What is A Sailor?

By Paul Watson

A delightful young lady once asked me a very simple question while I was being interviewed by her as a prospective date. "So, what is it that makes you claim that you are a sailor?" she asked.

It seemed the easiest definition at the time was to tell her simply that I liked sailing and anyone who enjoyed just "being there" was, at the very least, a sailor.

On the drive home that evening I began to probe the answer I had given her and began a tally of the reasons that could be applied to completely define 'a sailor'. In the more than a year since the probe began I find myself still unable to totally make a clear definition. In some ways it left almost as many questions as it did, answers.

I would be hard pressed to deny that anyone who gazes across a body of water and feels a drawn fascination to the graceful, silent movement of a sailboat beneath its towering pyramid of sail certainly fits that first, offhand description that I had offered that young lady.

Any absolute neophyte who steps aboard a sailboat at the invitation of the owner and comes away with a sense of fulfillment is also a sailor.

The choice to 'book' one's first sailing vacation aboard a charter yacht or a tall-ship adventure must be driven by some thirsty fantasy. The romance of the sea may have danced vicariously for some time. This person is a sailor.

Is the professional sailor one who performs the more mundane duties and chores aboard a ship any less a sailor?

Just how much experience within the limitless horizons of simply enjoying sailing is required to define someone as a sailor?

Sailing, in my observation, is likely the most archaic mode of transportation left in the world today.

No one will ever know the exact moment that the first human found that they could be propelled across a body of water solely by the force of wind. Perhaps it was an early man who clung to a log with a leafy bough protruding into a gentle breeze and was carried across a small body of water. We may never know but we all know that they did it again.

The sailor of today still finds the challenge of moving the boat through the water by using the timeless energy of the wind equally fascinating.

Throughout centuries of history the exploration of the world could not have been accomplished without those iron men who led the way for all of us. They have left us all a legacy that we continue to slowly refine. As sophisticated as we are today, we sailors enjoy the same narcotic response enjoyed by that first intrepid sailor.

Even the tools of modern sailing technology have done little to change the basic implements of the sailor. His boat is still equipped with a hull, some sails and sheets, if even today the additions of more modern trappings accompany them, life rings, jack lines, jibe preventers, lifelines and Man Overboard markers. Today's sailor uses the same basic items that would be so easily identified by sailors of centuries ago. Even though today most modern and technologically amazing equipment enhances many of the once mysterious rituals of the great navigators but yet we still cannot apply friction to the water with the application of a lever or brake pedal.

Cruising sailors travel countless miles in every weather condition known, most often at a placid average of merely five or six knots. The dedicated club racer urges the optimum performance from his yacht most often at not nearly double that average. Recent global yacht races find sailors marveling at circling the earth in sixty days in light weight, spindly and dangerous sailing craft, while a commercial jetliner is capable of the same feat in less than sixty hours. The more recent technology finds some sailors eager to break speed records for short, measured courses that may soon exceed a mere 40 knots while the automotive buff has recently seen the sound barrier broken in a wheeled vehicle.

The sailor needs no degree in Physical Engineering to glance at the shape of their sails to innately understand the lesson of their efficiency and inherently knows the basics of not only the endless beauty of the shape but the power they can extract from the swelling, snowy fabric above.

Regardless of the type of endeavor, the racer, the cruiser, the professional delivery crew, weekender and day-sailor have all chosen, to learn the skills of seamanship and continually add to them. They navigate, hand sails, row, cook, anchor and make repairs without seeing any of these things as more than what it takes to be a sailor.

It's not unusual to find their land-based homes decorated with nautical art, souvenirs and endless publications to remind them just how close to the art of sailing they truly are.

Not one sailor of any level has not, at some time, envisioned himself or herself voyaging afar and vicariously visiting far-flung anchorages in exotic places. Those who sail the simplest routes and achieve but the nearest destinations each anxiously await the experience of the voyage as much as they do the relaxation and solace of the cockpit while swinging gently at the anchor just as fervently as the cruiser who crosses an ocean for the same pleasure.

Even within organized or simply casual competition no sailor is ever without the appreciation of calculated tactics and the almost perfect trim of their competitor's sails.

Sailors just seem to bring out the best in each other. A casual cruise is often turned into a friendly competition when another yacht of similar size or design draws near. The casual glance at one's own trim and the always-subtle re-adjustment often brings the crews to a more alert status. A close aboard hailing might determine the destinations of each, and if similar, becomes a competitive and joint effort to sail in company while extolling the best performance from their yacht as well as her crew.

There seems no apparent or serious division of sailors either. In any port they gather, almost magnetically, and in any language they communicate with fluid perception. A glance through any anchorage frequently includes a varied blend of sailing yachts from the classic mono-hulled designs comfortably mixed into the more modern offerings.

Wood, fiberglass, cement and metal construction are only the choices of the owners and often based on a particular or combinations of reasons for their structural choice but rather than divide them, the differences provides them the endless and intense conversations of the experiences with each of their unique as well as similar selections.

Accepting the rare occasion, the sailor is more often a teacher who is inexplicably compelled to pass along their experience to another with hands-on and patient training. These teachers cross no age or gender barriers with complete acceptance. During this hands-on education they pass along the secret language and the ancient words that only sailors know.

The sailors are bonded so universally with traits of artistry, honesty, creativity and almost all are blessed with a common language that so eloquently seasons their narratives that the sailor is uniquely set apart. They so easily disclose their methods and share their resources to unanimously improve sailing and their fellow sailors.

More than any other word that carries the weight of my responsibility for description is "passion". In my observation, the sailor, even the appreciative one who simply gazes in wonder from afar or the world girdling single-handed competitor, the common appreciation of the elements has drawn out cleaner and deeper thirst to apply a universally robust zeal to everything in their lives.

Reflecting upon my own fifty years of sailing and the people who've sailed with me, I'm so aware that each touch of the experience enriches me, challenges me and rewards me. I am never left to feel that there is nothing left to learn or accomplish. The three sailors that comprise my perfect crew have all become friends with life-long bonds to literally everything else in our individual environments.

Sailors should be credited with so many virtues beyond my borderless perception that to simply be one of them is to be honored in a very special way by a community of possibly the most incredible humans on Earth.

The young lady was not short-changed at all. It perfectly describes a sailor to say that they all 'like sailing'.

But her proactive response to my question might take the rest of our lives to complete our voyage while adding more answers to the original question.