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To the Sea

“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul…then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”
– Moby Dick

Literature is flooded with the allure of the sea. The Odyssey. Moby Dick. Robinson Crusoe. On and on it goes—stories of men irresistibly drawn to the mystery of oceanic life. Judging from our books, you might think people flock to the nearest oceanside cliff and dive in like so many lemmings.

I was always able to connect with that allure up to a point. I grew up sailing lakes in Michigan, and now as an adult I live near the Pacific Ocean partly because the thought of being landlocked feels claustrophobic to me. Certainly there is something attractive about being near water. But an irresistible urge? A calling? As if life on the ocean were somehow the deepest fulfillment of my purpose as a human? That I could never wrap my head around.

Then I actually went sailing. Real sailing, not the boyish afternoon Sunfish sessions of my childhood. A close friend invited me on a weeklong tour of Washington State’s San Juan Islands in a 40-foot Jeanneau yacht named Salus, and after much deliberation I finally decided it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. Having gone, and survived (my friend was the only one of the nine of us on the trip who knew the first thing about sailing), I can now understand what Homer and all the rest mean when they talk about the sea. It holds a romance unlike any I’ve ever experienced. As with the best romances, it starts out a bit uncomfortable because the first thing you realize is that it’s much, much bigger than you. To fully experience it, you must surrender to it: the rolling of the boat under your feet; the fluctuation between deafening silence and shocking roar; the nuanced movement of the air around you. It’s confusing, then intriguing, then utterly addicting.

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Whether or not you ever have or ever will experience this for yourself (and you should if you can), you owe more to sailing than you probably realize. First off, for better or worse, the world wouldn’t look the way it does if not for the explosive exploration afforded us by the invention of the boat. Also, as mentioned above, our stories owe quite a bit to our exploits on the sea, from cave drawings to the Bible to Tom Clancy. And lest we forget, the sea has so thoroughly infiltrated apparel that we simply take it for granted anymore. Where would we be without blue-and-white stripes? Pea coats? Watch caps? Boat shoes? Fingerless gloves, the O.G. life-hack of shivering deck hands who wanted to keep their hands warm but still needed to tie knots? The list goes on. You don’t have to be a walking French-sailor cliché to owe a significant portion of your wardrobe to the life aquatic.

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“…there was a distinct moment in which the allure of the sea finally got to me.”

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As expected, there were numerous memorable experiences in our eight days and seven nights in and around the San Juans. We had days of intense, Platonic sailing: 25-knot winds and a tack every 90 seconds. We had days of dead calm, resigned to casually motoring to our next mooring. At times we soaked in our surroundings, no one saying much; at other times we were a stereotypical bunch of bros, blasting hip-hop and cracking jokes over a cooler full of Rainier.

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All of it made for a great experience, and one of the best vacations I’ve ever taken. But there was a distinct moment in which the allure of the sea finally got to me. For our second night on the water, we moored in Fossil Bay on Soucha, the tiny northernmost island of the archipelago. Soucha is undeveloped but for a single abandoned a-frame structure, now nothing more than a relic. But the upshot is that spending a cloudless night on Soucha is a little like being in the middle of the desert. Almost no noise, and even less light pollution. Four or five of us were talking late into the night out on the bow, and at some point we all just stopped. I know what you’re thinking: Yeah, okay, stars. Big deal. But something about the context made it a completely new kind of experience. The combination of the remote location, the rocking of the deck, the milky way turned up to eleven, and the fact that at that moment I discovered the music of Nils Frahm – I was hooked.

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Coming ashore after a week of sailing, the sense of motion took several days to wear off. What had started out as uncomfortable and disorienting was now a pleasant reminder of the intoxicating feeling that only comes from time on the water. I felt a strange sense of loss when it finally went away.