Somewhere beyond…

The sea… it has beckoned and claimed the lives of humans for generations. So destructive yet so alluring. Some wish to get across it; others prefer to dive in it.  For some reason, sailing and the sea seem to be such a universal attraction to humans. Recently, I have been contemplating why sailing seems to be such a reoccurring image in the human mind. Nautical clothing dominates the Greek system and permeates the fashion world. (Just think of all the popular brands dedicated to nautical theme: Vineyard Vines, Old Navy, Kiel James Patrick, Lilly Pulitzer, Costa, Sperry.) Little boys play with miniature boats and trains, but it is boats that continue to draw from their billfolds when they grow up. Boating has been a sign of nobility or affluence. Ships have been a sign of advancement and civilization for millennia, allowing for the exploration, conquest, and sharing of knowledge with other lands. Why is sailing so beautiful to us? Why do we like to put anchors on our clothing and boats in our paintings more than planes, trains, or cars?

Charles and Diana yachting.

From time immemorial, having a fleet meant prowess, fortune, and knowledge. Even into the modern age, many advised that the acquisition/maintaining of a navy was the key to prominence if not dominance on the world stage. But boats, in relation to trains or cars, is still the tool of poor men. Whether a Southeast Asia fishing boat or a Native American canoe, boats do not require highly advanced technology nor a highly complex purpose. One can make one for himself. Once one has a ship, he can both bring new things back home and take things away from somewhere else, as was most certainly the case with the age of exploration. With sailing there appears to be a dichotomy of wealth and poverty, plunder and acquisition. Sailing has both built nations up through new conquest, knowledge, and materials. But it has also torn them down when either they reach too far from home, as the Athenians did when they attempted to conquer Sicily, or when they are plundered of their resources.

The Age of Exploration

As for the relation of sailing to the upperclass, there are two sides to this. First of all, mobility has been a source of wealth for centuries as well, and sailing was often what brought wealth to our modern upperclass. Take for instance, Cornelius Vanderbilt, who made his fortune off of railroads and shipping. But for the modern upperclass, the children and grandchildren of these original pioneers in transportation, mobility is not only a long-ago source of wealth, but a result of their wealth. Despite the ubiquitousness of modern transportation, not everyone can afford them, much less afford a luxurious style of transportation. Travel is expensive, and it is the wealthy who can jump continents often and for long periods of time, not for work always but also for leisure. The poor are often restricted to their hometowns and the limited scope of knowledge that goes along with that. Even the poor who own boats or cars, can only use it for work and not often if ever to explore new places.

JFK and Jackie enjoying the afternoon on a sailboat.

Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, in which he describes the creation and ages of men, counted sailing among men’s evil tendencies. Tearing down trees from the land in order to put them on the water was a contradiction of the natural order of the world. In his philosophy, order was made by separation–light and dark, water and land, matter and space, man and animal. And so this is how our world came into existence. When Prometheus took the elements and mixed them together to make man, he was imbuing man with the inherent formula for failure. Yet to others, sailing is a sign of man’s dominion over the elements. The ancient Athenians themselves believed their patron goddess, the ingenuitive Athena, to be the inventor of ships by which men overcome the unpredictable and deadly waves of Poseidon. Sailing is one of the many ways men have pushed the boundaries of nature and geography.

making a canoe

Humans have a fascination for what they cannot see, what lies beyond whatever current boundaries are before them. Second only perhaps to flying but much more than farming, railroads, and perhaps even cars, sailing seems to pull at one’s imagination and soul with the desire for discovery. The sea is the liminal space, the threshold, that once divided lands and cultures, and sailing, especially across whole oceans, was the means of crossing it.

Humans also have a fascination for the wild and unknown. Despite all our technological and scientific progress, we still don’t really know what the bottom of the sea looks like. We haven’t fully mapped all of it, and there is still a lot of mystery to its currents and contents. The sea is still often unpredictable or, in cases in which we have figured out a pattern, we don’t know what makes it predictable. Humans like this. We like to say, “Wild? I will tame it. Dangerous? I will overcome it. Unpredictable? I will figure it out.” Take for instance Jessica Watson, a 16 year old girl who set out to sail around the world alone a few years ago, unofficially becoming the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe (her route did not meet certain requirements to be officially recognized). Not only did she set out to overcome the boundaries of the sea, but she also set out to overcome an age boundary. However, she was not the only one to attempt this. For Abby Sunderland, the unpredictability and wildness of the ocean reared its head and cost her her voyage (she was rescued but never completed the circumnavigation).

Jessica Watson
Abby Sunderland

That is what is so mezmerizing about the sea: that we can cross it and yet still not fully understand or control it; it is the threshold of new discovery. Sailing can mean wealth of mind or materials. It can also satisfy man’s deepest desire to conquer or become part of the wild, mysterious and unknown. For those of the Christian mindset it can mean something deeply more significant. Sailing is another way in which man carries out his dominion over the earth. By forging water to make a path for his investigation, man lords over the elements and makes his own way possible in the world. Of course, sailing also keeps him aware that though he rules, that does not make him God. He still can’t control the seas themselves; only God who showed his total dominion by walking on water can. So sailing reminds man of his place: a ruler of the earth yet a vassal to God.