I am the wife of an old salt who breathes a sea-misted life. He sails year-round, shoving our Catalina 320 from the dock behind our Florida condo whenever the sun shines and the wind is fair. He is happy to go nowhere in particular or anywhere at all under the power of sail.
I am not a natural sailor. I need inspiration. Searching for some, I posed a question in several online sailing forums: “In one word, what does sailing mean to you?”
And Freedom. Freedom. Freedom.
Sailing to me is the opposite of freedom. On a boat, I clip in and I stow our gear. I grip, I grasp. I tie everything down. I keep the things I carry from washing away, including myself. When it is time for me to sail, I clamor aboard and secure our gear and provisions. Tied in knots myself, I do not feel free. I am a claustrophobe trapped on a boat.
Relax, says the old salt. Look to the horizon. How can you be claustrophobic on an open ocean?
How can you not, I think, but I rest my shoulders and sigh.
Freedom is the ability to act or change without constraint. What of wind direction, tides, currents, shoals, rocks, stormy weather?
These are not constraints, says the old salt. These are challenges. On a whim, we can pull up anchor and go elsewhere. We need not stay in one place. We can predict where we will be or when, but not both. Sailing recognizes no calendar, clock, deadline, or ambition.
Sailors wait for sailing season. They wait for the right wind speed and direction, for tides, for fair weather. Sailors who work everyday jobs wait all year for those few weeks when they can set sail and disconnect from the world.
Disconnecting is disquieting. Isolating. My mother and daughter worry about us being so remote and far from shore. I wonder what is happening in the world, who might be trying to reach me.
Let go, the old salt says. Look to the horizon. Sailing is meditation. Salute the sun each morning; drink a toast each night.
What will we do when the wind shifts or gusts? When is my next watch? Will we sail with the main, the jib or both? How should we trim for this point of sail? Are we on course? What’s our depth? Where is the next channel marker? The water is so shallow in West Florida where we sail, if we cannot follow a channel, we will run aground.
When the motor is off and the breeze propels us, waves plink against the hull, a gull squawks, a sail begins to luff. I crank the winch a turn to tighten the headsail. The old salt adjusts our course a degree or two. The luffing stops.
Freedom is the condition of not being subject to or affected by some undesirable thing. Like waves rocking us sideways. Like currents pushing against our beam. Like wind at our bow. Like squalls and storms. Like low tide stranding our boat in shallow water, or wind whipping up waves so high we cannot launch our dinghy to go ashore. Like no wind at all, leaving us bobbing. Like a rip in a sail or a clog a diesel line. Like a thousand things steering us off course. You cope. You solve. You act.
Sailing is possibilities, says the old salt. A day or two at anchor waiting for wind is an opportunity to finish a boat project, to clean, perchance to nap or read. This is not work. It is freedom from the day-to-day.
Dolphins frolic in our wake. A heron rests on our bowsprit. A mullet leaps and splashes. I catch a glimpse of a reclusive sea turtle. We anchor in a cove with a sandy beach. Other sailors invite us for sundowners and snacks. We connect with friends new and old and I with the dear old salt.
What is sailing? It is a dream. Even if I never cross blue water, the sea is always calling. It swells my heart.