One of the things that makes us human is the ability to invent or latch on to metaphors or symbols that enrich our religious convictions and explain or cushion harsh reality. But as reassuring and entertaining as images of storms or fate chasing our vessels may be, they can sound hollow. Hearing the name-on-cloud claim one too many times, Yachting magazine columnist Alf Loomis once inquired in which font, exactly, the name had been inscribed on that thunderhead. Worse, such images can serve as tools of dysfunctional denial as they gloss over a true, hard reality that we really should acknowledge.
Most of us do not relish staking our lives on lotteries. A world in which chance plays a part seems like a world of chaos. Our discomfort with randomness can take the form of denying its existence altogether (for example in the platitude, "Chance is just a fool's name for fate," immortalized in the appropriately loopy Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie The Gay Divorcee). At another level, immediately after the Fastnet Race storm in 1979 some surviving crews and observers condemned the victims as "Sunday sailors" of bad boats, as landlubbers who had regarded the Fastnet "as a week's holiday." Besides the lack of hard evidence, these charges made no sense, implying as they did that the only crews who had no trouble in the Force-10-plus gale were professional sailors in perfect boats. (Denial can be illogical as well as self-serving and uncharitable.) Gaining a comfortable distance from contingency and from the misfortune of others comes very easily in such circumstances, as I can testifyhaiving made it through that Fastnet blow, I was one of those finger-pointers, until I learned better.
A few days after this declaration of faith and self-sufficiency, a great rogue wave somersaulted Tzu Hang. Beryl Smeetonher body half-broken, pressed on. "Her enthusiasm seemed to sparkle through the cabin, bringing light even to its drab darkness," Miles wrote. They patched up the wreck, got it to shore, and restored it as a yacht. The Smeetons (to address their fear) headed back toward the Hornonly to be rolled once again and to save themselves and the yacht once again. You can read about it in Miles Smeeton's Once is Enough, one of the great books about both the sea and the spirit needed to deal with risk that Joseph Conrad (in Youth) called "the right stuff." Once is Enough (which may also be read as a love letter to a remarkable woman) is out of print, but can be found in libraries and via used book services.
Water and boats have deep emotional appeal, and may we never forget it. But we should not overly sentimentalize them or their risks. When someone drowns at sea, friends may say, "He would have wanted to die that way." What "he" almost certainly wanted, of course, was to live to sail another day. Given such a tragedy, I think that the best response is to mourn the premature loss of a friend and try to learn whatever hard lessons we can so it does not happen to us. While we cannot control the sea and weather, we can understand them and even predict them to a degree, always keeping in mind that we are but human. As Beryl Smeeton once said, "I don't think that anyone should ever mention victory or conquest with regard to the sea or the mountains."
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