bluedrag (bluedrag) wrote,

Sailing As Not Only a Metaphor

[This is an English version of the Russian text published in January 2016.]

Looking back at my blog posts, I see that I never really wrote about sailing in the specific context of slow life. What a glaring omission! After all, sailing is a very important activity for me, the only pastime I managed to acquire as an adult.

Let’s start with metaphors. I wrote a lot (in Russian) about sailing as a metaphor for life in general. To mention just one example, consider a well known (variously attributed) saying, A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for. What an inspirational metaphor for life!


If you don’t know him already, let me introduce Captain Joshua Slocum, one of the finest American sailing captains of the second half of the 19th century. He is mostly remembered now as the first person to sail around the world single-handed (1895, Boston—1898, Fairhaven, MA). He wrote a book about that journey, which is being reprinted till this day. Here is one quote from his book: To face the elements is, to be sure, no light matter when the sea is in its grandest mood. You must then know the sea, and know that you know it, and not forget that it was made to be sailed over.

This passage is often compared to the “ship in harbor” aphorism I mentioned before. To me the latter is a catchy phrase which meaning is somewhat bland. Of course people build ships to sail, not to keep in harbor.

Slocum’s quote is much deeper, ontological in its meaning. To him, the sea is not just a faceless part of “the nature”. The Creator has intended the sea for the man, like canvas for an artist. By sailing over the sea, we fill its blank canvas with meaning. Not to go out to the sea means to ignore God’s intent, to waste his creation.

I like sailing as a metaphor a lot, and am always happy to explore it and to develop further. It is important to note, however, that it only works as a metaphor for slow life, and not just for life in general.

For fast life (one would almost say “normal” life) a motor boat is a better metaphor: put the motor in gear, and off you go! Until you run out of fuel, of course.

Captain Slocum has lived through the paradigm-changing transition from the age of sail to the age of steam, and was one of its numerous victims. That transition had happened in the mid the 19th century in Europe and by the end of the 19th century in the backward US, and was quite dramatic—not just changing one type of propulsion to another.

Steamers, unlike sailing vessels, could sail in almost any weather. They could run on schedule, an unheard-before feat! Captains had suddenly turned from adventurers and risk-takers to servicing personnel, taking care of the machine.

Slocum emphatically refused to yield to the industrial progress. His vision of sea-faring was quite different: the captain as a co-author of the sea and the sky in his travels. Slocum could look hopelessly outdated and obsolete, and outright silly, but the only way he ventured to the sea was under sails.


This is, thus, what I really want to talk about today: coming from sailing as a metaphor for slow life to sailing as slow life.

Granted, the modern sailboat has enough devices to spoil the life’s slowness: engine, VHF radio, satellite navigation. One has to make a conscious effort to reject all that. Minimize the engine use, switch the GPS receiver off.

And then the slow life opens up for you in all its beauty.

The eternal sailing paradox, which to me is the cornerstone of the entire slow life idea. Your complete freedom to point your boat and to sail in any direction you want, and your equally complete dependency on the weather, the winds and the currents. If this contradiction is tearing your soul apart, you are not ready for slow life. You are not ready for sailing either. Go buy yourself a motorboat.

But at a certain level of enlightenment the contradiction between freedom and necessity stops tearing your soul apart, on the contrary—at long last makes it whole. The sail and the wind. The boat and the water.


To go out to the sea is to me the fastest and the easiest way to visit the nature alone. The nature is always beautiful, and its beauty always calms me down, drives the melancholy away.

The beauty of the forest (for example) is concrete and immediate. Pine needles on a mushroom cap. Dark veins of a leaf. A bend of a tree trunk. A fleeting deer silhouette in the thicket.

The beauty of the ocean is painted with infinitely broad strokes. Burning orange sunset. Dazzling deep-blue sea covered with white caps till the horizon. The blackness of the night sky full of stars.

You don’t even look at this beauty—it hurts your eyes—but rather absorb it with your entire skin.

The important property of slow life is not oppose yourself to the world around you—but rather to accept it, to become one with it. Going out of the harbor,—crowded with other boats, surrounded by the skyscrapers of the financial center, the structures of the seaport and the airport,—out for the empty expanses of the open ocean, you push that oneness to the limit. One more paradox: you are feeling yourself simultaneously the tiniest insect before the greatness of the sea and the sky, but also the main protagonist of the unfolding story (indeed, there is nobody else around you). Once again, to learn to accept this paradox, and then to realize that there is no paradox,—is to understand slow life.


Of course, no really slow life can count as such unless it is slow in the very direct, very literal sense. A traditional sailboat moves much slower than a bike. If the wind doesn’t cooperate, slower than a pedestrian. You can sail the entire day for the destination one hour of driving away. The response to the why question is very straightforward: the journey is more important than the destination. This is the most important postulate of slow life.

The life itself (coming back to metaphors) is a journey from birth to death. The destination is the same for all of us, and thus is hardly important. It is certainly not worth hurrying up towards it.

It is the journey that is important.

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.
Tags: english, sail, slowlife
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