BOATHANDLING: Secrets of a Sensuous Sailor

Couple sailing

It wasn’t until I first sailed on a boat with an engine that I understood precisely what is most seductive about sailing. Any who have cursed the din of a motor while afloat will know exactly what I mean. We feel it the very instant we switch our engines off, as the awful over-riding sound of internal combustion dies away. I call it the orgasm of silence, that moment in which it seems all of our senses have suddenly been turned on.

Considered purely on an aesthetic basis the sensuality of sailing is hardly unique. Any mode of transportation, particularly when raised to the level of sport, necessarily creates sensory stimuli, and those engaged in it will attune themselves to these. Sailors may argue that stimuli experienced while sailing are inherently more aesthetic–that the caress of the wind and the hiss of a wake must, for example, be more sublime than the roar of an engine and the smell of fuel–but this, I think, is mere prejudice. And, of course, many of the stimuli we enjoy while sailing are also experienced in other modes of boating. A canoeist or kayaker–even that lowest form of mariner, the floating motorist–may share our affinity for wind and wave, and, like us, they are subject to their dictates. But, unlike us, they are not wholly dependent on them. To other boaters wind and wave are most often obstructions; to sailors they are sustenance.

For this is what is unique about sailing: it is the only mode of vehicular transportation in which the vehicle immediately derives non-gravitational motive energy from its surrounding environment. To make this happen, to make our boats go, sailors must perceive their environment in some detail in a purely sensual manner. Because the sensuality of sailing is so enmeshed with its mechanics, we necessarily become more sensual beings as we become better sailors. Ideally, a sailor’s body and mind should become a pure sensory interface between the boat and its surroundings.

See me

We are primarily visual creatures, and our eyes, obviously, are very useful to us when we sail. Forward progress when sailing, and the elements essential to creating and sustaining it, can all be perceived and analyzed in terms of visual data. Visual stimuli are very noticeable to us, and thus we normally prefer to have our instruments present information to us in a visual form.Diagram of eyeball

The direction of the wind, for example, a very pertinent bit of information, is most often perceived visually. Novices may need to turn their boats a full 180 degrees or more and actually see (and hear) their sails luffing generously before they grasp where it is coming from. More experienced sailors pick up on much subtler clues. They note a faint shiver in the leech of a sail, or a small change of angle in a flying telltale. And, of course, even when sailing boats on which wind direction can be read off an instrument display, the best sailors study the surface of the water very closely and can see variations in the wind over great distances.

Sail trim is also largely an eyeball business. Initially we are concerned merely with whether our sails are luffing or not, but as we gain experience we focus on finer details of angle and shape. Likewise, when navigating our visual acuity becomes ever more intense as we gain experience. We notice stationary clouds over unseen islands, learn to gauge speed from the appearance of our wake, look to see which way the water is flowing past fixed buoys. Ultimately, we may find our way by using our eyes to measure the altitude of celestial bodies, a process that need not involve complex instruments. The most accurate sun line I ever took at sea, for example, was not with a sextant, but with my naked eye, as I happened to note the time one very clear evening just as the setting sun touched the horizon.

In fact, the visual data at our disposal aboard a sailboat is almost limitless. It is simply a matter of learning to notice it. The best sailors, as they set their sails, trim them, and con their vessels, are always open to new visual revelations and are always, on an almost subconscious level, seeking them out.

Sailor Peter Nichols, for example, in his book Sea Change, recounts an ocean passage during which he suddenly noticed a faint line of turbulence underneath the overlying pattern of wind waves on the water’s surface. Checking his chart, he found he was over the edge of the European continental shelf and deduced that the turbulence was created by the millions of gallons of cold water slowly pouring off the shelf hundreds of feet below him.

In another more dramatic instance, one acquaintance of mine tells of skippering a 50-foot cutter on a delivery down the Intracoastal Waterway, shooting the 65-foot highway bridges with a 64-foot mast. Approaching one bridge after dark, he suddenly realized he wasn’t going to make it and pulled a U-turn just in time to save the rig. What tipped him off was that he noticed his masthead light was only shining on the outermost longitudinal beam underneath the bridge.

“It wasn’t a rational process,” he explained to me. “It wasn’t until afterwards that I figured out that if there’s clearance a masthead light will shine both on the outermost beam and on the ones behind it. When I turned the boat around, all I knew was something didn’t look right.”

Hear me

But the eyes are not everything. As anyone who has sailed in fog or at night can attest, reduced visibility, even as it restricts us, heightens our perception in other ways and so opens to us new realms of information. This information is available whether we can see or not, and good sailors learn to use it constantly.Diagram of ear

A sailor’s sense of hearing, for example, can become especially fine-tuned. We soon learn that the dramatic machine-gun chatter of a flogging sail is not as calamitous as it seems and develop instead an ability to distinguish subtle variations in sound. A good sailor thus can gauge a boat’s speed from the sound of its wake and will know if it has changed course by the variation in the pattern of the sounds its hull makes moving through the water. Solid fiberglass hulls make particularly good sounding boards. When down below on my old solid-glass Pearson Alberg 35, I often could hear the minute underwater squeakings of approaching dolphins from a quarter-mile or more away.

One reason we rely on our hearing so much is that trouble on a sailboat often first manifests itself as noise. Almost all of a boat is under tension when sailing, and variations in tension tend to make themselves heard. Problems with various systems on boats also tend to announce themselves audibly. Sailors thus are famous for obsessing about identifying the source of even the slightest unfamiliar sound aboard their vessels. For example, I once discovered that a small shackle pin securing a mainsheet block on my boat had warped and was working loose when I noticed a slight change in the pitch of the humming sound the topping lift made when I sheeted the boom down tight at anchor. Because I was fanatical about figuring out why the sound had changed, I was able to find and replace the damaged pin before it became a problem.

Precisely because sound can be so important, good sailors seek to enhance their hearing when necessary. Motoring in the fog, or on a very dark night, they shut down their engines periodically to listen for aids to navigation, breaking waves, or approaching vessels. They also give some thought as to when they play music while underway. One good friend of mine tells a sobering tale in which he awoke one night to the sound of breaking waves while sailing through the Bahamas. Just as he rushed up on deck, the boat ran on to a reef. He was not very pleased when he found that the crew on watch was wearing a CD player with headphones and had been oblivious to the danger.

Touch me

Sailboats are very tactile machines and those operating them soon develop a discriminating sense of touch. Most obviously, this is of use in steering a boat. Most sailors will trim their sails to create a slight amount of weather helm, as one needs a little pressure on a wheel or tiller to feel a boat well. This pressure, or the lack thereof, as gauged by a hand on the helm, tells us when a boat is falling off course, when sails are out of trim, when the wind has shifted, or when sail needs to be reduced.

Hands touching

Our sense of touch is also important when handling lines. Experienced sailors can gauge halyard and luff tension, sheet tension, and tension on lines used in any number of incidental ways with a stroke of their fingertips. Subtlest of all, perhaps, is the art of gauging tension on lines that run underwater. Feeling when an anchor on a rode, or the lead on a sounding line, has touched bottom, or when an anchor is dragging at the end of its rode, requires a deft and informed hand.

Even the seemingly simple business of feeling where the wind is coming from at times requires a heightened sense of touch. It is particularly difficult when sailing in light air, or well off the wind, when apparent wind speed is much reduced and the sails themselves offer few visual signals as to the precise wind direction. Telltales collapse, electronic instruments become unreliable, and we often find ourselves sailing by the seat of our faces, as it were, straining to sense exactly where that caress on our cheek is coming from. Some racing sailors I’ve known, for precisely this reason, will grow out their beards and then shave just before competing so as to enhance their sensitivity.

Smell (and taste) me

I lump these two together because I consider them biologically united, in that smelling something essentially consists of inhaling and tasting air. Though not nearly as critical to the process of sailing a boat as those senses discussed above, they do come in handy from time to time.

Diagram of nose

Diagram of tongue

Saltwater sailors, for example, will know precisely what first to do on discovering any mysterious trickles in their bilges. By touching a fingertip to the substance in question and tasting it, they immediately learn whether it is coming from outside or inside the boat. I used this trick once when crewing on a boat some years ago and discovered that what was leaking was not the hull or the fresh-water system, but the extra bottles of dishwashing detergent that the owner had stashed under a settee.

Obviously, the smell of anything burning on a boat should always arouse grave concern. Other odors may also provoke anxiety. Standing a night watch alone hundreds of miles from shore on one transatlantic passage, I once became quite worried when suddenly I smelled land. It was strong and distinct–the same “beachy” smell that evokes the sea when we are on shore. I checked our plot to confirm we were indeed far from any charted land and seriously wondered for a moment if we were about to discover some new land. The odor soon disappeared, but I was on edge for the rest of my watch. I mentioned it to the skipper in the morning, and he immediately deduced it must have been a whale on the surface nearby.

A nose may also have some meteorological uses. Many weather disturbances–thunderstorms and rain squalls, for example–often have distinct odors. On one voyage I made, a shipmate was able to sense the imminent arrival of a cold front when the sudden drop in air pressure caused his sinuses to drain.

“Feel” me

There is, finally, what I deem a sixth sense. Some might include it in the realm of “touch,” as it is somewhat tactile, but I think it is more properly considered on its own. For lack of a precise term, I would describe it as a sense of balance or motion perception. It is distinct from “touch” in that it is less a function of direct pressure on exterior nerve endings and rather more a function of one’s inner ear and, to put it baldly, the gut.

It is this sense, of course, that is so easily violated when we first board a boat, as many a vomit-streaked gunwale will attest. Beyond achieving equilibrium so we can merely function aboard a boat, the honing of this sense not only permits us to access new realms of information, but also works in conjunction with other senses. It is well documented that our vision and sense of smell can compound seasickness, and certainly if we are seasick our ability to use our other senses is impaired. But once we adapt and regain our equilibrium, our perception is dramatically enhanced.

The business of helming a boat offers a good example. Obviously, we use our eyesight while steering, and, as discussed above, we will certainly use our sense of touch to feel pressure on the helm. We may use our hearing, listening to the pattern of waves slapping the hull to help maintain course. But we will also feel the boat’s motion, and this is what ties the whole package together. As the boat rounds up, we will see our course change with respect to the compass and horizon, we will feel an increase of pressure on the helm, we will hear the pattern of waves on the hull change. But we will also feel it in our gut, and, most important, if we are practiced, we will feel it here first. We will feel the boat beginning to round up before it actually rounds up, and it is precisely this element of anticipation, the ability to correct before a correction is explicitly required, that allows a good helmsperson to steer a true course under sail.

The extent to which sailors fine-tune their perception is probably most evident in their ability to simply feel a boat accelerate. To a good sailor an increase in speed of less than one mile an hour will feel as abrupt, and as thrilling, as an increase of 20 to 30 miles an hour in a car. And, obviously, there is a concomitant ability to perceive motion athwartship as well. For example, several times when sailing across the mouth of Long Island Sound I have felt precisely the moment at which the tidal flow in or out of the sound grips the boat and starts to set it off course.

This same ability, compounded perhaps with our other senses, probably encompasses an intuitive sense of direction as well. I remember once embarking on a long coastal voyage in a small boat with no engine or instruments (save one small compass that could not be viewed from the helm) and was surprised at the extent to which I was able to “feel” the course. All of my senses seemed suffused with my surroundings.

Polynesian voyagers
Polynesian voyagers, masters of sensory navigation

I thought of the ancient Polynesians who navigated with nothing but their senses to guide them, and of the great Argentinean cruiser, Alberto Torroba, who likewise sailed across the Pacific some years ago in a dugout canoe with no instruments aboard. Torroba wrote of one instance in which he had entirely lost his bearings after several days of dark overcast weather. Not knowing what else to do, he stood erect in his boat, drained himself of all conscious thought, and simply sensed which way was south (he was in the southern hemisphere).

Alberto Torroba
Alberto Torroba sailing his 15-foot dugout canoe Ave Marina

I cannot claim to be as perceptive as Torroba or the Polynesians and would certainly never want to cross an ocean without instruments. But for me this was an epiphany. For a short while I was one with the boat, one with the sea and the sky, as if I myself did not exist. My senses were entirely blended with my environment, and I felt a hint of something mystical, such as can only be experienced aboard a vessel under sail.

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3 Responses
  1. Charles Adams

    This is the best piece you’ve written. In my opinion it perfectly describes the beauty and art of sailing.
    Chuck Adams

  2. plaudite

    One of the most beautiful things ever written on sailing. Thanks, Charles Doane. May you receive the professional recognition you deserve.

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