I am trying to dance with the wind. At the helm, it is the middle of the night, and though I have the light of a moon just past the full, it is getting dark. Clouds are rolling in. They might mean a shift in the wind, backing or veering, and an increase in speed, and I am standing with my neck craned all the way back, peering up at the barely-visible flag, trying to judge if the wind is changing, and where I should steer to keep the sails full.
There’s one way of looking at sailing, the way I too often fall into, which is that the ship is a series of clever mechanisms for turning wind into propulsion–purchase blocks, ropes, sails trimmed with exactitude to airplane-wing shape. And that there is one right heading and trimming of sails which will produce the best results, given any defined set of wind and swell conditions. This is treating sailing like a math problem.
But sailing is not math, not regular or predictable, no more than life is. Like astronavigation, there is math involved, but the basis, the foundation is all guesswork, pretending the earth is flat, and having a good feeling about the sextant reading you just took. The first mate, Anne-Flore, talks to me about trying to find the rhythm of each maneuver, the flow of how people move about the deck, meshing with the movement of the wind as we bring the ship through the wind on a tack, for example. It’s a dance, I can see. Each of us moves like the wind, unpredictably but with a certain grace, and the trick to being a good leader, as the trick to being a good sailor, is to work with that energy, and catch it at the most graceful moment. This is sailing–the ship is a thing of muscles and breath and wings. To pay attention to the maneuver in this way is to be where I am, to live where I find myself.
How wonderful, to feel that the world is real, and that I belong to it! I am a part of the place where I am, just as much as the wind and the waves, the stars and the clouds. I too often block the world around me, filter it through a screen which sits on a desk and, in the words of Wendell Berry, “obscures the place where it is.” I place barriers between myself and the real world, of computer screen or even book page, instead of living where I am, in my surroundings. I am trying to learn to dance with the wind instead, to feel it on my face and lean into it, to watch the swell and feel it move me as I sway with it. To listen to the ship, how she reacts to the wind, rudder, or waves. I will not truly learn sailing from a book or a screen, no matter how much they can teach me, for all they do is obscure the place they are in, this place, the place where I am, out here smack in the middle of the Atlantic with my sailwings and rainclouds and moonlight. Dancing.