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Caught in the Middle

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Nobody defends the middle! I was reminded of that when I read the Editor’s article about Laura Dekker’s circumnavigation in the February edition of All At Sea.

In most sailing literature – from the classic accounts of the first non-stop circumnavigations (like Bernard Moitessier), to modern cruisers and yacht designers Steve and Linda Dashew – nearly everyone voices an opinion on what they believe to be Right with a capital R.

To the Dashew’s, speed and efficiency is everything – they’ll quickly trade a full-keel ketch for a fin keel sloop. When you’re audience actively seeks advice, it must be offered without ambiguity and at this the Dashew’s excel.

Moitessier, on the other hand, sought enlightenment in a simplified Joshua. He nearly found his Nirvana when he continued on round the world after he was virtually guaranteed victory in the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race. Interestingly, Johnny Depp unearthed Captain Jack Sparrow’s closing line, in the original Pirates of the Caribbean, from Moitessier’s classic The Long Way – at the conclusion of the movie, Depp demands his crew “Get me that horizon!” which, of course, will always remain eternally beyond reach.

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More recently, I read about Roger Taylor who goes to sea in his tiny, junk-rigged Mingming. He has only oars, and doesn’t even carry books. But he’s written a book on the subject, Mingming & the Art of Minimal Ocean Sailing, and (ironically) maintains a website, appropriately named: thesimplesailor.com.

The Dashews rise followed the evolution of the Deerfoot and Sundeer sailing boats and, most recently, their unique FPB motor yacht. Their design philosophy was based on ‘simplicity’ (or rather efficiency), but somewhere between design and production, complicated systems (mostly for comfort) got in the way – as a whole, the Dashew’s yachts hardly resemble Taylor’s humble Mingming.

In the pages of any sailing magazine (this one included), you’ll find advertisements and product reviews for the best new foulies or, more relevantly, the newest in satellite communications. And so it seems that sailing literature has diverged into the basic and the complicated. On the Moitessier side, we have this notion that enlightenment under sail is attainable only through a monastic purity. On the modern side, going to sea without the latest gear and electronics is risky at best, dangerous at worst.

But ambiguity defines the real world. Where in life is there clean answer to anything? Is it not possible, perhaps preferable, to go to sea in a small but comfortable boat that you like, regardless of type? Is it too much a conflict of philosophies to read (and agree with) both Moitessier and Steve Dashew?

I would argue that the bevy of polarizing sailing literature originates not from the writers’ belief in what they’re saying, so much as their belief in the requirement of a distinct platform from which to gain an audience and (importantly) sell books. To exist in the middle requires practical compromise, arguing for both sides.

I learned to sail on the water, but my passion for it came from study. Unlike Taylor, I specifically remodeled the interior of my 1966 yawl Arcturus to accommodate as many books as possible. My library includes everything from Moitessier to Hal Roth, the Dashews and Yachting World. Having the knowledge and opinions of all sides lets me choose what’s relevant in each and create my own philosophy.

I like paper charts, and the only GPS I have onboard displays just my latitude and longitude. Moitessier has taught me to love celestial – I keep a bronze Tamaya sextant handy, practicing the art more for pleasure than for position. The sextant’s box is permanently mounted underneath my new Standard Horizon VHF, with built in AIS receiver. The irony is palpable. Arcturus steers herself by a Cape Horn windvane, which I chose after reading about and personally meeting Yves Gelinas, perhaps the most practical of all the Moitessier-types, and yet the boat is driven in a calm by a 30-HP inboard diesel. I have hank-on headsails, but fly a big genneker from a state-of-the-art luff-line roller-furler. I hoist the mainsail on an old bonze Merriman winch, and play my music from an iPod dock integrated into Arcturus’ stereo system.

So to return to Laura Dekker – she seems to have a rare mix of Moitessian philosophy: “I did [the voyage] because I like to sail and love the sea” – and middle-minded practicality – “I prefer the Windpilot because it doesn’t use power.” She sails a ketch. And Laura has no greater agenda than fulfilling a personal dream, and is not preaching to anyone about this or that being right or wrong (unlike her critics). She is living my idea of the middle, and I hope to one day add her book to my collection – I suspect it will be full of contradictions.

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Andy Schell
Andy Schellhttp://59-north.com
Andy Schell is a professional sailor, writer and the event manager of the ARC Caribbean 1500. You can find him online at 59-north.com.

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