Larry Cheek’s essay on not giving up sailing will strike a chord with any of us who are looking back at 60. Like it or not, there comes a time when, as Leonard Cohen put it, you “ache in the places where you used to play.” That’s no reason to quit, though. Sailboats, no matter their size, have never been easier to handle than they are now. Spars are lighter than ever and with modern fibers, so are ropes. Sails roll away in minutes. Sheets can be trimmed at the press of a button. Ground tackle that would give a circus strongman a hernia is lifted from the sea bed by a whirring electric motor. It is possible to sail long distances with a minimum of exertion.
Which kind of defeats the purpose, to my mind anyway. The effort involved in sailing a boat is good for you. Fresh air and exercise, a little workout every time you take the boat out—if you want to do nothing, buy a powerboat, right? Then again, if they keep you on the water for a few more seasons, there is nothing wrong with availing yourself of all the labor-saving goodies you can afford.
I once scorned all such fripperies as being unworthy of a true sailor back in the days when I had a big cutter with hanked-on sails and spent as much time wrestling Dacron on the foredeck with sail ties fluttering in my jaws as I did at the helm—probably more, since I had no shame about using the autopilot 24 hours a day. I’d crank away at the big manual windlass, raising the hook a couple of inches with every stroke and wishing devoutly I’d anchored in shallower water. It’s hard to say exactly when the rot set in. But by the time I chartered a boat in the Caribbean that—joy of joys—had both electric winches and a furling mainsail, I had already supped the devil’s brew and dropped any pretense at purism. There’s no denying the seductive call of an easy life.
It’s a good thing my own boats have had none of those luxuries, except for an electric windlass, else I’d be good for nothing except reclining in a hammock and watching the sunset while being embarrassed by stories of much older sailors doing remarkable things on boats, probably with nary an electric winch or furling mainsail in sight—as with my current role model, 73-year-old Jean-Luc van den Heede, leading the Golden Globe race at time of writing. When the time comes, though, you can bet I’ll be pushing buttons with the best of them