September 2, 2010

Sailing and philosophy

SAM PSMYTHE (silent P as in bath) tells me he wants to write a book. He wants to write about The Philosophy of Sailing. So he comes to me for help. He’s heard I’ve written books, which is true.

Now I have to say straight off, Sam, that this sounds like a rather grand concept. It’s not a book you can write off the top of your head. First you have to consider all the categories that sailors fall into: gypsy liveaboards; amateur racers; people going somewhere for some reason; weekenders and vacation amusement; charterers; singlehanders; record breakers; seekers after publicity; and professionals such as charter skippers, delivery masters, America’s Cup crew, etc.

Next you have to be perfectly sure what you mean by philosophy. Webster’s New World describes it as the “theory or logical analysis of the principles underlying conduct,” and “a particular system of principles for the conduct of life.” Now that sounds like pretty wooly stuff to me. A man’s brain can’t get a good grasp of words like that. I do understand that it seems to be all about principles. But what are principles? Mr. Webster explains: “The ultimate source, origin, or cause of something.”

Okay, cause. That’s a word I understand. So, Sam, if you ask about the philosophy of sailing, what it boils down to is: What causes people to sail? Or even simpler: Why do people sail? You want to write a book about why people sail. And you ask ME the question?

Well, shoot, how would I know? There are probably hundreds of reasons.

And are those reasons really going to be interesting to anyone? What I’m getting at is this: Are you going to sell any books?

Then there was Thoreau, of course. In 1986, Don Casey and Lew Hackler wrote a delightful book called Sensible Cruising, the Thoreau Approach: A Philosophic and Practical Approach to Cruising. (Yes, indeed, a long and very unThoreaucratic title.) But this was a book for people who had already decided to sail. It told them how to do that simply, cheaply, and effectively, as Henry David Thoreau might have done if only he’d been less interested in life in the woods and more interested in cruising under sail. But the book didn’t explore their reasons for wanting to sail, as you seem to want to do, Sam.

And yet, perhaps there is a chance for your book, albeit a slim one. I have noticed that people like to be reassured about their personal choices. They like to read about others who have made the same choices as they have and come to the same conclusions. They like to hear about people who sail for the same reasons. That makes them feel normal — or at least less abnormal than ordinary people, who don’t sail.

Now, Sam, what do you think the answer would be if you asked 100 people why they sail?

Surely the vast majority would say: “Because I like it.” Wasn’t it George Mallory who offered the famous phrase “Because it’s there” as his reason for wanting to conquer Mt. Everest? He wasn’t going to divulge to a prying public the innermost secrets of what drove him. Besides, he probably didn’t even know himself what made him want to climb. There may not have been any grand reason, overwhelming passion, or compelling desire. Maybe he just liked climbing. That’s a reason most of us simple sailors can understand.

I wish you well with your book, Sam, but I don’t expect to see it on the best-seller list any time soon.

Today’s Thought
The great books can only repeat what they have to say, without furnishing the clarification we desire.
— Catalog, St. John’s College, Annapolis, MD

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #89
Fuel consumption, gasoline. Four-stroke inboard engines need about 1 gallon per hour for every 10 horsepower generated. You can also find the number of gallons consumed per hour by multiplying horsepower used by 0.100. Outboard gasoline motors, especially two-strokes, are thirstier than four-stroke inboard engines.

“Do you prefer American girls, Canadian girls, Mexican girls, French girls, or German girls?”

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