Sailing The Shallows

By Jim Papa

Some folks prefer to find adventure close to shore. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Sailboats watercolor illustrationIllustration: Getty Images

In Beyond the Blue Horizon, archeologist and historian Brian Fagan writes of learning to sail while growing up in England. One of his teachers, a Dorset fisherman who first taught Fagan to make his way out beyond the bar, had never been off soundings in the English Channel, nor ventured more than 20 miles from his home port, and declared himself "a creature of the shallows."

And yet, Fagan tells us, this old salt could read the sea like scripture and feel in his bones where he was in conditions that would leave most of today's sailors reaching for the GPS. In a maritime region known for fierce and fickle weather, where gales blowing contrary to currents conspire to strand tired vessels upon sandbank, mud, and rock, this simple fisherman made a living and a life upon waters as challenging as the open sea.

The reality is that most recreational boaters have always been and always will be shallow-water folk, who will never round the Horn or cross even a small sea. Most will never make an overnight passage offshore. Most of the boaters I know — with the exception of one rascally old salt in his 80s who's spent half his life offshore — are not bound for Tahiti or the high latitudes. Like Fagan's Dorset fisherman, they — we — sail closer to home. We have more in us of England's late Charles Stock, who voyaged more than 70,000 miles in a 16-foot pocket cruiser named Shoal Waters, than we do of the mythical solo circumnavigator Joshua Slocum.

Like British yacht designer, writer, and proudly modest shallow-water sailor Maurice Griffiths, I prefer the happy sail over the heroic sail. The Atlantic lies over my shoulder, but at bottom I'm parochial — a bay rat rather than a blue-water soul. I tell time by the tide, not the stars, and do not own a sextant. The Southern Cross may call to some, but I'm partial to the mystery of the marsh and the shifting shoal. Backwaters suit me.

Whatever the popular imagination, in truth the sea is everywhere the same, dealing out equal measures of danger and delight. The same holds for sailing. The sure feel of a sheet in the hand is not diminished within sight of shore; the seabird's cry is not dulled. The sails pull as eagerly in a breeze whether they are bound 10,000 miles or 10. A squall is a squall, a gale a gale. Adventure, solitude, wonder, awe, frustration, fear, joy ... the shallow-water boater doesn't lack for any of these.

There is no shore the sea has not touched in fondness or fury, and it's likely more boats have been wrecked and seamen drowned in sight of shore than out on the deeps. If the shallows appear tame, just wait. They're anything but. Even Jack London, no stranger to adventure at sea, exclaims in The Joy of Small Boat Sailing that the small boat on inshore waters is always in danger, windjammers be damned.

As for voyaging, I grant that the bluewater boater sees more of the world, but I still consider shallow-water folk some of the luckiest. While some bluewater vagabonds never come ashore, for other pelagic wanderers the boat is simply a means to an end, and having once gone across an ocean or around the world, they drop the hook for good and take up breeding llamas or flying hot-air balloons. But we who grab our sea time by the day hardly ever get our fill. We rarely grow weary of the thing we love.

Like E.B. White in The Sea and the Wind that Blows, most of us can't bear to quit the sea, or our little piece of it, until forced. Even then, we remain easily charmed by the sound of a mainsail luffing up a track, or the whir of a cast fishing line, or the chance to take the helm one more time. For every Harry Pidgeon, every Francis Chichester, every Tristan Jones, there are a thousand boaters whose small dreams never dim. Who knows, but in the end they sail waters just as deep. 

Jim Papa, a professor of English at York College, City University of New York, enjoys his Sailmaster 22, Noddy, on Long Island's Great South Bay.

— Published: August/September 2018

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