I never quite understood the allure of the sea. In some ways, of course, I can—you have a pure, calm, stable ocean that is effectively yours to conquer, if even just for a lazy Sunday afternoon. On the other hand, that same ocean pool will mercilessly swallow you whole with nary a moment’s thought if you look at her just a touch askance. I’m frightened of the sea much like I’m frightened of repelling and the income tax—simple in concept, incredibly dangerous if you’re not paying attention, which is all the time.
Historically, of course, the ocean has been an important cultural subject; fishing provided much-needed and easily-obtained nutrition. It also provided a trouble-free means to get away from the wife for eight to eighteen months at a stretch if you played your cards right. Massive battles were fought with oars and grapeshot, and commerce was as important to the lowly carrack transporting spices in 500 BC as it is to the Chinese factory dumping a few thousand crates of cheap dollar-store toys and suspect toothpaste today.
And no discussion of the attraction of the sea would be complete without mentioning pirates, the devil-may-care heroes of the high seas. The romanticizing of the pirate is one of the odder aspects of modern culture, since being a pirate pretty much boiled down to:
1. Getting gold. That’s the good part.
2. Having about a 1 in 3 chance of having your head split open by a wayward mast or broadsword. That’s bad.
3. Having about a 1 in 3 chance of dying from:
c. Winning at, or losing at, a game of bones
d. All of these are bad.
4. Basically being a murderer for profit. That’s either bad or good, all things considered
Granted, thievery and skullduggery have long been romanticized from Robin Hood all the way to the Societe Generale, but pirating pretty much took it about as extreme as you could without being a head of state declaring yourself Catholic. Some tried to legitimize their acts as being effectively a gun for hire, but that seems a rather fine point when you’re scooping the eyeballs out of a Hanseatic merchant like an ice cream sundae.
To me, the nautical world is filled with confusion and darkness, and shining the bright light of knowledge will most likely simply piss me off. The terminology is frightful, from the vaguely sinister gunwale to the delightfully perverted coaming. And they call sailors “old salts” for a reason, since I have a mental picture in my head of a voyage consisting of 1) getting swamped with sea water every time the wind so much as thinks about changing direction, 2) trying not to let the sea water saturate our clothes, food, and rum, 3) drowning in the brine lest my inner ear infection cause me to lose my balance for merely a few seconds, and 4) vomiting. And while salt is eating away at both the wood and my pancreas, there are actual sailors who know how to run this sort of thing trying to manage a ship larger than most Benelux nations with ropes and sails and large pieces of driftwood fashioned into masts getting tossed about in a cacophony of perfectly timed organization that only OK Go! and Martha Stewart could find sexually stimulating.
Some people, of course, have taking one of the few necessities of history and somehow distilled all the nasty, difficult parts out and converted it into an expensive hobby, something not exactly unknown to aficionados of paintball, hot rodders, and China. I’ll be honest; I’ve never really gone out to the sea except on one ill-advised rafting trip (hint: don’t wear boots with felt lining while rafting unless you’ve brought rubber bands and a fistful of Glad bags), but then again I’ve never sat around with an immense pile of hard cash I wanted to desperately piss away. I do, however, have a rather soft spot in my mind for lighthouses, the butterface sister-in-law of sailing, a spot that would be much greater if the entire lighthouse industry weren’t monopolized by old women spending money at Hallmark shops.
The best thing about the sea, though, is that it’s the cheapest way to travel. To travel by air or by land, you have to exert some effort and energy into the endeavor, this energy, by the way, currently resides in large pools under the Saudi Arabian desert. Even in centuries past, it costs money to feed and house oxen, whereas a boat, once built, just keeps on going with minimal maintenance of tar and Spaniards. Whereas, all other things being equal, the sea is the sea—free movement so long as you know how to tack, assuming that you don’t mind that it takes fourteen months to go about three thousand miles (or, in boating terms, “nautical kilometers”). The wind and the water do all the work for you, and you don’t need a catalytic converter or twenty bushels of grain a day to do it. And as much as Mother Earth has been slacking off lately, it’s about time she pulled her weight.