September 24, 2009

The sailor’s virtue

I MAY HAVE MENTIONED this before but you probably don’t remember it. Besides, it bears repeating: One of the most valuable assets a sailor can cultivate is patience, followed closely by serenity.

Imagine that you’re nicely tucked into a snug anchorage on the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island. You got in just before the wind really started howling, and now the rain is starting to pelt down.

The VHF, tuned to the British Columbian weather forecast, is relaying a doleful message:
“ ... mostly awful with occasional ghastliness ... periods of low depression followed by unremitting rain ... wind from the southeast at umpteen knots ... large-boat advisory for tonight and all day tomorrow ... wind-waves 15 feet ...”

Your course is southeast, of course. So, if you have any sense, you’re stuck.

Well, then, what did sailors do with themselves in the Great Age of Sail when they were anchored in open roadsteads waiting for the wind to change? How did they pass the time? If they were in the navy, I expect they painted the anchor cable and holystoned the deck. But how do people stop themselves from going crazy on smaller boats? What would you do with yourself while waiting out bad weather, especially in places where you can’t get cell phone service or browse the Internet?

You can only sleep or play Patience for so long before you go nuts. You might take the opportunity to change the engine oil or do some all-day job like grinding the valves – but what if the forecast is wrong? You wouldn’t want to miss a good sailing day with bits of engine spread all over the cabin.

You can’t spend days at a time doing nothing but listening to Beethoven or the Beatles, and if you spend all day cooking you’ll have to eat it all and you know what that’s going to do to your waistline.

I guess you could call the Coasties on Channel 16 but I suspect that even the nice, friendly Canadian Coast Guards would get kinda grumpy if you just want to chat and tell them how depressed you are.

You could make love, I suppose, given the right circumstances, but I’m told that the average is eight minutes, which doesn’t take up an awful lot of the day.

For these reasons, yachtsmen cooped up in port -- and fearful of being criticized for wimpishness -- often try to make a break for it despite the bad weather. And all too often that’s a very bad idea unless you have an exceptional boat and an exceptional crew. If you do that, you might find yourself talking to the Coasties again pretty soon, and not just for fun.

If ignorance and ill preparation are the parents of adventure, then patience and serenity are the parents of safe cruising. They don’t come easily. They have to be cultivated, like most other sailorly pursuits. Learning how to extend your love life might be a good way to start.

Today’s Thought
Patience, n. A minor form of despair disguised as a virtue.
— Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Mr. Smith, your work during your trial period indicates a standard of mediocrity, inadequacy, and chronic incompetence.”
“Oh thank goodness. I had a silly feeling you weren’t satisfied with me.”


Oded Kishony said...


How about a blog on your "black box" philosophy? Surely there must be something between rebuilding your engine or having sex?
Do you keep a checklist of black box items?


John Vigor said...

Oded, I wrote about it earlier this month. See "The Black Box Revisited" of September 10, 2009.

John V.

Anonymous said...


Patience must be the reason for all the the knots that previous sailors have left for us. So instead of 8 minutes of sex, how about taking half a day to figure out a new way to tie a bowline or a whole day to invent a new knot?

And a sailor's lack of patience is the maybe the source for so many shipwrecks which have left with us with a huge source for occupying our time rediscovering them.

So either way, patience or the lack there of, we are in one way or another the source for so much more of our own entertainment.

There you go; or rather to go or not to go. Either way, there is lots to do when holed up in a cove waiting out the weather.

And as you can see, I am also waiting for the weather to improve ;-)