Singlehanded Sailing And The Tao Of Independance

Although I am often unaccompanied by other people on board I never sail alone as I count the boat and it’s most important parts to be equivalent.  Each sail is a crew member.  They are fantastic conversationalists, if you’re listening.  Their speech is more plain than most people’s.  Big boats need the assistance of a crew and a wallet to match.  Small ships are more peaceful and they have no complicated social rhythms to drown out the call of the sea.  It’s not that I don’t enjoy sailing with people at all.  I have sailed on schooners with 30 people aboard and enjoyed the company for a time but I was always happy to get back to my little 23 footer.  Solitude is a virtue.

220px-Tinkerbelle_by_Robert_ManryI grew up as a nerdy kid who never bore the burden of popularity.  It is necessary to be a team player, as needed, but Independent activity suits my personality better.  As a bookish boy I haunted school and public libraries.  I discovered sailing through the printed page.  The first book to capture my interest in the sea was Tinkerbelle by Robert Manry, an editor for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.  Manry was a bit of a dreamer tied to a desk who escaped from the rodent relay on a little 13 foot lapstrake sailboat.  His imagination lead him to the idea of making a transatlantic crossing as a sort of bucket list/grand gesture adventure. Initially he planned on doing the voyage with a friend in a 25 foot fiberglass boat.  The friend and his boat dropped out of the plan so Manry built a cabin and deck with self bailing cockpit on Tinkerbelle and eventually wound up in Merry Old England without drowning.

When I moved to Washington from Pennsylvania I made part of the journey as a pilgrimage.  I knew that although Manry had died in 1971 Tinkerbelle was preserved in a museum at the Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.  I stopped there to pay my respects and was amazed at the tiny vessel.  Like sailors everywhere I am guilty of anthropomorphizing boats.  Tinkerbelle seemed to possess a special stalwart character and unique charm.  It was well worth stopping by for some alone time with a very memorable little boat.

The story entertained and inspired me.  Although I couldn’t quite conceive of undertaking such a voyage myself I knew right away that someday I would take up sailing as a primary activity for life.  I steeped myself in nautical literature and lore throughout my high school years.  As I settled into adulthood I found the means to turn my vicarious voyaging into waterborne reality.

“Nothing in the world
is as soft and yielding as water.
Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible,
nothing can surpass it.”
Lao Tzu

Although sailing proved to be a very social sport I never hesitated to go out on the water for lack of a crew.  I have found the very best crew to be people who are comfortable maintaining a companionable silence.  Listening is a game for quiet folks.  In the scriptures there is a frequently repeated phrase, “He that hath an ear, let him hear.”   The senses are opened up at sea in a way that I don’t quite get on land.  The mixture of aerodynamics with the fluid power of water creates  a combination that is both invigorating and calming, all at once.  Lao Tzu spoke of water as an irresistible force behind the softest substance. It has a lot to teach us.

I look at an America’s Cup boat and the crowd on deck is like Christmas shoppers at the mall.  Introducing new sailors to the delights of the sport is a joy and a privilege.  Spending time with an experienced old salt who stands ready to pass on a new wrinkle in the art of seamanship is of great value.  What I value the most is time spent in communion with just the boat in full contact with wind and water.  At such times the soft, yielding, water can dissolve my heart of stone.

Special note:  For those interested in following up on the story of Robert Manry and Tinkerbelle there is a website dedicated to their memory.   The Robert Manry Project is well worth a visit.

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