“There are still a few old sailing vessels laid up in various odd corners of the world, but most of them have been idle for a long time with their gear rapidly deteriorating. It is not likely that they will ever be recommissioned to stave off the inevitable day when the beautiful sailing ship, for trading purposes, is a thing of the past and only a memory to those who suffered many hardships and discomforts but loved her just the same.”
This I found in a book entrusted to us in Brixham. Toni, skipper and artist (and Brixham legend), told us that it would provide hours of reading, on the long night watches of the crossing, and he was right. “Shipping Wonders of the World, Volume 2,” now sits among our pilot books in the charthouse, and I think every one of us has at one point or another picked it up to flip through. Or, really, set it down to flip through–the book is huge. The article I found that quote in was all about the last great sailing cargo ships, and the decline of sail cargo as engines took over. Of course, the author’s glumly romantic prediction has not, in fact, come to pass, and reading it aboard the Tres Hombres is particularly ironic. “It is not likely,” he says, that cargo sail will ever be resurrected, and that it is inevitable that the beautiful sailing ships will become “a thing of the past.” I look up from this sentence to go trim the foresail sheets, passing by our cargo hatch on the way.
But what thrills we get from that phrase, “a thing of the past!” The dying out of greatness, the passing away of some beautiful thing, they fill us with a sense of melancholy longing for a past most of us never knew, and may not have ever existed. We raven the romance of the lost hope, the dying star. Our books and movies are full of this sweet remembrance, like the flowers we send to a funeral instead of attending ourselves.
What is it about watching or hearing about the end of something that satisfies us so? It is romantic–utterly romantic to feel the ebb tug at our heartstrings of something ending. It sweeps our minds away into pleasant fantasies of what the past was like–how much better it was, how much simpler, or grander, or more beautiful. “A time when men were men!” for example. Bittersweet, we call it, as though the sweet would not be so sweet without the bitter.
But I can’t help but feel that there is something insidious in our love of this kind of romance. A kind of laziness, perhaps, that creeps in around the corners and says “Ah, at last. That was hard work that now we can safely say is over. We can lay those burdens down and go back to sleep, to dream maybe of past glories, but never to do the hard work again.” Perhaps this is part of what is so satisfying to us about stories of the Last Great this or Final Stand of that. We have all the pleasure of contemplating those great acts or noble things, and none of the daily grind of maintaining them.
Because sail cargo, while utterly romantic and still a dead notion to most people (if they think of it at all), is in actual practice a lot of work. It’s a grind, tacking from the Canaries to the Cape Verdes, searching for the trade winds we hope will appear, “sometime before the food runs out,” we joke. It’s wearing to the senses and the spirit to drift, windless, north over ground we fought so hard for every degree south on. And even when the wind is good, and the rigging is humming and the wind turbines are whirring away happily, there is little romance in leaving your soft bed at four in the morning to stand your turn at the wheel, fighting a nasty cross swell and watching the squall you know will drench you creep up from behind. There’s nothing pleasant or noble about spilling dirty dishwater down your pants, or getting tar in your hair for the third consecutive day. The railing must be scrubbed again, though your back aches still from the time before, and the fresh paint of yesterday was ruined by the waves under the railing in the night. But you get up and scrub and sand and paint again, because the boat has got to be held together, however you do it. You put chafe gear on the foreshrouds for the third time this trip, hoping that this time it will hold longer. You do what must be done, because giving up, giving in, is to surrender to the insidious romance of “things of the past.”
Give me instead the romance of the plain quotidian! The daily washing of cups and pumping of the bilge, the constant upkeep of the rigging as we wear through miles of marlin and gallons of tar, inch by inch, and drop by drop. Give me the coffee break daily, that someone must remember and prepare, though it is not a grand deed, and far from exciting. Give me the small words and smiles that build frienships, the late-night conversations and learning to work together with all different personalities. When considered from up close, there is little romance in these things, in the actual maintenance of a true sailing cargo ship. But it is, in the end, far better I think to keep going than to give up, no matter how nice and restful the giving up would be. Just because something is hard or ignoble doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. And the beauty of sail cargo is not lessened by the fact that it has not fulfilled the prediction of Clarence Winchester, writing just after World War II. It has not passed away with other glorious things we remember with a sweet ache–our childhoods, the old-growth forests of the world, life before advertising. Instead we cling doggedly to life, and others now come alongside Fairtransport to help shoulder the burden. Perhaps even some of those ships Clarence talked about, mouldering away in shipyards in various corners of the world, will soon be refit and put once more to use, carrying goods across the oceans on wings of canvas, not clouds of pollution. That is romance enough for me.
Deckhand, Elisabeth, Nov 27, 2017