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Sailing Forever?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 04, 2010

Since I enjoy small boat sailing, a good deal of my recreational reading involves that topic: The virtues and vices of different boats in the 12 to 28 foot range; “how-to” boat improvement tips; articles on sailing techniques and safety; travelogues of various lakes, rivers and bays; and of course the exploits of those who have crossed oceans and even circumnavigated the globe in small sailboats.

One of the constant themes in such reading is the number of sailors whose marriages have broken up because of an inability to balance the desire to sail with the responsibilities of family life. Some couples make sailing a great family activity, and some even live aboard, complete with kids, educating their children as they sail from port to port. But often the sailing passion of one spouse (usually but not always the husband) exceeds that of the other. When that happens, for every good father who says he’s cut way back on his sailing for family reasons, there’s another who makes jokes about how he had to choose between his boat and his wife...and you can guess the rest.

Now any disordered attachment can have this effect. There are plenty of golf widows, and even couch-potato widows. Would it be sexist to ask whether there are shopping widowers? I’m quite sure there are both men and women who take way too much time away from their vocations just talking endlessly on the phone or on social networking sites. Small boat sailors, at least, are challenging themselves. As a group they are also sensitive to nature, philosophical about “getting there”, introspective, and highly articulate. If you compare accounts of voyages made by sailors with accounts of trips made by RV owners, you’ll be struck by the difference. For some reason, an extremely high percentage of sailors write beautifully while exploring significant themes, often themes of life, death and the simple things. There’s a lot of time to think on the water, waiting for wind and tide.

Unfortunately, just because your personal desires and satisfactions tend to the basic, the simple and the elemental (which is a good thing), this is no guarantee that you’re not selfish. The literature suggests, sadly, that many sailors are very selfish indeed, just like everybody else. Someday I’ll say this in a sailing magazine, where the glow of complacent self-satisfaction tends to run hot and bright—just as soon as I can justify spending more time than this writing about sailing.

There are a lot of sailing traps, and most can be presented as metaphors, as traps that apply to all of us. For example, if you can’t afford to pay for the new boat you want  (or are reluctant to discuss the price tag with your spouse), you can trade time for money by buying a used fixer-upper, or even building a boat from scratch. Unfortunately, a relatively small and simple sailboat can easily take 2,000 hours to build even for those with the requisite skills. A surprising number of people do this, especially those with some background in woodworking, though many more never get past buying the plans. And there's a good reason for this. You can spend every spare evening and every weekend for two years building a 2,000-hour boat. If you push it, I’ll commend your economy and grit, but I’ll also hope you’re not married and don’t have kids.

Truth to tell, there are a great variety of exciting hobby projects of which we can say, “This will be great for the whole family when it’s finished.” But it won’t, not really, if it means ignoring the whole family for an extended period of time to get it done. Nothing is as precious to your spouse and kids as your time.

Or consider those who are driven to circumnavigate in small boats, depriving themselves of many of the comforts of ordinary shore life to test their own ability and endurance, or to set records for crossing an ocean in the shortest time or in the smallest boat (the record for smallest boat is, I believe, currently at five feet; somebody also tried it in a three-and-a-half footer). Actually, this isn’t wildly different from becoming an Olympic athlete (except that most Olympic careers are short), or from devoting yourself to anything in which the quest for success must be more or less all-consuming, including certain kinds of careers, or even certain kinds of commutes. Such things require devoting yourself to nothing but, well, nothing but yourself and your own achievements.

I’ll never judge the talents God gives to each person or the variety of moral purposes for which He wants those talents used. An Olympic athlete may become an important role model; a high-powered career attorney may win a key pro-life court battle; a small boat sailor might write well enough to provide bay sailors like me a lifetime of dreams and recreational pleasure. But when we push anything to an extreme, it raises all kinds of questions.

The first question it raises is whether we’re ignoring the responsibilities of our state in life to do whatever it is we’re doing. This isn’t just a matter of being married or single, of having children or not; it also includes how we ought to spend our time doing good, and the inescapable moral reality that if we’re unburdened by spouse and children, we ought to be able to do more good in other areas.

In the last analysis, we’ll be judged not on the miles we’ve put under our keels but on how well our sails have caught the winds of the Holy Spirit. That is the only way I know to sail forever.

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