Sunday, February 12, 2017


Alisa and I recently watched the movie "Valley Uprising". It's a history of rock climbing in Yosemite Valley aimed at non-climbers.

One thing that the movie reminded me of was the long history of "ethics" debates in climbing. For decades, climbers argued over the right and wrong way to climb. Is it OK to leave permanent bolts in the rock as anchors? Is it OK to hang onto your gear, rather than the rock? Is it fair to use oxygen in the Himalaya?

I'm struck by the contrast to sailing. In the Anglophone sailing world, at least, the question of how you get where you're going never comes up.

Maybe that's because sailors are a more relaxed bunch. Good climbers, they're driven.

But I think there might be some merit to applying the idea of style, of good ways and bad ways to do things, to the watery world.

So, with the usual caveat of "I don't care what you do, as long as you're not doing it to me", I'll offer up a few suggestions.

The most obvious point of sailing style is suggested by our friends on Mollymawk, who use their engine, like, not at all. That's style. Sailors sail. Losers (and dock queens*) motor.

Mollymawk, under power as it turns out

The only other style rule that I would suggest goes: marinas bad, rallies unconscionable.

Marinas are parking lots for boats. Everyone knows that many many boats never get out of the lot.

But rallies are the act of taking the parking lot with you when you go.

For those who haven't spent their children's entire lives living on a boat, I'll explain.

Rallies are this incredibly popular concept of pre-packaged passagemaking. First, someone organizes the rally. They schedule start and finish times for some very common trip on a sailboat - the sail down the Baja Peninsula from California, or the tradewind route across the Atlantic, or around the world.

Then the organizers organize everything. They schedule a marina in every port. They get the local customs agents to promise special service. They organize dock queens to do pre-rally checks on boats. They hire weather experts to give expert weather advice.

Then they announce a very high entrance fee. And, from what I can see, the organizers step back to avoid being trampled by the rush of people trying to sign up.

And then, if you have a very busy life that requires things like adventure to be exactly scheduled, and you have no problem with hand holding, you too can sail across the Atlantic, or around the world, or whatever.

(Nick on Mollymawk had this great idea to set out a few days behind the big Atlantic rally, with hopes of salvaging one of the very expensive yachts that every year seem to be abandoned by their crews the first time that anything goes wrong. Now that's style.)

You'll see what my hangup is about rallies. The whole beauty of the life afloat is the fierce independence that it gives you. When you put to sea it's in the knowledge that you've got only your own abilities to rely on. When you reach the far shore, the satisfaction, and the let-down, are both immense. Eric Hiscock famously said that sailing long distances in a small boat wasn't an activity undertaken to improve other people's opinion of you, but rather to improve your opinion of yourself.

Whenever someone else is making the decisions, adventure is absent. To be a sailor, you have to learn to make your own call on weather windows, you have to pick up a few words of a new language, you have to navigate the (never very difficult) processes of checking in and out of different countries.

In the end, you have to trust yourself.

And I woud posit that making whatever passage, or voyage, or coastal cruise, that you're able to make yourself, relying on yourself, literally as the captain of your own ship, must be so much more valuable and satisfying than taking on some trip that you're up to only if someone else is holding your hand.

So that's my cri de cour. Can the rallies of the world please shrivel up and die from neglect?

I'd be very interested to hear anyone else's take on what constitutes good sailing style.

And now, if you'll excuse me, the wind is fair and the Blue Peter is flapping from the yardarm. We have a fortnight until our date with the Panama Canal, and we're setting off to spend the interim in the western end of the country, at Bocas del Toro, which has the great cachet of being a place we never heard of before we got here.

Portobelo, which we'll sail away from in an hour

*The term "dock queen" is an original from Fatty Goodlander, friend to Galactic. I am quite jealous that he came up with that one. Anyone who has spent time around boats will recognize it as the perfect name for those hyperventilating, somewhat aggressive experts who never actually leave the dock. I've decided that from now on I'll just go ahead and rip Fatty off on that one.


  1. Hi Mike,
    My friend Larry Alexander and his wife sailed around the world twice on wooden boats built by Cecil Lange back in the day. The story he told about the first voyage went as follows:

    He and his wife were schoolteachers in Southern Cal., working to accumulate a small nest egg for the voyage. In the same marina (that word) there was a boat with the latest in gear and sails --- that would be loran and dacron-- that had been preparing to leave on a circumnavigation for several years. When the school year ended Larry & Twila cast off the dock lines and left. Four years later they sailed back into the same berth in the same marina and went back to herding kids. The marina residents started giving the "only need one more thing" guy such a hard time that he was forced to leave and sail across the bay to a berth in a different marina.

    ps: Still time to continue on up to Providencia. No marinas there!

    1. Ha! That's a great story.

      And, Providencia! There's a backstory about the science work I'm finishing, and the boat work we need to complete before the long miles of the Pacific, and the two days that we just spent not getting to Bocas del Toro...I think Providencia will have to struggle along without its obscurity being illuminated by the likes of us for now!

  2. My dad is definitely of the same anti-rally school. We did a circumnavigation a million years ago, before the age of rallies. But now? He's done TWO rallies, back to back (Indonesia & Malaysia). His reason? Paperwork. Lol, even he was intimidated by what he heard of the clearing in process for both countries. But he certainly did not depend on them for weather info. And he did have some good things to say about the access to other excursions, once they'd arrived.

    1. yeah, actually, I've heard that the Indonesian formalities really might be tough enough to justify a rally...If I could just get over the image of the Pacific Puddle Jump people, getting down with the Polynesians who are being paid to be their friends....

  3. We do have one style rule: When approaching an anchorage or berth, never ever shout or gesticulate, however weird it gets.
    We have too often been embarrassed almost to tears by boats that come in, with (typically) a large strong man standing neatly at the helm, hurling insults at the (typically) smaller and less strong women and children struggling to do all the heavy work.
    Curiously, we have made good friends simply by arriving quietly and stylishly, like-minded sailors who row over later with a bottle to see who we are and where we have been.

    1. Good one. And, come to think of it, that might be how we met you guys!