(Originally published in Medium)
Many years ago, before I actually found the time to learn how to sail, I had a large, framed picture in my office similar to the one above. It was a twenty-four foot sailboat, at anchor in a deserted cove with a morning mist adding a sense of serenity and peacefulness to the scene. I hung it in my office at work (back in the days when we had offices, and we weren’t piled up on top of each other in an open-plan dystopia). On those days when my work life seemed to be up to 11 on a scale of one to ten, I’d stop for a moment and stare at the picture. I’d sigh, and continue my endeavours.
I imagined that the occupants of the boat were just stirring, after a peaceful night under the stars. They’d have turned on the little gas stove and were patiently waiting for the kettle to boil, and the first brew of the day (always the nicest). After this imaginary breakfast, they might choose to sit in the cockpit and read, disturbed only by the sounds of birds going about their daily routine, or the sound of wavelets finding the nearby shore. Perhaps they’d planned to make sail, to haul up the anchor and head off into the mist, in search of yet another idyllic anchorage. I’d usually berate myself for working too hard, and once again promise myself that I’d learn to sail and some day, I too would own a boat like that, would sleep at anchor, and would sip coffee and read, without a care in the world.
Some years later, I learnt to sail in a 420 dinghy, imaginatively named for its length in centimetres. I graduated to bigger boats with keels, and have sailed into numerous coves and havens, both in fog and in sunshine. While the experience of sailing has lived up to all of my lofty expectations, and I have spent many a pleasant day and night at anchor and at sea, a strange thing happened when I once again looked at the picture of the sailboat. I started to notice some flaws. Firstly, I noticed that the boom was bare, like the boat in the above picture. When you drop the main sail, you flake it around the boom and cover it with a canvas sail cover which protects it from UV damage. Likewise, if you have a furling headsail, it is wrapped around the forestay (at the front of the boat) and has a protective strip stitched into the edge, or the leech. If you know you won’t be sailing for a while, you might decide to remove all of the sails and stow them down below. The particular boat in my picture had neither a main sail on the boom nor a furled head sail. With a sense of shock, my newly-trained eye realised that the boat was in fact unoccupied and swinging on a mooring buoy, not lying to anchor. There were other little telltale hints, telling me that the boat was deserted. Gone were the occupants awaiting their morning coffee. Gone was the thought of a morning spent reading or exploring, or afternoons of pleasant sail, punctuated by lazy anchorages.
The Royal Yachting Association once estimated that sailboats in the UK see about seven days of sailing a year. US statistics from 2013 show an average of ten boating days per year. The unfortunate truth is that most boats spend the vast bulk of their days in a marina or swinging around a mooring buoy, impatiently waiting for their owners to set them free, and into the wind. It’s a shame, and an unfortunate reality due to the length of the sailing season and the work week. But the biggest casualty from this re-evaluation, was the picture itself. Instead of evoking images of pleasant days at sail, it now reminded me of the number of boats which wait to be set free. Now I see a boat which possibly has her sails stuffed into a bag in one of the berths, mildew forming on the cold and damp surfaces down below, and a general sense of neglect. Of course, I’m sure this imagined doom is no more or less accurate than my initial one, but it is true to say, the picture no longer motivates me in any way.
The picture has given way to a picture of my own boat, sitting bows-to on a quay wall in Greece, fenders out, sail attached to the boom, towels drying on various surfaces, and the typical signs of life found on board an occupied boat. There’s no misty morning sunrise, but it does indeed bring back a flood of happy memories, and remind me that I need to get out of the office and back on board. The original picture is in the attic, somewhere. Sometimes, a little knowledge can indeed be a dangerous thing.
Photo credit: Yannick Pulver