Discover more from The 50-Mile Man
Sun, Wind & Steel
Is a sailing revival the answer to our physical and spiritual malaise?
Note: I recommend reading this post while listening to the climactic portion of Debussy’s La Mer. You’ll thank me.
The sport of sailing has been in decline for decades. Some blame Jimmy Carter’s tax hikes while others point to the luxury tax on boats passed in the early ‘90s. I blame whatever is causing the general malaise that is also lowering overall vitality and increasing risk aversion of all kinds.
Despite living my whole life in the sailing Mecca that is San Francisco Bay, it never occurred to me until my twenties that I might be missing out on something by keeping my ambitions landlocked.
The first time I cast off from the dock on my own sailboat, it felt like I was transgressing some unwritten rule:
‘Thou shalt not leave the land without a permission slip.’
California has since phased in an actual boating license, but at the time there was nothing (other than prudence) preventing a novice like me from embarking upon depths hitherto unexplored with nothing but a life jacket, a faulty outboard, and a half-empty bottle of Kahlua.
On my first real voyage out of the marina into those shallow depths off Berkeley’s shore, I promptly ran aground at the entrance to Clipper Cove at Treasure Island. A friend who was riding alongside me pulled me off the mud (thanks, John) and we rafted up overnight with the Washed Up Yacht Club. It was my first night trying to sleep without blankets, but I survived.
Up to my initiation into the sailing world, I had never known the link between real bodily effort – sheer will – and results. Exercise was a hobby and a pursuit of aesthetics, not a preparation for actual challenging circumstances. My first sailboat was a project, and I learned that most problems would relent if you spent long enough banging your head against it.
10 years after my first error-fraught explorations of San Francisco Bay, it’s now my job to sail the same waters without error. My chartering gig would be impossible without the training I’ve developed to supplement my sailing lifestyle. Sure, with enough money and the right gadgets (i.e., electric winches, hydraulic boom vangs, etc.) you can remove maybe 80% of the physical effort required to operate a boat, but to sail gracefully and handle every unplanned obstacle or surprise wind shift means adapting one’s body to an unforgiving environment.
Sailing involves a hardening against the elements. My hands, though soft compared with my grandfather’s, are calloused by modern standards. I’ve also developed a sun callous (i.e., a tan) – much better protection against sunburn than toxic, chemical-laden sunscreens. A wind callous is, of course, a double-edged sword. You want to be robust against its chilling effects, but sensitive to its subtle promptings. A scraggly beard acts as both blanket and antennae, tuned into a real-time transmission from nature’s classic station 92.5 – The Breeze.
Watch out CrossFit, Here Comes MastFit™
When people speak of ‘street smarts,’ they are referring more to an embodied quality – something partly learned from experience and partly instinctual. Again, a conforming to an environment with a localized set of risks and opportunities.
Where the fitness industry has failed is in relying on an outmoded concept of what is needed to thrive amid the perils of the late Anthropocene. How late is it? Very late indeed. A few strengths and competencies translate well from a gym into the real world. Cardiovascular output and ability to handle certain loads within a limited range of motion are practical and functional, to a point. But there are even greater advantages, physical and spiritual, of cold tolerance and an ability to withstand discomfort.
Here are just a few of the kinds of fitness that you can’t get in a gym, which come naturally from sailing often, and with vigor:
Cold/sun/boredom tolerance. Long watches break the modern-day addiction to distraction and train the mind and body to stay alert when it feels like nothing is happening.
Improved postural muscles from standing up for long periods of time (this one requires intentional practice, reminding yourself to straighten up, expand the thorax, and lead from the heart).
Balance and coordination from the “motion within motion” – moving about the foredeck, around various obstacles, while the ground beneath you heaves, pitches and yaws in three dimensions.
Grip strength from line handling, use of tools, carrying gear, etc.
Tolerance to nicks, burns, and other boat bites. The same cut or abrasion that would have required a bandaid and immediate attention feels trivial.
Composure under adverse circumstances results from needing to take decisive action exactly when the conditions are least favorable, such as reefing in high winds, or throttling up to avert a collision.
Overcoming fear of heights in scaling the mast. Even hooked into multiple halyards, it takes a while for the brain/body to let go of unnecessary nervous tension and get the task done efficiently.
Mobility and precision depth jumps from navigating tight spaces, jumping from the boat to the dock, stepping over lifelines, etc.
Lastly, there is a kind of built-in periodization workout in most sails, following the polarization pattern:
Most movement, like standing alert at the helm, is performed for longer periods at a low intensity. This is punctuated by intense bursts of full body output, grinding winches, hauling the main sheet in for a jibe, etc. Finally, unlike most HIIT workouts, these bursts of intensity must be timed according to the feedback you are receiving in real time from your environment.
It’s tempting to try to create a controlled environment in which you could train in ‘SailFit,’ but any indoor version of the real thing will be a cheap substitute.
Sail for fitness, yes. But above all, sail to heal what ails us all.