May 19, 2011
As I write this, the sky above Juneau is an infinite blue, the mountains a full palette of greens, and reflections of the sun off the Gastineau Channel make my eyes ache because I just can’t look away. These are the days we live for here in Juneau. Nowhere I’ve been in the world, nowhere, is as beautiful as Juneau on a sunny day. And a whole sunny Juneau weekend? Nirvana, paradise, heaven.
During a recent sunny Juneau weekend, at the Maritime Festival (a hearty ahoy! to Stuart Gerger and the volunteers who organized this wonderful event!), there was a large group of people with T-shirts and pamphlets proclaiming the world would end on May 21. My understanding is these folks believe May 21, is (was, by the time this is printed I hope, though it would solve my overdue library book problem) the biblical Judgment Day and they hope to be chosen by God to ascend to Heaven.
Because it was also the first weekend of the sailing season I considered inviting the May 21 folks out onto the water, wishing they could understand they were already there.
But we went sailing without them, on a glorious sunny Sunday. When there’s water, wind, blue sky, sea birds, and the south shore of Douglas Island to gaze at through binoculars, existential debate seems less necessary, somehow. Existence is all right there for you to see and, like so many Southeast Alaskans, my husband practices his religion from the helm of our sailboat. I could tell you about sermons at the mast and prayers at the bowsprit, but I needn’t continue — you likely have such a preacher to deal with in your own family.
Most serious sailors are, from my observation, pretty sure sailing will save humanity, and quite possibly the world. Captains of sailing vessels across the globe offer chapter and verse lessons about the virtues of this calling. And though I, personally, have to work hard to find my balance on the water (I mean this literally and figuratively), as a spousal crew member, I’ve actually come to agree with them.
Sailing requires time; the focused, problem-solving, stay-on-your-toes time we typically miss in our lives today. There are no emails suddenly popping up on the screen and the wind will not die down for a moment to let you get that text out.
In fact, sailing gives you an understanding of the environment around you that few activities offer. You have no choice but to work with the natural forces around you. You learn what wind, waves, currents, ocean depths, tides, and lee shores can do to your boat if you’re not paying attention, or for your boat if you are.
And if you work with the natural forces well, sailing vessels are the original emission-free transportation mode. Cities in Alaska, and across the globe, are returning to wind power as a clean energy source. But sailors never left the wind behind. People still travel the globe under sail power, and large, wind-powered shipping vessels are being developed using technology that the East India Company never dreamed of. Fishing boats were wind powered not that long ago, as well, and modern sailors rarely miss a chance to drop a line or pot themselves, especially here on the Inside Passage.
And though sailors often dream globally — even those with small boats — they have no choice but to act locally. You can truly “get away” on a sailboat, especially here in Southeast, but there are so many techniques, tricks and even philosophies about sailing that sailors crave connections with other sailors. These connections are always helpful, but our family has found them essential (thanks to Tim, Jim, Mike, and Gerald for rescuing our boat that snowy Christmas Eve — true sailors all!).
Now, all of the above is great, but to be honest I mainly think sailing will save humanity one meal at a time. A family on a sailboat must work together, play together, and eat together. There are few doors, and no TV rooms, dens, or separate bathrooms (though I do gaze longingly at yachts with these things, I mostly wish I had their paid crew). Those days marked by a screaming baby or a sullen pre-teen aside, our annual family sailing trips have given us the best times, the best memories, and some of the best family meals. When you’re anchored in one of the many coves of Southeast Alaska, the summer sun shining or a rainforest mist surrounding you, it almost doesn’t matter what you’re eating (though fresh-caught crab is a favorite) or how smooth the conversation flows, it’s one of the best family dinners possible.
So, if you’re reading this, we made it safely past May 21st. In my family, we’ll celebrate by joining the Southeast Alaska Sailing group on their Memorial Day weekend race to Taku Harbor. Over that weekend we’ll do our part to keep this world safe for humanity, one gust of wind at a time.
• Sarah Lewis is a local architect and co-owner of the 1975 Cal 34 sailing sloop, Tango. Her favorite feature? Its two separate heating systems.