The prayer for the blessing of a boat
mentions two powerful symbols, that of Noah’s Ark and
Jesus calming the storm on the Sea of Galilee. The Sea
of Galilee is a mere lake, but a large one, and the
weather can be fickle.
Sea literature has followed the same biblical
symbolism of the barque, the sea and the navigator.
The ship represents life and the instrument of the young
man’s spiritual formation, from cadet to able seaman,
from midshipman to officer. In the old days of sail
and the square-rigged ship, life was tough. You made
it or you didn’t. You prayed for God’s strength but
relied on your own and your cunning for finding a solution
to any problem. The sea can be hostile, indifferent,
fickle and insincere. Its force is greater than anything
we know. The sea is also beautiful, mysterious and mother-like.
The sea makes men of us, because we learn
to overcome fear and respect certain rules. My own experience
is one of inshore sailing in dinghies and yachts. It
is something else when all you see around you in the
horizon, and you have only your navigation instruments
to know where you are and where you are going. Even
within sight of land, the sailor’s navigational skills
hone his sense of space perception and anticipation.
The Romantic movement made a great deal
of the sea. We have Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The
Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It is a tale of guilt
and redemption, narrating the voyage of an old sailor
who kills an albatross near the South Pole and lives
with its ghost.
The early American settlers shared stories
of fishing, whaling and transporting freight. The land
had come out of the great waters. The sea was synonymous
with freedom and soul-searching, a safe haven far from
the evils and distractions of society. In the mind of
the Romantic, the sea became a monastery with the ship’s
bell fulfilling the same role as that of the abbey church.
But life at sea was harsh and dangerous, all part of
the young man’s kenosis. Some went to sea and
it formed their personality. It all depended whether
the Captain loved his men and earned respect, instead
of flogging and keelhauling.
After the disuse of sailing ships for
transporting cargo, fishing and whaling, the Romantic
notion of life at sea evolved into pleasure and sporting
sailing. From the end of the nineteenth century, men
like Joshua Slocum would take on the might of the sea
alone in a small vessel. Working sailors like those
in the Navy, freight carriers or fishermen can easily
be inclined to have a despising and cynical attitude
to those who navigate for pleasure and as a human challenge.
They are wrong, and have not understood the gratuity
of the contemplative life, whether in the monastery
on land or alone at the helm and on watch.
The call of the sea is indeed a form of
call to the cloister…
Here are a few photos of my time at sailing
school on catamarans, dinghies and yachts:
My little dinghy - "Sophia",
a Tabur 320 with a Mirror guff-gunter rig, sails well