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Facts & Arguments

The sport is essentially a dance between humility and pride, Stephen Gauer writes

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The sky over the strait is black and grey and threatening rain as the wind suddenly picks up, pushing my sailboat faster and faster toward Bowen Island, not far from my marina in West Vancouver.

It's 4 o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon in late April and I'm alone on the water, not a boat in sight in any direction.

My Hunter 28 groans and tilts closer to the water. The sails protest. I struggle to stay on course because there's so much pressure on the wheel. I'm new to this boat, which is bigger than my last one, and not sure what to do. I curse the wind, and for a moment I feel doomed because surely the mast will break and the boat will sink and I will die a watery death within eyesight of my marina.

Nothing of the sort happens. As I get closer to Bowen, the wind drops and the sky brightens. I furl in the jib and the boat immediately straightens up. The pressure on the wheel lightens and I relax. Ahead I can finally see Seymour Bay, a tiny notch on the island where I can find shelter from the wind.

But I don't need shelter now. The boat is moving perfectly under my control. I'm in love with the wind again and happy as a lark. What could be finer than sailing on the ocean on such a fine spring day?

This swing from joy to fear and back to joy is one of the things I love about sailing. I mostly single-hand, meaning I sail alone, so I have no one to help me handle the boat when conditions get rough. And when conditions get rough I get a little scared.

This must sound strange. I'm a 65-year-old man who's been a sailor for most of his life. To be honest, I can't explain the scary part. Sailing makes me feel alive, and fear is part of that feeling.

There's more to it than that, of course. Sailing has tremendous intensity and immediacy. You sail with your body and your mind in perfect partnership. You escape your life. You stare at nature face to face. You meditate on the horizon line. And you solve problems.

One time, halfway across the Strait of Georgia, I watched the furled jib at the bow of the boat suddenly come loose and flap madly in the wind. Worse, the lines connecting the jib to the winches in the cockpit became tangled, so I couldn't wind the sail in or let it out.

I turned on the autopilot, so the boat would steer itself, and carefully made my way to the bow, now bouncing with every slap of the metre-high waves. It took two or three minutes to straighten everything out. I tied off the jib so it wouldn't flap and finally made my way back to the safety of the cockpit.

In a situation like that, you are so intensely focused that you feel no fear, no emotion at all. Your focus is solely on finding a solution to address the problem and afterward you're pleased because you didn't fall in the water, sprain your ankle or wreck the boat.

Sailing creates a powerful dance between humility and pride. Learn to do something well, like docking in reverse in a crosswind, and you feel a genuine sense of accomplishment.

Sailing never fails to remind me that every decision has consequences, and consequences can never be ignored. Anchor in the wrong place, or ignore the tide tables, and you will be up at 3 a.m. correcting your error when the wind pipes up or the keel touches bottom. You can curse your own incompetence, but you cannot ignore the hard-knock reality of your situation.

On another trip, in a smaller boat, I remember trying to get back to Vancouver. A feeble dawn revealed a colourless sky, but the wind was full of passion and fury.

The small bay of an island protected me overnight, but to get home I had to leave that protection and sail down the strait, into the wind, while the boat shuddered beneath me and the rigging and sails rose a terrible racket. As soon as I cleared the island, the waves turned to whitecaps and the wind howled.

The boat was strong and hobbled along into one wave, spraying me with water, and then veering away, rolling off the next, and then heeling in a sudden gust – leaning over so far that I just barely held the tiller with two hands to continue steering. I was soaked and my arms ached. It was impossible to sail like this for the 10 hours it would take to get home.

I gave up, turned the boat around and sailed back toward the bay of the island that sheltered me. As I got closer, the wind began to drop. In the bay, the water flattened, I dropped the sails, started the engine and found my anchorage again. I knew I was safe for the night.

The weather and wind and waves constantly remind you of who is in charge. Alone on the ocean, you can curse the wind all you want but nothing will get you home again except your own wits. The ocean cares nothing about you and never will.

I don't mind that. It keeps me humble.

Stephen Gauer lives in Vancouver.