The wind was blowing over fifteen knots and the waves were getting bigger. Some of the wave tops were spilling over. Whitecaps. The number of whitecaps on the ocean is a good, rough gauge for the velocity of the wind. Below 10 knots — you won’t see any. 15—a few here and there. 20—they become much more common. 25—whitewater everywhere. Above that, hold on to your hat!
But the whitecaps don’t appear all at once. It takes time for waves to grow — time for the water to absorb the wind’s energy. Time and wind speed are two factors determining a wave’s size. Fetch is the third. Fetch is simply the distance of open water over which the wind blows. The longer the fetch, the more space there is for a wave to grow.
It is all about energy in one form or another. Ocean waves are energy — mechanical wave energy. The waves get their energy from the wind, which gets it from the sun. And the sun’s energy comes mostly from hydrogen atoms fusing together to form helium, releasing excess atomic energy as photons of light. That light strikes our planet and warms the surface. The surface radiates the energy back, heating the air above. The warmer air expands, rises, becomes less dense. And with nothing in the atmosphere to hold it in place, colder, denser air flows in to balance the pressure. This is our wind. And the wind whips the water into waves.
Around and around and around it goes — one energy becoming another.
Is it just a beautiful coincidence that two hydrogen atoms fusing at the sun, end up exciting two other hydrogen atoms in a molecule of water, over 93 million miles away? Is it any less beautiful that the very same energy, electromagnetic energy (light), is getting converted into electrochemical energy in your eyes at this very moment, allowing you to read the words on this screen? And those words come together to form thoughts.
Words and waves, sights and sounds, feeling and thoughts — all from a little energy buzzing around. How beautiful is that?
It is hard not to think about energy when sailing on the ocean — c’est la raison d’être. Above with your sails you catch as much as you can, while below with each wave, it is there catching you — picking you up, tossing you around, pitching you forward, plunging you down. On and on and on, the motion never ceases.
Imagine, if you will, your room tilted over fifteen or twenty degrees, and it’s shaking, and bouncing, and something outside is clanging (WTF is that?). And every ten seconds the room lifts off — taking you with it — and just when your stomach catches up, down you go again, sinking and sliding, twisting and rolling — Urp! You might find that the coffee you are now sipping (if you are lucky enough to be sipping some) has just landed on your head.
If you are thinking about going to sea in a small sailboat (anything under 50’), know that it will demand much of you, will affect you, most likely change you, and maybe profoundly so. And like all change it comes with a little pain. A small boat at sea is like a crucible, cooking down what’s in it, melting and mixing, rearranging and distilling, alloying or destroying. Resisting change is difficult when everything around you is moving.
Life at sea is both easier and harder than you might expect. Easier because there really isn’t a lot you need to do to safely stay afloat. Harder because you really have to do it — you can’t wait — because waiting could mean the difference between life and death.
The ocean forces you to be present, in the moment, right here, right now. You need to respond to whatever is placed before you — from the sea, the weather, your boat, your companions — day after day, night after night. (And don’t expect to get more than a few hours of sleep at a time.) By reducing existence to the here and now, life becomes much more simple, more tangible, more direct.
Simplicity is liberating. Our modern lives push us in the opposite direction, toward complexity and dislocation. Not so on a boat. Things that seem so important on land, quickly lose their significance on the ocean. And what you may now take for granted, just as quickly becomes meaningful. The basic things in life: a simple meal with a friend, a glass of clean water, shelter from a storm, love in the afternoon, a good book, a funny story, a long laugh, a mug of hot coffee. Ah. . .
Everything else is just stuff.
Yes, sailing on the ocean will demand much of you. But from whom much is demanded, much will be given (or something like that). A voyage on a boat will unchain you, reboot you, set your soul free. And in the words of one fine fisherman I know — a jangadeiro — it might just show you the meaning of life. Because out on the ocean, you can’t help but feel alive.
So put up a sail and see where it takes you.
And one more thing — there on the water you will have strange dreams.
Next Chapter: Land Ho!