E.B. White was 64 when he wrote his now-famous essay “The Sea and the Wind That Blows,” which begins as a romantic paean to sailing and then drifts, as if spun around by a pessimistic eddy of thought, into a reflection on selling his boat. Does an aging sailor quit while he’s ahead, White pondered, or “wait till he makes some major mistake, like falling overboard or being flattened by an accidental gybe?” White had decided to quit, though he went on to hedge, adding that if no buyer materialized, he might take to sea once more, unable to resist.
I am five years older than White was at that writing. I have two daysailers parked outside, a pocket cruiser snoozing in a nearby marina and a gaff-rigged cutter under construction in my workshop. It would be decidedly embarrassing to declare myself suddenly unfit for sailing, and I hardly feel any need to do so. Accidental gybe? I set a preventer line when running, even when the breeze is so light that a gybe would do no harm. Man overboard? I have a leg up, so to speak, being an amateur boatbuilder and having engineered a fold-up boarding ladder that stows neatly away behind the cockpit seats. I don’t feel any less safe now than I did a decade back.
Still, I have an appalling number of friends my age who have abandoned sailing. They’ve either quit the water entirely, migrated to powerboating or are letting their sailboats decay into ignominious ruin. Why I wonder, do we give up something we purportedly love, a passion that infuses us with life (along with the occasional scare) before nature forces the issue?
Unfortunately, the allure of passivity is wired into our culture. We’re always looking for easier ways to do things, and that craving grows with age. (Not long ago I bought my first car with an automatic transmission, finally tired of an aching clutch leg while crawling along on clotted freeways.) Sailboats demand not only active involvement while sailing, they also ask for endless maintenance. If the love of sailing or of a particular boat even begins to ebb, I suppose it doesn’t take long for the labor of ownership to overwhelm one’s desire to do it.
Luckily, in my case, I’m a bit of an outlier because I’ve built my boats. And while I generally dislike maintaining anything—I hate yardwork, for example, in every imaginable form—I also like maintaining them. I paid for them in blood and sweat, after all, so my emotional investment goes deeper than with those things I’ve acquired with money alone.
Another likely reason my contemporaries are choosing to give up sailing is the inexorable trend toward bigger boats. The idea of a big boat is beguiling: more safety, more comfort, more speed and more power assists that seem to make it all more manageable. However, I truly believe every added complexity makes a boat less manageable because each requires its own learning curve and a specialist to maintain.
I’d personally feel overwhelmed if confronted by a diesel, an electric winch and refrigeration that all suddenly demanded repair. The 21ft cutter I’m building will have none of these things. The comfort of not being dependent on them is more important to me than the limitations of a cabin with 50in of sitting headroom.
White also wrote that “a small sailing craft is not only beautiful. It is seductive and full of strange promise and the hint of trouble.” And I can assure you, I am well aware of all these things, including that hint of trouble. I also understand how tempting it can be to want steer away from the risk and discomfort sailing requires. However, it’s important to remember it’s those same things that keep us fully alive.
Although sailing/life analogies always risk sounding like clichés, I’m going to offer one more, because I see it as a useful guide for navigating life in general at an advancing age. A powerboat pushes through the water by applying brute force. A sailboat makes its way by negotiating a partnership with nature. The sailing partnership may seem more fragile, more tenuous, less direct—but in the long run, it’s the one that is most sustainable and conspicuously more graceful.
E.B. White, incidentally, did sell his 18ft daysailer. However, he then not only succumbed to the lure of the water but also two-foot-itis and had his son Joel build him a 20ft pocket cruiser, which he began sailing at the age of 68.