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  • Daniel G Opperwall

Wind and the Art of What Cannot be Done

Hendrik Willem Mesdag (d. 1915)

The art of sailing is born of the impossible. It is impossible, by absolutely any means, to sail directly upwind. And yet, the sailor can make his way to any point on the lake or sea that he wants to reach.

The beginning of the sailor’s life is to learn how to tack. To make one’s way upwind, it is necessary to zig-zag across it over and over, pulling the bow as close to the air as possible while balancing speed and trajectory in accordance with the conditions and the design of the boat. To tack well, one must learn to do it quickly, to shout to the crew (or listen to the skip) in order to keep everyone aware, to duck the boom and almost roll to the other side of the boat at the precise moment necessary in order to keep it as level as possible, and to trim and haul exactly at the place where the air can be caught again. Pounce too early on the wind, and one is rendered with a slow tack at best, or possibly left in irons, flailing without forward motion. To hold too late or to trim too tightly is to capsize, and thus be thrown into the water and left to right the boat.

The first thing one learns about sailing, then, is what is impossible, the art of responding to the impossible, and how crucial is every moment and every move one makes while dancing with what cannot be done.

When I was a young sailor, I was slow in a race. Over-eager, I would pull too close to the air, or trim too much on a reach, and the wind would punish me. I never learned well how to let the wind be itself and to benefit from embracing it and caress my sail toward its most efficient point. I battled the impossible of the upwind course, and never won a flag as a result.

I also capsized a lot. Often enough, I failed to move with efficiency in heavy air, and by waiting just a moment too long found myself in the water. At other times, I was bored enough in light air to seek a break by capsizing on purpose. I relished the turn in my gut when going over, and the pathetic sight of the flaccid sail hitting the surface and beginning to sink. I looked forward to the thrill of swimming into that dark, silent, potentially deadly world under the boat in order to uncleat a sheet or line, and staying there for a moment to catch my breath in air that would last long enough but not forever. Thus at times I slipped and let the air claim me, and at others threw myself into something like nihilism, or at best a respite from the impossible wind.

Older now, I no longer capsize by mistake, and the excitement of doing it on purpose has long worn off. I have not raced in years, and probably never will again, but I have learned to be more patient with the wind and to see it as a partner and friend. At some point I began wanting simply to sail, neither collapsing into the water nor slowed by listening too close to my own desires when they contradict reality and that impossible upwind heading.

Why does this bring such joy? Here I find myself choosing this way of coursing the water even centuries after steam and diesel engines made it entirely unnecessary, and the great technologists declared the problem of the upward tack solved by brute force—shouting that the wind can simply be ignored. I am of a generation taught to conquer everything this way—through force and effort. Why would a man of my era choose limitation, that dance with the impossible? Why would he take pleasure in it instead of simply going where he wants with a two-stroke outboard doing all the work? Why would a man raised to believe he could do anything instead simply choose not to?

I have begun teaching my daughter to sail, and my sons (who are younger) will follow in due time. As she sits with the tiller and the main sheet, my daughter stares too long at the tell-tales and loses her course, the boat drifting toward irons before I redirect her, or heeling until my legs and gut say that it may soon tumble unless I take over in a quick moment. For her, the wind remains a mystery—she still pushes the tiller in the direction she wants to go (forgetting that one must do the opposite), or forgets to feel for a sudden shift and trim her sail, or fails to come broader when she luffs. We make slow progress, and when it is time to prepare for a tack or jibe, I still take over to make sure we do not find ourselves stuck or soaked.

My daughter is of a different generation from me, one that is still being taught and trying to discern whether the world is a place to be seized, or given into, or something else. I wonder if it is a generation that will perhaps want to sail more than my own—perhaps even give up the engines entirely and declare the arrogance of such brute force to be obsolete. Or perhaps it will be the sailboats that are left to rot in dry-dock for eternity.

I do not entirely know what I would wish for her and her generation. Sailing is a strange art to be teaching, as it as a strange one to learn, and the reason for passing it down is far from clear. Here, I tell my daughter, we will play with what cannot be done, pulling our noses back and forth across the impossible and thus somehow making headway, neither conquering what nature will never allow nor being overcome by the limitation. Here, we embrace the wind for what it is, love it and draw in the joyful breaths of lake air that invite us into our place rather than tying us there, free and rolling from tack to tack. Perhaps she will fall in love with the feeling, or perhaps fear it, and thus either way follow her father. Perhaps she will give it all up and do something sensible with her time. Or perhaps she will set out to discover how to sail against the wind in a bid to make her name eternally famous...and fail.

But then perhaps she will simply find the words I cannot, and express what it is that captivates us in playing with what cannot be done in order to do what we wish—in finding that space between declaring ourselves capsized and impotent and declaring ourselves all-powerful and thus finding ourselves unable to progress. Perhaps she will find the words to describe the endless tack from reach to reach that defines us in some mysterious way, caught in a balance that part of us loves and does not wish to give up even when we could. Perhaps she will teach her own children the art of the wind, beginning with a lesson in what they simply cannot ever do.

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