The Thoreau Ap­proach There is much sailors can learn from Henry David Thoreau’s ap­proach to life, ar­gues Jef­frey McCarthy

SAIL - - Contents -

Thoreau as an in­spi­ra­tion to sailors; creat­ing more di­ver­sity within the sport

Iknow some­one who spent two years, two months and two days star­ing at the wa­ter, liv­ing in a space 150ft square, and pay­ing keen at­ten­tion to the weather. This sounds like a happy cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion, and in a sense it was, be­cause the per­son I’m re­fer­ring to is Henry David Thoreau, whose book Walden was very much about a trip across new hori­zons while liv­ing close to na­ture. In his own words: “I have, as it were, my own sun and moon and stars, and a lit­tle world all to my­self.” Walden’s sub­ti­tle is “Life in the Woods,” but it could just as eas­ily have been “In­de­pen­dent Pas­sage” or “Wind, Weather and Self.”

An­other quote: “I could watch the mo­tions of a sail for­ever, they are so rich and full of mean­ing.” That’s not Liz Clark or Den­nis Con­ner. It’s our own Henry David Thoreau, and it’s why we can cel­e­brate Thoreau as a model for sailors who love the wa­ter, adopt sim­plic­ity and ad­vo­cate for na­ture.

Thoreau says get out and go, and I hear his ad­mo­ni­tion when my life’s other voices warn me to work in­stead of sail, urge an­other year’s cau­tion be­fore a pas­sage or dis­ap­prove of my boat as too sim­ple a craft. Thoreau can be any hes­i­tant sailor’s en­cour­ag­ing com­pan­ion. It is true that Thoreau is some­times dis­missed as a mor­al­iz­ing scold—a cross be­tween Fox News’s car­i­ca­ture of Al Gore and Satur­day Night Live’s Church Lady. But there’s much more to this story. Thoreau is ac­tu­ally a cheer­ful cham­pion of out­door ad­ven­ture and a sup­port­ive voice for your sail­ing dreams. Look, when he was just 22 he built him­self a boat and launched it on a sum­mer’s trip through New Eng­land. Sounds like good crew to me! Thoreau’s ad­ven­tures were never smug lec­tures on the world’s wrongs, but cel­e­bra­tions of the pos­si­bile that, you’ll be glad to hear, in­cluded boats. His 1839 trip be­came A Week on the Concord and Mer­ri­mack Rivers, where he writes: “If rightly made, a boat would be a sort of am­phibi­ous an­i­mal, a crea­ture of two el­e­ments, re­lated by one half its struc­ture to some swift and shapely fish, and by the other to some strong-winged and grace­ful bird.”

What sailor has not med­i­tated on just these pro­por­tions from the deck of a surg­ing racer or the cock­pit of a steady cruiser? My point is that in Thoreau we sailors find a kin­dred spirit with ideals that can take us to sea.

Sail­ing away means un­ty­ing from the dock, and Thoreau’s Walden urges just that radical mea­sure. It’s a fact that Thoreau lived at Walden Pond in Concord, Mas­sachusetts, be­tween July 1845 and Septem­ber 1847. It’s also true that he built with his own hands a cabin there, and that his cabin stood 10-by-15ft with about as much liv­ing space as your fam­ily cruiser.

At a to­tal cost of $28, Thoreau’s craft cost less than a de­cent shackle will set you back to­day. This ques­tion of cost mat­ters be­cause Walden is ded­i­cated to con­vinc­ing read­ers that chas­ing their dreams costs less than chas­ing bonuses: “Most of the lux­u­ries, and many of the so-called com­forts of life, are not only not in­dis­pens­able, but pos­i­tive hin­drances.” From this per­spec­tive, money burned up­grad­ing the wa­ter­maker or elec­tri­fy­ing the winches would be bet­ter spent sail­ing the sea. “Econ­omy,” ac­cord­ing to

Thoreau, is the bal­ance of free­dom and cost. Of course, if you have the money to spend, old Henry would say spend away, but “Econ­omy” tells me not to wait for a full purse later when I have en­ergy and health now.

Life on the pond for two years, two months and two days was also a re­bel­lion against the econ­omy of 19th-cen­tury Amer­ica. Ever dis­rup­tive, Thoreau opted out of con­sumer cul­ture: “A man is rich in pro­por­tion to the num­ber of things he can af­ford to let alone,” is an­other way of say­ing you can’t buy hap­pi­ness. My wife, Whit­ney, and I sail a Beneteau First 42 named Nel­lie built back in 1983. Maybe we could have set aside more money over more years to buy a newer boat some later day… but we wanted to be on the ocean right away, and so we spent what we had.

In a sense, that cock­pit and sa­loon are Walden Pond to us, be­cause it’s there we trans­act our busi­ness in di­rect re­la­tion to the nat­u­ral world. You’ll prob­a­bly re­call Thoreau say­ing, “I went to the woods be­cause I wished to live de­lib­er­ately, to front only the es­sen­tial facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach.” There’s the gift sail­ing gives us—a di­rect en­counter with the “es­sen­tial facts of life” spray­ing across the deck in a Gulf Stream squall or wak­ing us to an os­prey’s cry. These in­ter­vals of prac­ti­cal en­gage­ment with the nat­u­ral world are height­ened by the sim­plic­ity that sail­ing spot­lights and sailors em­brace.

Like other fa­vorite ship­mates, Thoreau has a lively sense of hu­mor. His books are full with giddy wise­cracks: “Any fool can make a rule, and ev­ery fool will mind it,” or “It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The ques­tion is, what are we busy about?”

He charms with self-dep­re­ca­tion too, ex­plain­ing that thanks to re­claim­ing nearly the whole print­ing of his own re­main­dered first book, “I have now a li­brary of nearly 900 vol­umes, over 700 of which I wrote my­self.” An­other wel­come qual­ity aboard is that Thoreau was handy. He was a ca­pa­ble car­pen­ter, build­ing his own house and, as I said, build­ing his own boat. Thoreau was a dili­gent worker, con­trary to his loaf­ing, tree-hug­ger car­i­ca­ture. He loved to tin­ker and fix, and

even en­gi­neered a bet­ter lead for his fam­ily’s pen­cil busi­ness.

That said, his high moral pur­pose might make ship­board life tricky—he quit his teach­ing job be­cause he dis­ap­proved of cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment, fa­mously got tossed into jail for re­fus­ing to pay his taxes, kept a veg­e­tar­ian diet, was a fer­vent abo­li­tion­ist and be­lieved in­di­vid­ual ethics must su­per­sede so­cial ex­pec­ta­tions. We keep it veg­gie aboard Nel­lie and op­pose slav­ery too, but on last July’s Ber­muda to New­port run I had to for­bid pol­i­tics as a sub­ject aboard, pre­cisely be­cause a fire­brand like Thoreau kept in­flam­ing the watches. So if I’m look­ing for crew, some­one prac­ti­cal, dili­gent and in­formed is al­ways a good choice. Poor Thoreau, it’s worth not­ing, lived a short life of only 45 years, and his in­ti­ma­tion that he would not live long led him to an in­ten­sity bright as any light­house.

An­other way Thoreau in­spires me to sea is his em­pha­sis on di­rect ex­pe­ri­ence. Thoreau’s de­lib­er­ate en­counter with the best parts of life hap­pens by cut­ting through the var­i­ous screens that sep­a­rate cul­ture from na­ture. In other words, feel the wind, tide and fog as tu­tors. “Sim­plify! Sim­plify!” is a strat­egy for learn­ing di­rectly from na­ture. “Ev­ery morn­ing was a cheer­ful in­vi­ta­tion to make my life of equal sim­plic­ity, and I may say in­no­cence, with Na­ture her­self,” Thoreau writes. This in­for­ma­tive sim­plic­ity is an in­vi­ta­tion mod­ern sailors ex­pe­ri­ence ev­ery time they let the wind pro­pel them across the bay.

Aboard Nel­lie, Whit­ney and I have adopted a model of min­i­mal­ism that both re­duces our costs and makes the boat easy to run. For ex­am­ple, our ten­der is a Dyer Mid­get with oars. This lit­tle craft gets us qui­etly to the dock, tows sweetly and weighs but 80lb. It’s true we lack the speed of an out­board engine or the girth of a burly RIB, but there’s no gaso­line to store, no spark plugs to foul, no engine to win­ter­ize… you know the list. There are trade-offs for sure—a squally evening means we stay aboard, three is the Dyer’s ca­pac­ity for trips to shore— still we fol­low Walden to sim­plic­ity.

An­other ex­am­ple of our sim­plic­ity aboard Nel­lie is that we like our ice­box. Many peo­ple love their on­board re­frig­er­a­tors, and I’m glad for them.

For me, though, the cold plate de­mands more charging, the in­ter­mit­tent freeze/thaw de­mands more at­ten­tion, and the up­grade de­mands more money. Thoreau would say it’s bet­ter to buy a bag of ice when you can, eat sim­ple meals in beau­ti­ful places and get out on the wa­ter now.

This call to in­ex­pen­sive action also the fo­cus of the ex­cel­lent book Sen­si­ble Cruis­ing: The Thoreau Ap­proach by Don Casey and Lew Hacker (1986), in which the au­thors ar­gue that prospec­tive cruis­ers should sim­plify their boats and cast off be­fore it’s too late. “My great­est skill has been to want but lit­tle,” says Thoreau, and Casey and Hacker fol­low his lead, thereby show­ing sailors they have fewer needs and more wealth than they think. Sen­si­ble Cruis­ing coun­sels us to go sail­ing now.

Yet an­other pro­found con­nec­tion be­tween Thoreau and sailors is na­ture and, in par­tic­u­lar, the ro­man­tic con­fi­dence that time in na­ture aligns us with our best selves. Of course, my na­ture ap­pre­ci­a­tion may dim when mos­qui­toes de­vour my neck at an­chor or when tide fights wind off my bow. How­ever, it’s also as clear as rum fol­lows sun­set that sail­ing puts us all in di­rect contact with the cur­rents and the clouds and the crea­tures of the sea. Like his Tran­scen­den­tal­ist com­rades, Thoreau thought of na­ture as a gate­way to the fullest self. For the Tran­scen­den­tal­ists, na­ture was their Bi­ble, their con­fes­sor and their tem­ple. “My pur­pose in go­ing to Walden Pond was …to trans­act some pri­vate busi­ness with the fewest ob­sta­cles,” ex­plains Thoreau. Mov­ing to the woods and build­ing your own cabin (or buy­ing that Valiant 40 and sail­ing to An­tigua) floats you on the cur­rent of your own in­her­ent divin­ity.

Thoreau says all this self-im­prove­ment and na­ture lov­ing needs more than a walk in the park, that the most trans­for­ma­tive Tran­scen­den­tal­ist in­sights only come through wild na­ture, be­cause wild­ness en­forces self-re­liance like gales en­force storm sails. Whether you race Op­ti­mists, cruise to Fiji or day­sail from a trailer, the heart of the whole soggy en­ter­prise is mak­ing your own way, un­der your own power, us­ing your wits. That’s self-re­liance. Trou­bleshoot­ing a sticky winch aboard Nel­lie, get­ting that genoa to fly a lit­tle fuller con­nects me to the logic that brought Thoreau to na­ture, be­cause it puts me in di­rect contact with the en­vi­ron­ment and with my own ca­pac­ity to shape my con­di­tion.

To sum up, for sailors there’s more to sail­ing than round­ing marks and plot­ting cour­ses, the same as Walden was more than just a place to sleep for Henry David Thoreau. At the end of his life Thoreau warned, “In wild­ness is the preser­va­tion of the world.” To me this cuts two ways for sailors: on the one hand, our time amidst right whales, shear­wa­ters and rain squalls brings out our best selves; on the other, sailors are wit­ness to the pol­lut­ing, over-fish­ing and acid­i­fi­ca­tion af­flict­ing the planet’s wildest wa­tery realms. Thoreau was an out­spo­ken fire­brand through­out his short life, and we too can speak for the coral reefs and ma­rine species we know di­rectly. Even when Walden Pond looks too shal­low for sail­ing, I re­mind my­self that Thore­au­vian qual­i­ties like econ­omy, sel­f­re­liance and at­ten­tion to na­ture in­spire great days afloat none­the­less. s

Sail­ing gives us the gift of a di­rect en­counter with the “es­sen­tial facts of life”

The au­thor takes Thoreau’s phi­los­o­phy to heart

Sailors can re­late to the con­fines of Thoreau’s cabin

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