The Philosophy of Sailing

Photo by Bobby Burch at Unsplash

In Sailing to Byzantium, W.B. Yeats compared life to a long sea journey. On the way we encounter all manner of trials and impediments then come home to what is true and holy in this life and in ourselves.

What’s the lure of this lifestyle? What can we learn from living with the elements? In 1925, the historian and poet Hilaire Belloc observed in The Cruise of the Nona: “The sea is in all things the teacher of men….Time on the water is quite different from time on land. It is more continuous; it is more part of the breathing of the world; less mechanical and divided for it is in the hours when he is alone at the helm, steering his boat along the shores, that a man broods most upon the past, and most deeply considers the nature of things.”

In Self-Reliance, Ralph Waldo Emerson defines self-reliance as the ability to improvise and prevail against the elements.  “The voyage of the best ship is a zigzag line of a hundred tacks. See the line from a sufficient distance, and it straightens itself to the average tendency. Your genuine action will explain itself, and will explain your other genuine actions. Your conformity explains nothing. Act singly, and what you have already done singly will justify you now.”

The Advantages of Being “All at Sea”

Philosophy begins not in knowledge but confusion–with being “all at sea.” This phrase evolved in the days before navigational systems, and refers to the state of being at the mercy of nature, completely lost and deeply disoriented. When a ship was at sea, “it was out of sight of land and in a dangerous, uncertain position. “

What does it mean to give up the sure knowledge of the landlubber, the fixed point of the compass, and venture into the unknown?

 You can dive deeper into these questions with Buddha’s Boat: The Practice of Zen in Sailing by James Whitehill; Freedom of the Seas: The Stoic Sailor by Gregory Bassham and Tod Bassham; and Sailors of the Third Kind: Sailing and Self-Becoming in the Shadow of Heraclitus by Steven Horrobin.

It was Heraclitus who said, “All things flow” and likened life to a river, noting that wisdom lies in understanding of change. 

One of our favorites is The Philosophy of Sailing (2012) edited by Patrick Goolda professor at Virginia Wesleyan College and co-editor of the Blackwell anthology Modern Philosophy from Descartes to Nietzsche.

Goold tells how he got the sailing bug as a teenager: 

The ship slid down the face of the wave, listing to port at the trough, shuddering as if she would break up, then, lurching upright, she lifted once again to the crest of the next mountain of seawater. Rain and wind pelted us as we tried to hold a steady course, but the rain was insignificant in comparison to the spray caused by the bow smashing into the sea. Globs of water the size of a man’s fist came speeding toward us, followed by smaller droplets in a heavy spray. Waves thirty-five feet high lifted behind and rolled toward our stern without relief. We pitched, we rolled, we scurried to our tasks with “one hand for the sailor and one for the ship” to do our duty and not lose our lives. No, not a scene from centuries past on a whaler or on a clipper rounding the Horn; it was a “pleasure” trip on the replica of HMS Bounty that brought me on this perilous journey. I was seventeen years old and the youngest member of the crew. How does someone that age get to crew on such a ship? My father piloted the Bounty into New York Harbor after her global voyage to promote the 1962 film Mutiny on the Bounty, starring Marlon Brando and Trevor Howard.

The essays in this volume go beyond the special effects of Hollywood to explore life at sea, to ask, What does sailing teach us about the nature of reality?

Pair this book with one of the same title, The Philosophy of Sailing (2014) by Christian Williams, a veteran sailor who served as an editor and reporter for The Washington Post until 1986. (Williams went on to write and produce television dramas from “Hill Street Blues” to “Six Feet Under.”)

After returning in 2015 from his first solo voyage to Hawaii, covering 6,000 miles of the North Pacific, Williams put his 32-foot Ericson sloop up for for sale…intending to “get on with his life” and be productive. But he longed for the sense of connection with nature that he felt at sea.

Within weeks, he bought another boat–a 38-foot Ericson, with crazed hatches, worn out rigging, and electrical systems needing extensive repair. After working on the boat for several months, Williams headed back to Hawaii, for another solo voyage.

This time, he packed “two months of food, GPS to chart our course and 50 tools in canvas bags to fix what breaks. As another kind of tool I am bringing the whole history of philosophy, 30 books of pure inquiry in two waterproof bins. What better means for propping open the door to the universe?”

Once before, “far offshore in the North Pacific, the universe had revealed itself,” he says. “I had almost touched it before the veil drew down again.” This time he hoped to penetrate that mystery.

How Living at Sea Affects Our Thoughts

Williams loved the rhythmic movement of the sea, the closeness to the elements, and the way the waves could subtly shift his thoughts. Here are some excepts from his journals.

“Socrates said that the unexamined life isn’t worth living, and I found myself examining my life offshore for all it was worth. Were the sunsets I had seen real, or did they exist only in my eyes? Was a rainbow the refraction of water droplets by the sun, or an encounter with beauty itself? Philosophers asked about responsibility, which every single-hander keenly feels; and about justice, which Odysseus sailed home to find, and about whether we have the free will every cocky skipper assumes or are really just flotsam driven by the prevailing winds.

“Over the years my bookcases came to span more than two millennia of Aristotle and St. Augustine, David Hume and Bertrand Russell, all of them asking who are we, what is out there, and what we can say we know about it. They were the smartest men of their age, but still voyagers like the rest of us. Albert Einstein had a sailboat, and often set off alone with a notepad to write down such thoughts as might occur.”

“True, philosophy is not made for tightening bolts, and a sharp tool in the wrong hand can ruin a job faster than a dull one. What we’re looking for out there is a feeling, a mystery, a form of knowledge not available ashore among the distractions. Can the greatest minds in history help with that? After all, it takes a lifetime of study to explicate Immanuel Kant or follow the metaphysical maze from Babylonia to Plato to Jesus to Billy Graham. What if we get the universe all wrong? Well, every philosopher did get it wrong, at least according to every other philosopher. I say that if none of the masters agree, we’re free to borrow their tools and see how we can do.”

Sailing for Williams, and many others, is a means of exploration and adventure. A meditation on the nature of the sea and stars. An opportunity for pondering life’s deepest questions. For the joy of getting lost in the universe, and finding one’s way home.

photo by Johannes Plenio unsplash
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