The act of sailing a boat is not at all what it appears to be from the shore. When you are standing on the beach, the sailor and his boat give you the impression that they are gliding gracefully across the surface of the water. But when you are in the boat with the frequent spray of water in your face, the constant scrambling between port and starboard, and the ceaseless handling of complex rigging, sailing is a grueling test of courage and patience.
Not long ago while in New Zealand for work, I was invited by a colleague to join his yacht crew for an afternoon outing. More accurately, his first choice had broken his foot and his second choice had a schedule conflict, so I was plan C. I didn’t realize, until it was too late to back out, that my first time sailing wasn’t going to be a nice leisurely cruise over placid waters. No. My first time sailing was going to be at the helm of a 23-foot yacht in an all-out race with 50-naught winds in Lyttelton Harbor off the eastern coast of the South Island.
Every crew has a captain. Ours was a barrel-chested kiwi with a booming voice and a zeal for life who literally had a story for every situation. As we shoved off from the dock, his instructions easily overcame the steady roar of the wind and waves: “When I tell you to do something, do it. When I yell, do it faster.” During the race, there were plenty of close calls with other vessels, dock structures, and deadly subsurface reefs to reinforce the importance of his fifteen-word orientation.
The moment of truth arrived when he turned the tiller (rudder) over to me, a bit prematurely by the way. He pointed at the weather vane atop the main mast and told me to keep the arrow between the outer bounds that were marked. Then he motioned to the tell tales on the jib and main sheets where wisps of thread on both sides were indicating how evenly the air was flowing across the sails. He said to steer such that the tell tales stayed together and level as much as possible. Then he pointed to the enormous shipping cranes in the port and told me to hold that course for a while. I was comprehensively overwhelmed because there were just too many things to keep track of all at once. But in the midst of the waves, the wind, the other boats, the shouting, the rigging, the foreign terminology, and the confusion, I was learning to sail.
We lost the race. But we gained the experience.
When you do the work that matters most to you, you are learning to sail. Not from the point of view of the shore where it’s calm, but from inside the boat, where it’s overwhelming. You can’t control the waves. You can’t control the wind. You can’t control what other boats are going to do. The only things you can control are how you set your sails and which way you point the tiller.
It’s a grueling test of courage and patience. And sometimes, after you have dried off and warmed up, your only reward is to be able to taste the sea on your lips and know that, even though you may not have won the race, you have sailed.