Monday, December 14, 2009

The Inheritors (Part One)

When I was a kid my father and I, carrying a torn mainsail, visited a sail loft in the back streets of a Martha's Vineyard town. The sailmaker, who'd repaired sails all his life, was old, maybe 75 or 80, and this was about 1970. So he'd worked on the sails of schooners, which filled Vineyard Sound into the 1930's. Maybe he'd worked on the sails of the last of the square rigged ships; the Peking and others didn't retire from the nitrate and grain trades until 1932 and beyond. I remember the sailmaker as a man of few words and I am making some assumptions here, but I think I'm safe in doing so.

I was already pretty into sailing by this point, including marlinspike seamanship and some canvas work, and while the sailmaker sewed I told him about my interest, in the way of a thirteen year old boy. The sailmaker said little, but when we left he put into my hand a lump of beeswax and some sail needles and twine.

Much has changed about sailing over the years, but the essentials are constant. The sea is still an implacable wilderness, caring no more whether you live or die than when it drowned the crew of a Phoenician galley. Still, there is Mansfield's "the wheel's kick and the wind's song and white sail's shaking, and a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking." Still, as Bob Griffith wrote, "On watch at night you hold the lives of your sleeping shipmates in the sharpness of your eye, the computer of your mind, and the palm of your hand. You participate in the mystique of the watch, the unbroken succession of helmsmen on a passage."

While some of my best friends are schooner trash, I am far from a yo ho ho, sway up the deadeyes kind of sailor. Give me a 40 knot carbon fiber multihull any day over a decaying gaff rigger ready to sink at the mooring, and I just love fiberglass. But all of us, from the skipper of a bowrider on up, are inheritors of the tradition informed by the unchanging nature of the sea.

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