The last post broached the subject of the complicity of our boating heritage. It shouldn’t come as much of a shock, but it does. This disillusion strikes close to home. It resides in the silence of guilt and taboo, where our discomfort is unmoored from its cause – deemed too painful, intractable to any possibility of address – left to float free.
Disillusioning complicity is an underlying state of our experiences with boats today. We have craft – in both senses of the term – untethered. Their old purposes rapidly becoming untenable. Yet, within the hidden spaces behind our fears, we continue to turn to boats to relieve us from dispiriting labor at tasks whose purposes we no longer understand. We no longer – at least some of us – turn to yachting as a sport of social superiority and conspicuous consumption, but we don’t quite know what to do with our boats. We repeat fragments of the activities of sailors of old. We turn to the yachtsmen, fishermen, whalers – even slavers, as far as admiring their craft built for evasive speed as well as cruel exploitation. We, more or less, ignore the implications. We “mess about.”
We’re proud of it. And not without reason. This attitude can be a well-spring of art. Action untied from utility can allow us to begin to explore meaning.
But craft is not art, no matter how much we tend to blur the lines. Craft expresses meaning within the objects of daily life. It is concerned with how we make and use the things we need. Things and activities that feed us, shelter us, that bring us together, or protect us from those who intend us harm.
As we find more reasons to question how these needs have been addressed in ways we now recognize were harmful. As we reject active participation in the violence of accumulation. It is better to simply mess about than to go on as if nothing had to change. But, this is at best a transitional phase. We risk losing all that our efforts have preserved so far if we cannot find ways to reconnect our craft with purpose. As the means for our leisure dwindles, we risk losing all we value.
We carry such a weight of responsibility. From sheer numbers and the multiplier effects of easy energy – the major driver behind our great numbers as well – simple actions, that might have had fleeting consequences at an earlier point in history are now portentous. Even our attempts to sidestep the maw of commodification with hand-made craft cannot help but extend commodification. Every sheet of marine ply, each balk of timber, every bronze screw; adds up. A flea on the camel’s back, our alternative forms still ride atop the mountain of consumer demand, adding another increment to the destruction of what remains.
A difficulty blocking discussion of these matters tends to be our culture’s brittle preoccupation with avoiding anything without an easy answer. Our public sphere is dominated by histrionics whose purpose is to shout down whatever we would rather not face. Sailors know the dangers of these attitudes. We know that every moment on the water is both deadly serious business and a source of incomparable joy. We see no need to run from the first and accept the counterfeits of “happiness” bought and consumed like candy given to assuage a petulant child. We are already adapted to a “reality-based” way of life.
What continues to block us has many aspects. One is the fear that taking attention away from the struggle to “stay afloat;” as we bail furiously to maintain a standard of living that includes some ability to turn to the water along with meeting other pressing and maybe trivial, but accustomed “needs;” will see us fall away into poverty.
Sailors are aware that with a major leak it is not enough to keep bailing with all our might until exhaustion overcomes us. We understand that in such a situation we need to deal with many avenues at once. Stopping the leak. Making plans for abandoning ship. Keeping track of everyone on board and maintaining our spirits so we can meet whatever challenge arises without panic and despair. We appreciate the value of luck while knowing full-well it is only available to those who can seize it. We don’t expect to be entertained while demanding that without distractions we will fall-apart.
These are the qualities most needed today. Afloat, in the midst of our interactions with wind and wave, handling challenging and powerful vessels; we know what to do.
What is lacking are ways to connect our wider responsibilities in the broader contexts of our lives with these traits and talents inborn and honed over time as we have maintained our relationship with craft.
To those who are unfamiliar, who distrust the certainties of what it means to be afloat, a heeling boat is a source of never-ending worry. They cannot get past the feeling that with the illusion of a settled and permanently fixed location – the standard illusion we only see challenged on land in an earthquake perhaps. They resist the bending of one’s will to the realities of a heeling craft. They get sea-sick.
As sailors we know both the dangers and the cure. We know how much of that sickness is a result of resistance, a wearying fight against the pervasiveness of movement afloat. We find the rhythms behind motion others see only as chaotic. We can relax with a cellular conviction that so long as she floats our craft will support us. That with proper handling the heeling can only go so far. That the noise can be seen as a source of monumental beauty. That together, in sync with our craft and our surroundings we may abide.