Sailing, Stillness and Scents

I’ve just returned from two weeks of sailing. Life on the water taught me things about scents and stillness. Two friends invited me to join them and two others on a 36-foot chartered boat to explore the islands in the northern Aegean Sea.

Ever since I picked up a copy of “The Liquid Continent” by Nicholas Woodsworth in a bookstore in Alexandria, Egypt, I’ve wanted to explore the Mediterranean by boat. Crewing a sailboat with four other Pacific Northwesterners provided the perfect opportunity.

I’ll save for another day my tales of harrowing uncertainty and romantic delight, except to say each were plural. In the broadest sense, they contributed to my new awareness. Most of what we perceive as safety and stability is hardly and seldom that.

I should add at the outset that I’ve been on dry land for four days now, and my inner ear is still overcompensating my sense of balance. The table I’m typing on seems to be slowly undulating. My equilibrium has not yet settled back into what had been “normal” since I left my mother’s womb. But that’s getting ahead of my story.

The stillness we build around ourselves is never as complete as we believe. The planet beneath our feet is heaving constantly — not just the water, but the wind. Our planet is liquid at its core. Seismic shifts can be delayed by periods of stability, but never denied.

In fact, the pattern of the human mind mimics our life on land — long stretches of relative stillness, punctuated by unplanned lurches. Sublimation and displacement forestalls change, until it finally occurs, amplified. Moving seldom is not moving less.

Life on water is literally more fluid. Breeze accompanies movement — which, on a vessel, is constant. Perfect stillness portends or betrays something ominous.

Lack of stillness is only occasionally untenable. The anchor sets a smidgeon of (usually unseen) stability. But if a boat was all anchor, it would be a house. Instead, sailors rely on knots. Most use the tension caused by movement to tighten their grip. Others are easily untied, in case of an emergency.

Each knot has its purpose. It’s amazing what problems can be solved with a well-placed knot. Need to lengthen a rope? Join a second to the first with a double fisherman. Need a loop to join a spring line for mooring? The alpine butterfly loop will work magic. For general purposes, a bowline or hitch knot will usually suffice.

Children use rote learning to gain a sense of mastery. Knot-tying proficiency would give schoolchildren the constancy they crave, wrapped around a life skill that will always serve them. After 14 days, I was just approaching marginal competence at a half dozen knotted tasks to be done from the starboard stern. If you ever need a mooring line coiled, call me.

I was most surprised how the constant breeze altered the least attended of my five senses. Our captain boasted before the trip that deodorant would be optional. I now understand why. Odors are as temporary as the air surrounding you.

We’d get occasional whiffs of dinner being cooked on board or nearby, but salt water and sea breezes seldom ceded their dominance for long. Bodily smells can barely be noticed when properly contextualized.

Toilet paper was packed out at each port. Even “shore heads” often required that no paper be flushed through the island’s minimal sanitation system. That sounds disturbing, but it doesn’t disturb. Necessity is understood. Limits are respected and embraced.

When you’re on a boat, you don’t have much, but it’s seldom not enough. When a need becomes known, sharing occurs quickly and naturally. Everybody understands that each boat is a small refuge from the danger that surrounds, and that the best resource we have is one another.

Weather reports, anchoring strategies, leftover food and drink — it’s all shared freely, to better everyone’s sleep. If something goes wrong for one boat, nobody sleeps on the others until it’s fixed.

Once the human activity ceases, the heaving is all you feel — like the heartbeat and breath of a loving bosom, holding you and your quieted fear until morning.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) blogs.