Maybe it's Conrad or maybe it's the Sockdolager Effect, but with long spells of watching the sea, thinking, musing, and pondering, I get a little philosophical, and have taken the liberty of subjecting you to the results because it might be fun to know about the day-by-day of a long voyage. Or maybe not! We're not bored except for some night watches when staying awake is real effort. We hope you aren't bored, either. We both miss the 2-way-ness of the active communication we enjoy when keeping in touch, but it is also magnificent out here all alone on a wide ocean.
In his Mirror of the Sea, Conrad despaired that 100 years hence, his generation of deepwater sailors with their knowledge and skills would be forgotten, ignored, even considered irrelevant by the future generation of sailors, who, he added, would not be able to call themselves true descendants. "Nooooo!" I nearly yelled, "That's not true!" While there was a period of decline during "modernizing" of seafaring in which many good ships rotted away and are gone forever except for their names, a few survived; enough, it seems, to keep the old ways alive and, if not practiced widely, at least revered and preserved.
Every historic port has its historic ship, or wants one. I love that. Our hometown of Port Townsend, Washington is a Victorian seaport with a wealth of sleek and tidy wooden boats, along with a festival to celebrate them, a school in which to learn to build them, a maritime center in which to learn to sail them, and a marine trades industry to help keep them alive. You can still see a forest of wooden masts (though not as many these days, as marina prices rise) and even a square yard or two, down at the docks. To walk these docks in early morning with a cup of coffee in hand is to step back in time while your eyes wander over rigging and hull designs that are the direct descendants of the Age of Sail.
Take Adventuress, for example. A gaff-rigged pilot schooner built a hundred years ago, she's 137 feet in sparred length and has the kind of lines that make you hold your breath as your eye sweeps the length and breadth of her. Looking through the portholes of Sockdolager nestled in our nearby slip, we could see her tarred wire shrouds and tall masts that were once huge trees. In the early morning before anyone was stirring she'd be calling, and sometimes I'd go, to smell the tarry rigging, see the salt-rimed decks and gleaming varnish, and linger along that eggshell of a hull that has carried a century of dreams. Ships like this are our connection with the maritime past. She possesses none of the cold static precision of an architect's skyscraper, but instead whispers of a gathered, living energy. Small tremors in the rigging give away her impatience as she awaits the footfalls of her crew.
To gaze at a storied old ship that still earns her living every day by sail training and education is, well, when things are quiet in the morning, like entering a sailor's chapel. I know that comparing a living ship to a chapel may be considered blasphemous, but for the profane and shackled sailor in many of us who longs to escape everything that relentlessly says Thou Shalt Not Be Yourself, it's perfect. A ship takes you to sea, where the night sky shows you your relative size in the universe, A ship's sails and rigging require work to learn--a lot of it--but they teach both caution and risk-taking. A ship teaches you respect for the elements, and for the sea.
And what about all that marvelous beauty in design and efficiency? Who wouldn't lift their gaze in silent awe? Instead of cathedral spires there are topmasts. Instead of a carillon, miles of wire shrouds are strung for the wind's song. Instead of flowers, a flattened Turk's Head knot blooms under every deck block, to soften its noise. Instead of a Shrine of the Virgin, a bowsprit lustily cleaves the air (O!) giving a near-fix point for the far-gazing eye.
A sailing ship is designed to be a partner to the wind and sea, rather bludgeon it to death with, as Conrad put it, brutal machinery. This--a sailing ship's design--is what should have been encoded in binary, placed aboard Voyager and shot into space, for interpretation by intelligent life elsewhere.
In spite of the dominance of oil-powered machinery (and most of us have small diesels in our boats), I think we may be in a New Age of Sail. It started in 1895 with Joshua Slocum, picked up momentum after World War 2 with the Smeetons, Hiscocks, Guzzwell and other long-distance voyagers, caught the popular imagination with the Pardeys in the 1970s, and became a force of its own, with a fleet of its own, of sailors with little ships and big dreams.
I wish we could see a topgallant or skysail hove into view out here on this old sailing ship route, but just knowing we're part of a fleet of a few dozen little ships who just last week cast off their lines to follow in the wakes of tall ships for the sake of feeling this alive, is enough.
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