves too.
All sorts of things occur to help one
that would never otherwise have occurred.


In the “olden days,” cruising was very much a controlled adventure and much more vital to my soul. The uncertainty was great. The hope enormous. And the rewards were supreme. Navigation was always a challenge. Charts were paper, often faded or smudged, and sometimes hard to read (kind of like a treasure map). Deviation on the compass had to be factored in. Speed, distance and drift had to be calculated. Depth of the water under us was often unknown or uncertain. Yet when I look at 40 years of cruising – before GPS, instant weather radar, digital depth and bottom contour-reading technology, and immediate cell-phone communication – the experience I truly value is still this: learning to swing a lead line as we worked our way in close to shore, reading the bottom’s condition for best anchoring places by looking at whether mud, sand or nothing at all was in the indented bottom of the lead, learning to determine speed, current and drift by dropping a Coke bottle off the bow and watching its movement as it floated by, determining how close we were to shore by shouting through a cardboard megaphone and listening for voice echoes. And finally, sitting silently in our old wooden cutter after making harbor in the fog, having been challenged by the mystery of our location, and having utilized all the elements at hand to find the treasure of our destination.

The magic and joy of finding a buoy or making a harbor using native instincts and whatever resources could be summoned, combined with the almost smug-self satisfaction once anchored safely for the night, was vital to cruising. Even the act of communicating to loved ones our safe arrival was an adventure. It meant trying to reach the marine operator to call home, sitting under kerosene lamps in the cozy cabin listening in a captivated manner on the common ship-to-shore frequency to the often personal calls of other boaters while we awaited our turn to call. And sometimes, when we had no ship-to-shore reception, we would venture ashore to find a telephone, which often meant knocking on a door of a private home, thereby entering the lives of some of the locals that would otherwise have remained anonymous to us in their shoreside world.

To me, cruising has been about escaping the predictable daily life of adulthood. It’s been about taking a “controlled adventure,” thereby creating a scene made of hope, expectation, surprise and reward based on more primal things: the challenge of elements, the use of our native instincts to achieve simple goals, and the chance to achieve, in some small but still meaningful way, a piece of what Ernest Hemingway called “the reaffirmation of life.”

Try it sometime. Unplug everything and go. And when you commit to this, here’s what will happen, as Goethe said so well in his final lines:

A whole stream of events will issue from this decision,
raising in one’s favour all manner of unforeseen incidents
and meetings and material assistance,
which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.
Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.


Dave Roper lives and sails out of Marblehead, Mass.