As the crow flies- Life lessons learned while learning to sail

The center of the Earth was a 36ft Catamaran named Mahie, besides the skipper and the other student sailor with me, there was only sun, wind and waves.  Even though it was a two hauled ship I learned just how difficult it is to keep balanced.  Similar to life tossing me off balance, whenever I felt that I was doing a decent job of keeping myself upright or standing the elements of the open water and a ship tossing around in it would prove me wrong.  Those three hours out on that ship proved just how difficult are arduous it is to hoist up the main sail, all the while avoiding the lose of a finger or tripping over a line, losing balance and taking a dive in Davey Jone’s locker.

The sailing experience, which was extraordinarily fun (but maybe not as exhilarating as sky diving) despite the hazards and hard work, helped me to appropriately gauge the shear human willpower and effort required to sail the oceans over the centuries and gain an appreciation for my Uncles commitment to the trade.  Saying that the British Empire never faced the prospect of the sun setting is placed into context when for several hundred years the primary means of transport required voyages across vast oceans with crews of sailors manning ships.  Part of the lessons I took away from my first sailing class experience were pretty simple- balance, team work and authority.

The environment doesn’t harbor anarchy and even amongst anarchist such as Captain Jack Sparrow‘s lot there was a consistent string of authority, albeit constantly called into question.  The person of authority isn’t just a leader, but its the person with the most knowledge AND experience.  Being on a ship I began to understand the essence of what different types of leadership really means and the crucial nature of those differences.  Most importantly though, I realize that the purest and most effective leader is the one that has that combination of knowledge and experience.  Knowledge in that they know what they are doing and have the intellect to keep things functional, but also the emotional intelligence to understand people and connect with them, to lead people toward a destination.  To have that leadership you command authority and authority takes the shape of how the people you command treat, behave and interact with you.  In the words of Vance Packard “leadership appears to be the art of getting others to want to do something that you are convinced should be done.”  To keep a crew in shape and function as a unit without divergence from the plan is pure authority.  Which is interesting because lately I have felt a lack of authority in my own life because I have began to live with this notion that I am unhinged from the larger apparatus that holds my social fabric together- I am a lone wolf, or a man living on his own island.  My experience on the Mahie requires evaluation of this idea that a man can be his own island, because to sail successfully is to sail with a crew that works in sync with one another, something we call “team work”.

When your trying to sail a ship its difficult enough to keep from loosing your balance and, or, loosing a finger or a limb from all the lines, wenches and various sharp or blunt objects waiting to strike you or be struck by you given the slightest moment of carelessness or inattentiveness.  The ship is like walking through a border filled with land mines waiting to maim and hurt you.  Now imagine that this ship requires a group of people constructively working together to make it get to a destination, or else your stuck in the middle of the ocean with limited provisions.  The authority than is nothing if the folks on the ship don’t work together, therefore, the leadership required is of the kind that must command respect, loyalty and trust.  If one person is tugging off beat it can snare up the sail lines and worse tear off some piece necessary to keep the sail in its place.  Rhythm is part of working together, but there is so much more to working together as a team.  My experience reminded me of my friend Ashiq from Frisco who gave me a book “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni in which team work is pretty succinctly described- successful teamwork requires trust, room for healthy debate (exchange/open communication), commitment, accountability and results. (I skipped all the beginning chapters and read the last couple of chapters where the meat of the information could be found so I can’t speak to the entirety of the book.)  The ability for the ship to function requires the group of people to follow directions and work together but the team functionality requires the individual to have the skills, intelligence and ability as well.

Here Kobe would be singing “I wish I was a little shorter” because that boom would strike him silly whenever he tried to tact!

The day was sultry, the sun was bright and it was hot, but out on the waves were tempered by gusty winds of 28 knots at times, giving us lots of speed under the sails.  I was out there and my entire world was on that ship.  The Mahie was my present world and it felt wonderful to glide so fast over the waves.  The essence of my experience was about how off balance I felt the entire time I was on that ship.  My performance out there, no matter how physically capable I was or how intelligent I may be was hampered by my inability to remain poised.  My physical ability was compromised by the constant shifting of the surface I was standing on.  Sailing is an experience of maintaining an equilibrium in the physical situation and understanding the mechanics of the physical world your in.   I needed to learn quickly how to anticipate the movement and the future potential outcome of the movements.  Life is like that too.  Life is also about understanding the physical world- its science in action when your sailing.

Physics started to make sense out there on the waves.  One principle that manifested itself brilliantly was the fact that even when we didn’t have the wind behind our sails, we kept moving forward in the direction we were going.  How does that even happen?  Well this brilliant Dutchman named Bernoulli presented a postulation that became the cornerstone of fluid dynamics.  Bernoulli’s principle, simplified incredibly here, involved the idea of vacuum and suctions coupled with the forward momentum of the hull of the ship and the keel (rudder) provides resistance.  When the wind flows over one side of the sail it fills the sail while the air flowing on the other side is moving faster and cannot push as hard and thus the sail recieves a force that is perpindicular to the direction of the wind. This would normally not push the sailboat against the wind but the keel of the boat again resists much of the lateral movement so that the boat has only one direction it can move which is forward, providing that the combined forces that are pushing the boat perpendicular to the wind are greater than the force of the wind pushing the entire boat and sails backwards.  Its the same dynamics behind how airplanes flies.

I am thankful to Marina Sail for providing such an awesome opportunity and for keeping the tradition of sailing alive and well.  The person who deserves special credit is Chas, the super cool captain who has sailed in the Transpac and was our trusted teacher and authority figure.  I look forward to working on getting my basic sailing license and one day be even fractionally as capable as Chas is.  It would be a dream of mine to have the opportunity to sail the Transpac, but for now I am keeping my sights on the basics!

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