The Importance of Going Nowhere

Musical accompaniment: Joni Mitchell’s “Refuge of the Roads.”

I was at a holiday event this past weekend, and chatted with someone I hadn’t seen since last year. “I heard you bought a sailboat,” she said. “Where do you go?”

“Wherever the wind takes me.” It has become a pretty reflexive answer. For all the hours I spent on the lake this year, there were only a few where I was seeking a specific destination: leaving from and returning to the boatyard for the change of season, and my trip to St. Joseph, Michigan. Otherwise, I planned my trip based on the wind and sometimes the waves.

For some, sailing with the wind represents a limitation, but for me it is freedom. So often the need to achieve a specific destination is stifling, a form of suppression that mutes our ability to reach beyond arbitrary limits placed on us for the sake of maintaining formation. Knowing where you will finish your journey before it begins provides a sense of comfort but very little opportunity for discovery. Not knowing ensures little beyond your freedom to wander according to your desires.

I would be lying if I told you that this attitude hasn’t guided much of my life. While I’m certainly not a wanderer or vagabond, I’ve never been one to plan much beyond the horizon. I prefer to respond to the world around me, and that has led me down many different paths, both good and not so good. It has kept me from becoming an expert in a narrow field or obtaining a powerful title at a corporation, but allowed me to enjoy many different projects and discover passions that I previously might have overlooked. Indeed, one such path led me to Chicago and introduced me to a love of sailing.

We have a strong tendency to view events on a linear, progressive curve. We look back at an arc of history and see a natural sequence of actions from point A to point X. Things makes sense; serendipity and discovery seem logically embedded in our past. Of course, it doesn’t really work that way, our memory is a marvelous filter that exists to create coherence. Our destinations are not defined by our starting points, they arise from the choices we make along the way. Looking forward, no trajectory exists. Looking backward, we see what we created.

Instead of asking the question 'where will I go?', I'm trying very hard to reframe it as 'how can I… Click To Tweet

Often we fix our goals early and judge success by their attainment. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with that. But, to return to sailing, sometimes the wind shifts and staying on the same course is the least desirable option. For those who are unfamiliar, you cannot sail directly into the wind, and beating upwind (sailing close to the wind’s direction) can be physically demanding and hard on the ship — the boat is hitting waves head-on and the skipper is struggling to resist weather helm. While it’s often an invigorating tack, beating upwind requires an added amount of diligence and effort. Turning to a broad reach not only keeps your cocktail in the glass it allows you to go below and pee.

Instead of asking the question, “where will I go?” I’m trying very hard to reframe it as “how can I go?” After all, it’s not the destination, but the journey, right? It makes little sense (to me, at least) to work towards a goal that I chose for myself decades ago when I possessed little wisdom and much less discipline. I’m trying to allow exploration and discovery to influence my direction and expose me to many pursuits that might otherwise pass by me. Sailing has not only become one of those passions but also a great analogy for the process itself. I’m excited to see where next season takes me.

 

Today’s Lesson: Jacklines

As I continue to gain experience sailing solo and prepare Ikaros for the endeavor, I have decided to install jacklines this winter while she’s in storage. This short post from BoatUS Magazine raises some good issues echoed in previous readings:

Many sailors like to use stainless-steel wire for jacklines, which, although undeniably strong, can roll underfoot, potentially throwing the sailor off balance.

Instead, try using 1-inch-wide nylon webbing. It’s plenty strong enough, won’t roll underfoot, and best of all won’t make a noise or scratch your deck like stainless-steel wire can.

One drawback is durability from UV exposure. Plastimo, one manufacturer of nylon webbing jacklines, recommends replacing them after a cumulated period of two years of outdoor exposure.

While I knew nylon webbing deteriorates in the sunlight, I didn’t know that the recommended replacement period was two years of accumulated UV exposure (in Chicago that is approximately four years.)

Happy sailing!

The Nevers

I’m beginning to plan an overnight trip from Chicago to Benton Harbor/St. Joseph, Michigan. It is a trip across Lake Michigan that addresses some of my nevers. The thing about the nevers is that we all have them; they always exist. I’ve never had a child, I’ve never been from Tucson to Tucumcari, and I’ve never been to heaven (but I’ve been to Oklahoma.) In my boat Ikaros I’ve never sailed so far, never sailed away from shore, and never spent the night on it.

Everyone has to face the nevers. For a relative novice such as myself, sailing for ten hours across open water is a big step forward, but one that I must take in order to walk down the street. And my ultimate goal is to not just walk down the street, but leave town.

By leaving the shore I will not be able to rely on coastal navigation techniques, I cannot dismiss weather forecasts, and I will have to prepare for the unlikely event that I will ditch twenty-five miles offshore. I’m cautious each time I leave the harbor — especially when I’m sailing solo — but this trip will require an extra bit of deliberation. It’s a great opportunity to practice skills I will use in difficult situations on the Great Lakes and eventually in blue water.

Toward Benton Harbor

My destination is significant for a couple of reasons. First, it can be reached from Chicago in a single day. With a bit of luck I will arrive under sail before sunset. Second, St. Joseph is the site of Fort Miami, established by Robert de La Salle in order to explore what is now southern Michigan and northern Indiana. It is believed that La Salle built canoes there to continue his journey. While nearly 340 years ago, I shall make a point of toasting him with my evening martini.

The Great Lakes will help me overcome many nevers. I have not sailed overnight. I have not sailed in difficult weather. While I consider myself a cruiser, I want to solo sail on a multi-day trip, perhaps to Mackinac Island. Still called the Mediterranean Sea of North America, the Great Lakes are beautiful, formidable, and challenging. The more nevers I can face on them the better prepared I will be to explore the rest of the world.

Ikaros

I haven’t spent much time on the blog lately, but it has been a busy summer and fall nonetheless. After moving back to Chicago this year I began searching for a sailboat, its purchase being something I have been planning for several years. I’m really excited to say that, despite the snow covering the ground and the sub-zero temperatures outside, I am a boat owner.

Even before closing I had a list of names. One thing was reasonably certain: the existing name would have to go. That decision is not inconsequential, since renaming a vessel is considered bad luck at best, and suicidal at worst. Considerable tribute, in the form of Champagne, must be paid to Poseidon and the Four Winds in order to rechristen a boat (which will take place in the spring of 2017, if you’re interested.)

I knew from the beginning that my sailboat should pay homage to a great starship from the science fiction canon. As a big Star Trek fan, I gave serious consideration to Defiant from my favorite series Deep Space Nine. Serenity of Firefly fame seemed like a good choice, but it is apparently the most popular name for sailboats, something like naming your daughter Ashley (no offense to all the Ashleys out there.) Names from Iain Banks’ Culture novels also made the short list, Irregular Apocalypse being a favorite. Finally, one of my own story characters, Eloquent Profanity, held on for a long time (to be vetoed by my partner.)

We finally settled on Ikaros, a bastardization of the Japanese interplanetary craft IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun), the first spacecraft to deploy and be propelled by a solar sail. Johannes Kepler proposed the solar sail in a letter to Galileo in 1610, noting that comet tails pointing away from the sun must be reacting to “heavenly particles.” Four centuries later, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) successfully detached IKAROS from the AKATSUKI Venus probe and deployed a 200 square meter sail. Since then it has been sailing toward a point on the far side of the sun.

The IKAROS sail deployed.

The solar sail encompasses many of my interests: the great historical narratives I enjoy, my own recreation, and the science fiction stories I love so much. It seems fitting that a simple idea, four centuries old, could present us with a vision of the future. It is an exciting idea and I look forward to talking with fellow sailors and neighbors in the harbor about what it stands for and how it represents an exciting technology.

However, as I write this I am bracing for ten more inches of snow and a long spell of freezing weather, so I will spend the next few months performing some maintenance projects, enjoying the Strictly Sail show in January, and dreaming of sailing the stars.

Strictly Sail – Chicago

It gets cold in Chicago, and the harbors freeze. That’s not so good if you enjoy sailing. While it helps to long for April 1st, when the boats will start to return to their slips, attending a boat show in January helps a lot. Yesterday my friend Michael and I went to Strictly Sail at Navy Pier – where among other cool things – Beneteau’s new First 30 made its Chicago debut. Perfect for getting one’s mind off of gray skies and old snow.

"First 30 Marque"Beneteau has always done a fabulous job of walking the line between performance and comfort, and the second generation of the First 30 is no different. Designed by famed naval architecture firm Juan Yacht Design, the First 30 retains the distinctive Beneteau profile while incorporating substantial racing improvements, like a bulb keel, a new tiller design linked to dual rudders, and specially designed mast and sails to maximize power (no backstay on this baby.)

I’m not going to get into a review of the boat, since I haven’t sailed one and – I’m sad to think – I surely won’t have the opportunity for quite a while. "Galley and stateroom" Needless to say, from the photos, it’s easy to see the relative comfort built into the cabin. This is definitely not a J/30, which makes cocktail hour at the end of the day a bit more comfortable (now you know what kind of sailor I am.) But in the right hands, the boat is not going to provide any handicap on the water. So for any of you out there who feel compelled to reward me with lavish gifts, this is definitely the big daddy.

Of course, there was more: three yachts from the Beneteau series – a 37, 40 and 50 – all stunning and outfitted to the nines. The 50 actually comes with the Dock & Go system, a new 360 degree, joystick-controlled trolling motor that requires almost no skill to professionally maneuver your yacht. Perfect for the bond trader that doesn’t know how to sail.

"First 30 Sail" Other highlights included a new J/111 – the latest in a series of impressive racing boats, a beautiful one-class daysailer from C.W. Hood (which was just voted Boat of the Year), and lots of cool gear (I totally fell in love with these really lightweight water shoes from Zeko footwear.) Not a bad way to spend a few hours.

Now it’s just a matter of getting through the next eight weeks, until the boat yards come to life and the harbors start to fill again. I’ve joined a crew that will be running in the Chicago-Mac race this summer, so stayed tuned for news and updates. It promises to be a really fun time.