We are the boat and the boat is us


Sam Llewellyn is in reflective mood.

The sea is wide and grey and cool, and the boat's bowpeels away little white rinds of wake from the ruffle of the surface. The GPSsays that we are doing four knots over the ground, and there is not much tide,so that is probably about right. Far ahead on the starboard bow a low greyfinger of land lies across the horizon. We will be leaving it to starboard,heading for the great wide open beyond.

The wind is blowing over the port beam, cool and steady. There has been much trimming. Now theleeches of the sails run in sweet parallel curves, and the even flow of waterover the rudder comes up through the wheel.

Someone who flew jets from aircraft carriers once told me that to land properly on a deckyou must become part of your aeroplane - its wings your own wings, its controlsurfaces your control surfaces, its wheels your wheels. As the boat movesacross the grey sea at this steady four knots, it is easy to see what he isgetting at.

The helmsman's mind is everywhere. It is part of the breeze blowingthrough the perfect slot between the genoa and the mainmast, accelerating roundthe forward curve of the sail, making the area of low pressure that is drawingthe boat on. It is in the mainsail, trimmed to give a faint tug of weatherhelm, so it is certain that if the wheel is left to its own devices the boatwill come out of its groove, point gently into the wind, and sit, sailsdepowered, until she and the helmsman lean back into her groove once more. Helmsmanand boat are a single organism, seven tons of sails, hull, people and storesmoving quietly across the sea as one.

Load of mystical rubbish, says a sceptical innervoice. You and the boat are trudging across a cold sea at not much more than walkingspeed. You may or may not be part of the boat and all the rest of it, butleaving that aside, is this not a somewhat tedious process? It is a big ocean,and you will be lucky if you do a hundred miles a day. There are things calledairlines, you know.

The inner voicecould easily be disturbing to the tranquillity, but just now it is not, becausea shadow is whipping across the sea to windward, and suddenly the puff hits,and the deck tilts underfoot, and the wheel pulls, and the sound of the wake,previously a discreet murmur, becomes a powerful roar. After the first puffthere comes another, and another. There is a sudden glorious surge ofacceleration, and helmsman and crew and the boat are tearing along a magicgroove in the sea, and someone has started singing.   

Six knots? saysthe sceptical voice. Big deal.   

But nobody islistening, because there is the mainsheet to ease out until it luffs, then backuntil it just doesn't, and the jib slot to adjust till the leeches run parallel,and we are trucking properly now. Six knots may not be all that fast, but it isas fast as running a marathon and a lot less effort. If you think of thepercentages, accelerating to six knots from four knots is like accelerating acar from forty miles an hour to sixty miles an hour, and at this rate we willcover a hundred and forty miles in a day, which is better than a hundred.   

But who caresanyway? We are the boat, and the boat is us. And here comes the horizon. 

Sam Llewellyn, editor The Marine Quarterly