Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Sailing Life: An Alien Culture

“There are 3 types of men: the living, the dead, and those who go to sea.”   

I was reminded of this saying by Somerset Maugham (I think...) after reading a post on the Women Who Sail forum about how curious is it that even after having completed some nautical feat like sailing your boat half-way around the world, non-sailing friends will rarely ask anything about it.  It’s as if you simply disappeared for some time, then re-appeared, with nothing significant happening in between, or at least nothing worth talking about.

Shell art at the Sables d'Olonne.
Not to over-intellectualize the situation, we can all agree that there a few activities more boring than hearing about other people’s vacations.  It’s no different when the perceived holiday is a semi-permanent lifestyle (which, it must be emphasized, is only occasionally punctuated by holiday-like activities…)  I’ve been in the middle of describing some fantastic sailing adventure to a friend when suddenly she’ll cut me short to tell me about something cute her cat did the other day.  Is it because she really isn’t interested or is it just that the lifestyle is so foreign that she doesn’t even know where to begin asking questions?  Is it jealousy?  Does she think we’re insane and that she shouldn’t encourage us?

Way back in graduate school (oh, let’s see now… 25 years ago? Yikes !), the shoe was on the other foot.  I met a woman who had sailed with her husband from California to China in the 1980s.  Sailing to China is quite a feat even today, but in the 1980s?  Nixon’s visit to China was only in 1972 !  And they made this voyage well before the era of GPS, satellite phones, or wide-spread internet.  For their adventure, they were made fellows of the Explorer’s Club.  WOW !! 

But did I ask a single question about their trip?  I think I said something along the lines of “wow,” but I can’t be sure.  I remember just drawing a blank and feeling a little bit embarrassed, like when the teacher calls on you and you’ve been daydreaming.  Even as an oceanographer, I had no idea what sailing a small boat across the Pacific meant, or what sailing to a country with no foreign policy or facilities for dealing with visiting sail boats might entail.  Truth be told, I probably also had some sarcastic thoughts banging around in my head like, “surely there are cheaper, faster, more comfortable ways to get to China…”.  

How I would love to speak to that woman now !  I’d ask what kind of boat they had and how it was equipped, what navigational instruments they had (just paper charts, a compass and a sextant ?!) what route they took, how they prepared and provisioned, how long it took, what adventures they had along the way, what the weather and sea conditions were, how and where they entered the country, and then ask all the same questions about the return trip, and on and on and on…

Looking back on it, these are questions that only another sailor can ask.  Unless you have some idea of what a long sailing voyage is like, you can’t imagine what’s involved.  Because we are so saturated by this lifestyle and are surrounded by other sailors who speak the same language, it’s sometimes difficult to remember that not everyone shares our passion or has even a basic understanding of what live-aboard cruising is like.

I’m making a list of questions I get asked by non-sailing friends when they come to visit us on Mareda and will make a “cruising 101” post out of them.  Some of the questions make me laugh, some frustrate me, and others point out just how strange our little world must seem.

As for us, we’re currently hanging out in the Sables d’Olonnes, the starting and ending point for the Vendee Globe solo around-the-world race. (I wrote a post about Les Sables the last time we were here with lots of photos of local shell art).  We’re in the period of the highest tidal coefficients of the year, which creates strong currents and makes an entry into the Gironde river to Bordeaux inadvisable.  We’ll head down to Oleron island tomorrow and wait the currents to weaken before heading down to Medoc at the entrance to the river.  After the weekend, we’ll begin a 50 mile trek down the river to the center of Bordeaux…just in time for the Foire aux Vins ! (Wine Fair !). 


Astrolabe Sailing said...

I hadn't even thought about this before, but you are so right! Thankfully most of my friends are also sailors and adventurers so we all have plenty to talk about. But with some other non-sailing friends recently, I found myself being frustrated with the talk about hair styles, what colour nail polish they had just bought and how much weight they had lost/put on...
Yawn... I guess it goes both ways. They aren't interested in hearing about sailing and Im not really interested in their new $500 high heels...