In November I sailed from Bermuda to Tortola BVI with three other folks on “Confetti,” a 54-foot cutter. Two of the three other folks on board were my father-in-law Ron and his friend Scott, who own the boat; the fourth was Vern Thompson (above), a longtime friend from the BVI who maintains the boat for Ron and Scott. It requires quite a bit of maintenance, being that it is after all a boat, which is another word for a hole in the water you throw money into.
This is my third time doing this particular sail. As open ocean sails go it is a pretty easy one. Typically you have west to northwest winds the first couple days, then a day or two of relative calm, then another two or three days of “trade winds,” the prevailing easterly winds that dominate the Caribbean and also account for slavery, the shape of commerce, and so much else in the societies that border the Atlantic. Of course the route also goes directly across the “Bermuda Triangle,” which I guess would make me nervous if I was a superstitious person. The reality is there are plenty of real things to worry about on an ocean voyage in a small boat without making up supernatural ones.
But as I said this trip is not terribly difficult for an open ocean voyage. You’re not usually required to beat into the wind, and the temperatures are relatively mild, and as long as you stay well away from hurricane season the weather is not likely to be terrible. (And pay attention: We sat in Bermuda for a week waiting for conditions south of us to improve, conditions that would have required us to beat into 30-knot winds and 6-meter swells for two or three days, which is not pleasant by anyone’s standards.) Note that “not terribly difficult” doesn’t mean I don’t barf on the first day, which I have learned to accept as the price of this experience. It also doesn’t include anyone getting what you would think of as normal sleep, since somebody has to be on deck on watch every minute, which means you’re up in the middle of the night fairly often. To be completely honest, the whole experience, even on this comparatively mild sail, is unpleasant enough that I always spend the first two days or so of any trip questioning my sanity.
So why do it, anyway?
When I was in college and later graduate school, I spent a lot of time reading poetry, 17th and 18th century poetry in particular. I remember being quite puzzled by a notion that the late 18th century poets — Shelley, Wordsworth, Byron — were particularly obsessed with: the “sublime.” In any discussion of beauty and what it meant and how one defines it, this “sublime” thing emerged as — well, not an alternative, but as something else worth seeking out and grappling with in literature and art. It turns out to be one of those things that is quite difficult to describe, but you know it when you see it — or rather, as I have discovered, when you feel it. People would say “Go look at a mountain” or “Look at the ocean,” and although I had seen all those things plenty of times before, I didn’t get it. I certainly didn’t get how you could find it in art or music. I was supposed to be feeling some kind of awe about the size and power of the natural world, something that would take me out of myself and overwhelm me with the enormousness of everything, but I felt nothing like that.
Then one day around the third or fourth day out of my first open ocean sailing trip, I looked out at a view a bit like the one above, and I felt it. I was overawed with the size, the scale, the notion that something so much vaster than I could exist as a coherent whole. I knew immediately what I was feeling: It was, at last, the sublime.
I think it is a condition of modernity that we don’t often see or feel things that are simply beyond us. If we see a mountain, someone has climbed it, and there is probably a beer stand at or near the top, if not a paved road leading there. Skies, flown in; oceans, sailed across, on such a routine basis that we don’t even think about it. Even the moon and the other nearby planets have junk on them that we’ve put there. I read the other day that some nut case had hauled a rowing machine up to the top of the Matterhorn (and of course left it there). Have we done all this on purpose? Are we so terrified of eternity that we go out of our way to reduce the truly vast things in our world to sightseeing opportunities with nearby concession stands?
Maybe so. But the sailors of the world have a secret in common, and it is the feeling and the aesthetic of being in the middle of a vast, featureless ocean, filled with beauty and danger, utterly indifferent to your presence. No concession stands, no roadways, only you and the tiny piece of fiberglass holding you up.
When are we going again, Ron?