“It’s the glory of the sea that has turned my head.” Robert-Louis Stevenson
The sea is everything the land is not, the antidote to our earth-bound drudgery. Whether to escape it all, roam the oceans free or break new records for speed, endurance or solitude, the sea beckons. To heed her call, as sailors know, is to take one first step into what will turn out to be one of life’s greatest and most enduring romances.
The romance of the sea is consumated on ships. Except for dolphins and whales, no sane mammal will venture out into open waters without one. We can admire her beauty from the safety of the shore but as William Turner knew, who like Ulysses once fastened himself to a topmast so he could witness a winter storm first-hand, for the real thing, we need a ship. And so it came to be that through a process of emotional transfer, the lovers of the sea became ship-lovers.
What is there not to love on a boat? Every scantling, every inflexion in the shape of her hull, spars and sails bears testimony to the practical genius and artistic sense of generations of sailors, shipwrights and architects. Centuries of ingenuity and flair to answer one single question, time after time: how to glide effortlessly between water and air ? The first challenge was to survive the crossing; then came the age of conquest, migration and trade, followed by the era of logistics, sports and leisure.
Looking back on those endless variations on the themes of buoyancy and thrust, it is remarkable how graceful the results turned out to be. Seldom have function and beauty been so closely entwined. L’art pour l’art, this is not. An ugly boat is like a leaking hull, a floating contradiction, bound to be swallowed up by the sea or discarded by the next fashion, which would explain why most ugly boats are fresh off the production line; time is partial to beauty, where ships are concerned.
As James Joyce once hinted in his dedication to “Our sweet mother, the sea“, her sweetness can be tempered with bitterness. Anyone who has tasted her fury knows how swiftly and unpredictably the idyll can turn into a nightmare, making foresight the seafarer’s cardinal virtue, and experience (read: the sum of one’s bad experiences) our most trusted guide.
To make every sailing experience as enjoyable, as effortless, as magical as can be: the art of sailing is not so different from the art of living.
Featured image from Mike Leigh’s Mr Tuner (2014) – HMS Temeraire being towed to the scrapyard