A sailor-pi­lot ru­mi­nates on his twin pas­sions


Flying - - CONTENTS - By Sam Weigel

For a sup­posed air­line pi­lot and avi­a­tion writer, I’ve spent a scan­dalous amount of time at sea level over the past year. In late Oc­to­ber, my wife, Dawn, and I cast off the lines from our sum­mer dock in the Ch­e­sa­peake and pointed our 42-foot sail­boat, Wind­bird, south­ward to the Caribbean. From the eye-pop­ping wa­ter­scapes of the Ba­hamas to the lush jun­gle of the Do­mini­can Re­pub­lic to the glit­ter­ing, ser­rated ar­chi­pel­ago of the Vir­gin Is­lands, it’s been the ad­ven­ture of a life­time.

Over the same pe­riod, I’ve worked a grand to­tal of 14 days, two of those in the sim­u­la­tor, thanks to the happy cir­cum­stance that my air­line’s Boe­ing 757/767 fleet is usu­ally over­staffed in the win­ter. Now, I has­ten to note that Dawn and I are far from in­de­pen­dently wealthy — it’s just that with no kids and no debt, we don’t need much money to live on while we’re out on the boat. All I re­quire is a nice patch of sand to an­chor in, a cold beer from the ice­box and a tasty lob­ster or fat hog­fish to har­vest from the reef un­der my keel. About the time you read this, we’ll be leav­ing Wind­bird high and dry in a Puerto Ri­can boat­yard for hur­ri­cane sea­son, and then over the sum­mer you’ll find me in the air more of­ten than not.

One of the things I’ve no­ticed this cruis­ing sea­son is just how many sailors out here are also pi­lots, both pro­fes­sional and recre­ational. Per­haps I should have ex­pected it, con­sid­er­ing the num­ber of captains I fly with who sail. His­tor­i­cally, a lot of well-known pi­lots have also had a pas­sion for sail­ing; one of my per­sonal idols, Ernest K. Gann, is a no­table ex­am­ple. There’s too strong of a cor­re­la­tion for it to be a co­in­ci­dence; I like to think that the two pur­suits cap­ture the imag­i­na­tion of ex­actly the same sort of per­son. In my ex­pe­ri­ence, both pi­lots and sailors tend to be ro­man­tics with a prac­ti­cal bent, those with the soul of a poet and mind of an en­gi­neer.

From a tech­ni­cal stand­point, there is a great deal of com­mon­al­ity be­tween fly­ing and sail­ing. Aero­dy­nam­i­cally, a sail is but a wing turned side­ways, at least with the wind com­ing from any­where ahead of the boat. Put them both in a wind tun­nel, and our mu­tual friend Bernoulli will hap­pily avow them to be alike. The dif­fer­ence is that where the ver­ti­cal com­po­nent of lift al­lows an air­plane to fly, it is the for­ward com­po­nent that pro­pels the ves­sel. In ei­ther case, the wing will only pro­duce lift within a fairly nar­row range of an­gles of at­tack; in sail­ing, a good deal of ef­fort is spent at­tempt­ing to keep

as much sail as pos­si­ble at its op­ti­mal an­gle. Too low an an­gle of at­tack, and the sail flogs dra­mat­i­cally — this is why a sail­boat can­not sail di­rectly up­wind but must zigzag to and fro. A high an­gle of at­tack, on the other hand, is much sub­tler than its avi­a­tion coun­ter­point: The outer tell­tales will flutter about just like yarn tufts on a test wing, and the boat slows, but oth­er­wise every­thing seems nor­mal. A lazy sailor might be happy to slough along with stalled wings, but those of us who fly air­planes can­not abide such a con­di­tion — at least un­til it’s time to go down­wind. Then we ease the sheets and turn our well-trimmed sails into baggy para­chutes.

The aero­dy­namic sim­i­lar­i­ties con­tinue: The for­ward sail on a sloop rig, the jib, func­tions much like a slat on a jet’s wing, di­rect­ing a cur­rent of high-en­ergy air over the outer sur­face of the main­sail. Both sails have lines that help con­trol twist or washout, not un­like the wing warp­ing de­sign of early air­craft. Be­low the wa­ter­line, the keel is an­other wing that gen­er­ates side­ways lift to coun­ter­act the wind’s push to lee­ward. The hy­dro­dy­namic curves of the hull would be com­pletely at home in a sleek air­craft de­sign. Struc­turally, sail­boat masts are tech­ni­cally known as spars and serve the same pur­pose as their air­borne coun­ter­part, and the stand­ing rig­ging that sup­ports them is quite fa­mil­iar to any­one who has spent much time around old bi­planes.

From a prac­ti­cal stand­point, fly­ing and sail­ing share quite a few skills that trans­fer well. Nav­i­ga­tion is vir­tu­ally the same, with highly de­tailed nau­ti­cal charts of var­i­ous scales usu­ally ori­ented to true north. The use of GPS is just as preva­lent on the wa­ter as in the air — and marine chart plot­ters owe a great deal to their avi­a­tion pre­de­ces­sors — but the savvy mariner, like the savvy pi­lot, re­tains knowl­edge of the old ways and uses those skills to sup­ple­ment the new tech­nol­ogy. The process of route plan­ning and dead reck­on­ing is ex­actly alike, with cross­cur­rents to be ac­counted for in place of cross­winds. Where the avi­a­tor might try to avoid high bits of land, tow­ers, con­gested airspace and TFRs, the sailor plots his course clear of shal­lows, reefs, jut­ting head­lands


and the oc­ca­sional buoy. In both cases, “What do I do if the en­gine quits?” is al­ways a con­sid­er­a­tion (there are sit­u­a­tions where a sail­boat wouldn’t be able to merely sail out of trou­ble). One sur­pris­ing dif­fer­ence: Out­side of the United States, gov­ern­ment-is­sued nau­ti­cal charts are no­to­ri­ously in­ac­cu­rate, in many cases be­ing based off cen­tury-plus-old Bri­tish Ad­mi­ralty sur­veys.

A work­ing knowl­edge of weather is an­other thing that pro­fi­cient pi­lots share with sailors. It’s hard to overem­pha­size just how crit­i­cal weather is to safe sea­man­ship — not just the sail­ing it­self, but also route plan­ning, the go/no-go de­ci­sion, an­chor­age se­lec­tion and how one pre­pares the boat be­fore get­ting un­der­way. Sail­ing is roughly as weather-de­pen­dent as go­ing cross-coun­try in the win­ter with a J-3 Cub. On the wa­ter, you’re more con­cerned with wind and waves than with clouds, vis­i­bil­ity and pre­cip­i­ta­tion, but be­ing able to un­der­stand the big pic­ture and how it will af­fect lo­cal con­di­tions is im­mensely help­ful in each case.

In both fly­ing and sail­ing, as a renter I paid too lit­tle at­ten­tion to main­te­nance (kick the tires, light the fires …), but as an owner I gained new ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the proper care and feed­ing of my ma­chines. Timely main­te­nance is es­pe­cially crit­i­cal on a seago­ing ves­sel be­cause the salt­wa­ter en­vi­ron­ment is in­cred­i­bly and con­tin­u­ously de­struc­tive. As the past owner of a clas­sic air­plane, and now as the skip­per of a well-sea­soned sail­boat, I’m al­ways think­ing, What can I do to make her bet­ter? There’s no ques­tion that my ex­pe­ri­ence own­ing the Piper Pacer helped pre­pare me to take good care of Wind­bird.

From an aes­thetic stand­point, I con­sider fly­ing and sail­ing to be two sides of the same coin. The things that have called men to sea over the ages are the same ones that made them so envy the birds: the free­dom to roam near and far, the abil­ity to leave ter­res­trial cares be­hind, the power to be­come the no­tional master of one’s own fate. Sailors and pi­lots have the unique priv­i­lege of wit­ness­ing a thou­sand hid­den mo­ments of wild beauty that dirt dwellers can scarcely imag­ine. We de­rive im­mense sat­is­fac­tion from us­ing a life­time of ac­cu­mu­lated skill and knowl­edge to sur­vive and thrive in an in­trin­si­cally hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment. When Wind­bird is lean­ing hard on an up­wind beat and I spy a clue in the tell­tales and give a sheet a tweak and the boat digs in and surges ahead with re­newed vigor, spray fly­ing over the bow and wake gur­gling hap­pily be­hind, the plea­sure I de­rive from that mo­ment is hard to ex­plain to a non­sailor. A pi­lot, how­ever, would eas­ily rec­og­nize the feel­ing — for it is much the same as when a slight ca­ress of the yoke ex­pertly guides the ship onto the ILS, or when you dip a wing over a sun-dap­pled field and spy your shadow flit­ting among the corn rows, or the mo­ment your up­wind main tire kisses the pave­ment and stays planted in a feisty cross­wind.

Af­ter ex­pe­ri­enc­ing life aloft and afloat, land liv­ing seems ter­ri­bly drab; it turns out that a taste for ad­ven­ture once de­vel­oped is not so eas­ily sated. Catch a flash of wing over­head and your heart leaps anew; spy a sail over the hori­zon and it calls you sea­ward. Fly­ing and sail­ing can both eas­ily morph into all-con­sum­ing ob­ses­sions, with nearly end­less av­enues for ex­pand­ing one’s in­ter­est. Mere mor­tals can scratch and claw their way to­ward mod­est goals through com­pro­mise and sac­ri­fice, while those more for­tu­nate can squan­der a siz­able for­tune with sur­pris­ing ease.

For Dawn and me, our twin pas­sions have re­sulted in a com­plete up­end­ing and re­order­ing of our life­style, and likely will again at some point in the fu­ture. The dis­com­fort of the up­heaval is tem­po­rary, while the re­wards are last­ing. If there’s one thing I’ve de­cided thus far in my time on this planet it is that life is too pre­cious and fleet­ing to be lived any other way than to the fullest.

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