On a clear, windy day in the protected waters of Mahone Bay, the Sea School’s boat, ELIZABETH HALL, sails dancingly through the waves, her side only a few inches above the water. I lean down on the edge, my elbow splashed now and then, watching the elegant curve of her planks arcing steadily through the lapping and gurgling of the waves. I am as close to the water and to the graceful strength of the boat as I can be, and the intimate vividness of it makes me laugh with delight.
This is my favourite memory of leading a 7-day coastal voyage recently with a crew of twelve in this 30′ open boat. On the voyage, the thirteen of us are also as close to each other as we can be. There’s barely room for us all to stretch out on the oars at night and sleep. This is claustrophobic and frustrating, but like the closeness of the water, it’s very real.
On a sailing craft we are close to what matters; the real world. Water and waves, wind and weather, sky and stars, all the details and demands of the boat itself and all the personalities and hopes and fears of our shipmates. It is a deeply engaged existence, and we have to be willing to engage it all, including each other, all the time, or we get the boat and each other in deep trouble.
Back ashore after this week afloat, hurricane Irene approaches Halifax. I have spent the afternoon securing my own boat against the storm, taking off sails, checking the mooring line. A hurricane is not something I want to be particularly close to, but preparing for the worst helps me connect with the storm as a real thing, not a TV episode.
This is one of the great gifts of boats. They offer, and demand, a closeness to the world that is not otherwise part of our everyday experience. And the gift of learning to be part of a ship’s crew is the willingness to seek closeness, to engage with things as they actually are. With the voyage still fresh in my mind, that closeness follows me ashore and everything is more vivid, more real, more engaging. I’d like to be at sea more than I am these days, but without the luxury of that constant reminder the task for me now is to still seek the closeness of what’s real in the places and the people I meet. When I am willing to be close to my experience, I find fair winds and good sailing. When I hide, I run aground.