There is a poetry of sailing as old as the world. —Antoine de Sainte-Exupery
Eighteen years ago, when I was working in New York, I edited a book called The Small World of Long-Distance Sailors. It was written by a charming, soft-spoken woman named Ann Carl, who had recently returned from voyaging about halfway around the world with her husband, Bill. She had much to say about the meetings they'd had with the same boats and people in far-away harbors. She likened the people who were out there cruising in the early '80s to a community without a fixed base, full of interesting characters. The book was mostly a memoir, with some practical matters and a few observations about sailing and life in general thrown in. And some fanciful and beguiling illustrations by the author, and color photos by the author. Oh, and some poems by the author. And all these extra elements were good enough to accompany Ann's excellent writing in what we all hoped would be enough of a success to keep author and publisher in beer and skittles. And it was.
As I recall, it wasn't until the book was well underway, maybe almost done, and I was sitting down to write the flap copy, that Ann, in an effort to provide some grist about herself, mentioned that she had been a military test pilot in World War ll, and that she was the first woman to have flown a jet. Good grief. What a talented person.
Any of us could probably think of a dozen sailors who are also aviators. Sally Pinchot, whom I've mentioned here before, was a top-flight navigator as well as a pilot and musician. Jim Marshall, formerly of Ockam instruments, wrote the book on the science of performance sailing through instrumentation back in the '80s. Arvel Gentry, fabled Boeing engineer and Ranger 23 sailor, upended the common wisdom about how sails work back in the '70s. Steve Fossett, balloonist. Steve Dashew, glider pilot. Sir Francis Chichester and his Gypsy Moth airplanes and boats. A sailor I met recently in the boatyard—senior FedEx pilot. Tim Cole, our publisher. (Flying into Washington National at rush hour with Tim in a four-seater—there's a hoot.)
I think it's the fascination with foils and fluids. These are probably all people who spent more than their share of time as kids holding their palms flat outside the car window on the highway and flying them up and down, and noticing how different shapes make different wakes when you drag them through the water.
It also has to do with navigation: Aviators and mariners are bound together by knots and nautical miles, 24-hour timekeeping, similar charts, and similar instruments. They view the earth, the atmosphere surrounding it, and the celestial bodies above it, in many of the same ways. They care deeply about weather, and about others traveling in the same medium. They are takers of calculated risks. They enjoy being skilled at endeavors that take years of practice, and that are not always comfortable or fear-free.
Ann Carl is still going strong, living on the Virginia side of the Chesapeake and putting her considerable energy and courage into environmentalism and other urgent activities. In 1999, she wrote a memoir about the airborne part of her life, A WASP Among Eagles (Smithsonian Institution Press). It's an amazing book, and yet another reminder of the close links between sailing and aviation.
Most sailboats are equipped with enough controls to shape sails with exactitude. In this case micromanagement is a good thing, because small changes in the positioning of halyard, outhaul, cunningham, leads, traveler, and vang can mean the difference between a powerful, efficient airfoil and one that struggles through the air, even though it might look "full."
Letting go of the land and stretching the wings is good, but making them fly, too—now that's a pleasure.