Why We Sail.

John D. Norton
http://www.pitt.edu/~jdnorton/sail/why/index.html

Why do we sail? Why choose a means of propulsion that fell from common favor along with the horse and buggy?

For me it is all in one moment. We sit in our sailboat on a windless day under slack sails, becalmed. The air is motionless, the water is glassy and the sun is hot. We are scanning, looking for clues. We are watching the horizon for the massing clouds that might bring a weather change. We are watching distant chimneys and trees and flagpoles for any sign of a breeze. We are keeping a careful eye on the water for those dark smudges that reveal a puff of wind approaching.

becalmed

When the puff comes, there is the moment. It is a gentle snap as the breeze presses against the sails and the rigging is pulled taut. There is a little scuffle on board as we pull on the sheets and rudder to make the most of this little wind. There is no engine noise to tell us we are moving. We look down at the water and watch the little bits of weed and debris pass. We look back at our rising wake and listen to the quiet gurgle of water moving under the hull. "We're sailing," we say.

It is a magical feeling. The breeze has filled our little boat with life. We are carried by a force we cannot see but feel in the slight list of the hull, the tension in the sheets that hold the sails and the gentle pull on the rudder as it tries to recenter.

Now the real sailing begins. We are rarely so lucky that the wind will take us directly from A to B. A sailboat sails best across the wind, where a well designed boat can easily be pressed to speeds faster than the wind. Think of a watermelon seed squeezed out between your finger tips. From there we can steer a little upwind, which lets us make headway against the wind; and we can steer downwind.

Getting from A to B becomes an elaborate mental puzzle. We scan the water for where the wind is best. We watch other sailboats to see who is getting the strongest wind. A zig-zag course forms in our heads. It has us tacking back and forth so we can pick up the good wind from the clearest water and avoid the wind shadow in the lee of a looming headland. If there are tidal or river currents, they too factor into our mental sums. All the while we are trimming the sails to get the best effect from the gentle breeze and adjusting our course to strike the best compromise between a higher speed in the wrong direction and a lower speed in the right direction.

A powerboat at A will just navigate straight to B and be there in no time. We will typically steer away from B and explore a lot of water before we arrive. We will come to know this little corner of the watery world very well. We will know which times of day have better winds, where the water gets shallow and the swells rise and that the steam plume on that distant factory is the best guide to wind direction and strength. We become sensitive to the subtle nuances of nature. That we can suddenly hear the distant noises of a dog barking or a screen door slamming tells us that the wind has dropped completely, but the coolness of the air is warning us that it will not be so for long.

The gentle breezes fill our sailboat with a gentle life. The experience is restful. We have time to watch and wonder, to plot and replot our course, to second guess, to let a hand dangle over the side and feel the force with which we are pulled through the water.

Then the breeze picks up and we have real wind. We have no more time to dally and dangle. Our sails are now filled with a strong and angry power. Our wake is a broad, long gash in the water. The hull heels and lifts. We let out the mainsail to righten ourselves and then carefully haul it back in as the sailboat picks up speed. We observe debris pass by, counting the seconds. "Twelve knots." Close to the water, that it quite fast enough.

sailing

It is like riding a wild beast. It presses hard and goes where it wants to, at first. Then we regain control. We steer the bow a little closer to the wind, trimming the sails inch by inch until they start to "luff," to flap in grumpy little ripples. Then we let them out just enough so the sails go smooth. Telltales, little pieces of thread sewn to the sails, reveal the perfect streamlines of air. We make tiny adjustment in this or that sheet, feeling how each affects our motion. We are no longer hanging on to the wild beast as it careens across the water. We are commanding it and it obeys.

That is why we sail.










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