March 29, 2011

Where is the magic?

SOMETIMES I WONDER about the magic of sailing. Just what is it about sailboats that draws us back to the water time and time again? What possesses us to spend so much time and money getting cold, wet, frightened, and seasick?

For years people have been telling me that Maurice Griffiths had the answer. He wrote a book in 1932 called The Magic of the Swatchways. It’s all about sailing in the Thames Estuary, off London, an area of wicked tides and nasty sandbanks, bordered by rivers and the tiny rivulets and creeks that I believe they call swatchways. These swatchways dry out at low tide, revealing acres of hissing, smelly mud.

I know this because I have at long last got around to reading Mr. Griffiths’ book about his venturesome voyages in and around the swatchways, and I am as puzzled as ever about the magic of it.

He sails, often at night, in small, full-keeled gaff-riggers with topsails and 15-foot bowsprits; and he seeks solitude. He doesn’t want to be where other boats are. So he sails in gales and takes desperate chances. He sails on Christmas Day and he sails in the snow. No lifelines on his boats, of course. No tethers or lifejackets. Nothing sissy like that. He gets cold, wet, and seasick, and when the wind frustrates him once too often, he makes a downwind dash at dusk for a harbor whose bar is awash in breakers. He is saved at the last minute from certain shipwreck by flagged directions from a shorebound pilot who takes pity on him.

Why does he do it? Well, he’s obviously in love with sailing. Terribly in love. And love, as we all know, is temporary madness. There’s nothing rational about love. Unfortunately, Mr. Griffiths’ problem seems to be that his ailment isn’t temporary. He’s doomed to suffer all his life.

He was, of course, a yacht designer and editor of Yachting Monthly from 1927 to 1967, and he used that vehicle to spread his madness through articles, written with great charm and dignity, thereby inducing thousands of innocent readers to take up the sport of sailing and infecting their lives forever.

I doubt that I have ever read such beautiful descriptions of wind and wave as are contained in his book. I doubt that anyone has managed to describe so delicately and so accurately the way of a ship in the sea. The magic in this book is the magic of language, the magic of words strung together in such a way as to stir the heart and soul of anyone capable of finer feelings.

But I’m afraid Mr. Griffiths doesn’t explain for me the magic of sailing. It is simple madness to expose oneself voluntarily to the rigors and dangers that his kind of sailing entails. No, the magic must lie somewhere else. I don’t know where, but it must surely be very powerful magic to overwhelm all the misery, and keep us coming back for more.

Today’s Thought
The masterless man ... afflicted with the magic of the necessary words ... Words that may become alive and walk up and down in the hearts of the hearers.
— Rudyard Kipling.

Boaters’ Rules of Thumb, #178
What screw to use in wood? The old rule of thumb used by boatbuilders was that a screw should have a thread depth at least six times its shank diameter near the head, to obtain maximum grip in hardwood. For softwood that ratio was increased to 8:1.

Tailpiece
“Whatcha want?”
“Two eggs easy over, hash browns, coffee, and a kind word.”
The waitress brought his order and was about to move away when he said:
“Hey, how about that kind word?”
“Okay,” she whispered. “Don’t eat them eggs.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

1 comment:

Micky-T said...

I think the magic is the wind itself. The boat is just the tool that connects it to the water which then lets the boat follow the wind. Pretty tough to accomplish that on the land masses of the world.

Wish I could write that thought more elegantly because it truly is magic to man.