Zen and the Art of Windjamming
In the morning, there is sunshine. The crisp autumn air is trumped by a blast of warm sun, and the American Eagle’s guests stroll the two-lane blacktop toward South Brooksville.
South Brooksville is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it hamlet at the head of Bucks Harbor. There is a yacht club, an outboard motor salesroom, a general store, and not much else.
I have one objective on this morning’s shore trip: find a copy of yesterday’s paper. Two nights ago, while the American Eagle was anchored in Stonington, Maine, two vice-presidential candidates mounted a stage in St. Louis, Missouri, to debate.
At the general store there’s one remaining copy of yesterday’s Bangor Daily News and I seize upon it like it’s the last Tickle-Me Elmo at a Christmas sale. I leave my change on the counter.
Catching the Mistress.
The front-page story is underwhelming. I’d hoped to read of a spectacular meltdown in St. Louis. In the nights leading up to this, I’d even broken my secular vows and prayed for Governor Palin to voice another syntactical morass—more irrefutable evidence of an empty dress suit. Alas, Bangor Daily News took no pleasure in the details, and left this reader burdened by dry fact.
Despite the anticlimax, interest in the story is high among my shipmates and the newspaper is passed from hand to hand on the deck of the American Eagle.
There is, after all, a scarcity of world news aboard windjammers. Once the vessel leaves the dock, there is no access to media — no internet, radio, TV, or newsstands. Cell phone reception is limited, and gabbing on the phone is mostly — and rightly — frowned upon.
During this summer of sail, I was largely unaware of world happenings. I was aboard the Stephen Taber when Hillary Clinton dropped out of the race. I was aboard the Angelique at the onset of the Summer Olympics and the conflict between Russia and Georgia. I was aboard the Isaac H. Evans during the Democratic National Convention. And all along, I’ve been blissfully unaware of rising and falling oil prices.
This, as you can imagine, is a good thing. Two days ago, I was sitting against the American Eagle’s cabintop with three other passengers. One of them, Dr. William Andersen, was talking about his conversion from Western medicine to a more holistic approach. (He’s now an osteopath.) Through serendipity, Dr. Andersen had met a Navajo healer and a Tibetan monk during the early days of his conversion. From the monk, he learned to meditate.
Coiling lines at anchor.
In Buddhist terms — as explained by Dr. Andersen — the mind is like an elephant. If left to run wild, the elephant will trample your crops and do more harm than good. If properly trained, however, the elephant can be put to work, and, when the work is done, it will sit in obedient peace.
I can’t claim a peaceful mind, but on a windjammer trip — where there’s so little news to anger the blood, so few distractions — it’s much easier to put the elephant to good work.
Depending on captain and crew, it can be easy to find a helpful niche on deck. If, for instance, there’s a crew shortage, or if a particular crewmember is willing to share his responsibilities with guests, you might find yourself heavily involved in hoisting sails, coiling lines, trimming sheets, swabbing decks, and so on. And those days fly past with little thought to the outside world.
On some trips, however, less work is available for passengers. Early in the season, I described a shakedown cruise where the crew was busy learning the ropes for themselves and there was seldom need for passenger involvement. On that trip, with little to do but entertain myself, I felt somewhat less than relaxed.
On one hand, this American Eagle trip is similar. The fill-in mate and deckhand are eager to do the work themselves — an indulgence I wholeheartedly understand. On the other hand, I’m getting used to entertaining myself. I’ve been at this windjamming thing for a full season now; this is my 53rd day of sailing.
On each trip I’ve traveled alone. In most cases, I’d met the captains and crew during fit-out season, so I wasn’t sailing with complete strangers. But getting to know my fellow guests wasn’t always easy.
This is not a reflection of the average windjammer guest. This one’s on me.
I’m a poor conversationalist. While most people regard conversation as a pleasant volley of stories and ideas, I inadvertently hasten a conversation’s end by spiking the ball out of reach or, more frequently, by fouling it in the net with some awkward turn of phrase. Most people quickly discover I haven’t yet mastered the art of conversation and move on to gamer participants, but I occasionally encounter a tougher breed. These are the people who — if they weren’t talking to me — would talk at length to a forgiving pet or houseplant.
The solution to both problems, I suppose, has been to coax the elephant to rest, to find inner peace, to serve as my own companion.
Again, I’m far from expert, but I can’t think of a better place to have practiced.
Today, as the American Eagle sails for Islesboro under partly cloudy skies, I sit behind the mainsheet traveler at the stern. Fellow passengers come and go, and I make conversation to the best of my abilities. In the meantime, I take in my surroundings: the schooner bums hard at work; the rusty autumn colors of the Camden Hills; the yellow glow on the southern horizon. Time passes effortlessly; peacefully.
In the evening, I stand at the port beam and watch the final sunset of the 2008 Maine windjammer season. Tomorrow morning the American Eagle will return to Rockland and the crew will strip the vessel of her canvas and lines. Over the next several days, the crew will winterize the boat, and she’ll sit unattended until spring fit-out begins anew in April.
In the meantime, near the aft cabintop, a passenger plays guitar and sings sea chanteys. At the stern, the crew snaps photos of the sun as it drops behind the Camden Hills.
On the day of my first sail in mid-May, I couldn’t believe it was happening to me. I stood on the deck of the Mercantile in absolute disbelief until an icy sheet of ocean spray washed over the bow, drenched me to the bone, and knocked some cold sense into me.
Today, on the deck of the American Eagle, I struggle with a similar sense of disbelief. As the sun drops farther behind the rolling hills and the sky turns orange and pink, reality sets in once again. Tomorrow I’ll return to the land of wild elephants: the petty distractions of world news, bills that need paid, and a lawn that needs mowed.
Until then, however, I retreat to the present. I walk to the aft cabintop, extend my fingers around the wooden handrail, and hang on for dear life.
Up next: The Conclusion of Season and Series
Fall colors at anchor.