November 19, 2013

What is the magic of sail?

WHENEVER I SEE a forest of masts in a marina or mooring field I wonder what the magic is that makes people keep buying sailboats. I mean, the world of commercial sailing ships ended a century or so ago, overtaken by the cheaper and more reliable mode of transport known as powered vessels.

Why do the vestiges of that long sailing era still linger on in little pockets in the richer areas of the world when we know full well the advantages of powered pleasure boats? What makes people settle for sailing boats when power boats offer more space below, length for length, and more speed, and more dependability because they’re not subject to the whims of fickle winds?

Why, when the wind is against us, would we choose the long way to our objective, the funny zigzag way, when we could go there at twice the speed, straight as an arrow, in a power boat?

There used to be a reasonable objection when boat engines made an excessive amount of noise and smelly fumes.  But modern engines, both gasoline and diesel, have overcome those faults — and many so-called sailboats use their auxiliary engines to motor from anchorage to anchorage in any case.  Why have a mast and sails on a charter boat in the West Indies, for example, when the object is to enjoy the sub-tropical beaches and snorkeling at different locations around the islands?

There are many cute designs for powerboats of all sizes these days, including trailerable boats with outboards and comfortable accommodation for a couple of people for weeks at a time.  They’ll cruise at 15 knots, top out at 20, and find shelter in the shallowest gunkholes.  Who needs an expensive mast and boom and sails and all the paraphernalia that goes with a sailboat? What sense does it make?

The only practical advantage of a sailboat is that you can sail around the world in one, whereas most powerboats can’t carry enough fuel to get them across an ocean.  But then, how many of us buy a boat with the intention of sailing around the world when you can get almost anywhere on earth by air in 24 hours or less for a fraction of the price?

And yet . . . and yet . . . There is something about a sailboat that stirs the blood and gladdens the heart, something a powerboat lacks. I’m not at all sure what it is, exactly, but it seems to me, looking around at all those masts in the marina, that I’m not alone in feeling it.

There is something about a mast on a boat that gives it a presence on the water. It makes a statement. It gives proportion to a sweet hull and asserts its character for all to admire.  I won’t even mention the difference between a powerboat and a yacht under sail.  Mankind probably hasn’t made anything more beautiful than a sailing ship. 

The fact that so many people ignore the practicality of powerboats for the ineffable attraction of sail must say something about the nature of the human soul. Something good, I like to think. Long may it be so.        

Today’s Thought
Whether or not the philosophers care to admit that we have a soul, it seems obvious that we are equipped with something or other which generates dreams and ideals, and which sets up values.
— John Erskine,  (Durant, On the Meaning of Life.)

A little old lady with a broken leg was warned by her doctor: “Now don’t go walking up stairs with that cast on, or you might do yourself another injury.”
Six weeks later she went back to have the plaster removed. “Is it OK if I walk up stairs now?” she asked.
“Perfectly all right,” said the doctor. “Your leg is quite strong enough now.”
“Great, thank goodness for that,” she said. “It was hell climbing up and down that drainpipe with the plaster on.”

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


Doc Häagen-Dazs said...

I agree with you, 99%. Whenever I drive by a lake or a cove, I feel much more joy when I see a few (or more) masted vessels tied to their moorings and docks. Why is that? Where does this joy come from. It's got to come from a sense that this beautiful body of water is not being wasted.

Additionally, although few people dream of circumnavigating, far more like to race their boats, and that competition is much more fun and practical with sails than the alternative.

Ken said...

Putting one foot in front of the other, walking, is our basic instinctual mode of propelling us to a desired place, no magic. When man learned to ride the beasts of the world...that was magic.

When man learned to float on the water and propel himself within his too was magic. But when he harnessed the wind to propel himself across great bodies of water to distant shores... well that my friend, is a magic so large, so deep, it has been instilled into the very soul of mankind's adventurers. Magic!

Tony Lawlor said...

Mr Vigor,
What a post. If the sailing fraternity around the world had hired you to promote their sport to the rest of the world they would feel as if they had got a bargain after reading that. Well done.