Left Brain/Right Brain Sailing

I was having a conversation with a fellow sailor recently about traditional navigation and the more modern methods, which employ GPS and chartplotters. The subject evolved into what I have always considered the duality of the typical sailor.

In 1979, my girlfriend and I cruised the Bahamas in a 26-foot traditional-looking wooden sailboat—which had noVHF, no toilet, no depth finder, no electronic navigation aids and no autopilot. It did have a knotmeter. Navigation was dead reckoning, plotting my course with compass and speed and clock. It was a pretty barebones boat, but neither I nor my girlfriend ever felt deprived or lacking of life’s essential needs. In fact, we felt we were blessed with some of the best of life’s offerings—and we were. It was the beauty of simplicity.

We once docked for a week in Nassau. Next to us was a fifty-plus-foot center cockpit sailboat that we had a chance to tour. The boat had full navigational electronics, autopilot, electricity, walk-through from main salon to aft cabin—where you passed a washer and dryer—full galley with refrigeration and a head with shower. We felt like we’d passed through a time zone from primitive to modern by merely walking across the dock.

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I envied these modern conveniences and as time has brought us even more of them in the last 30 years, I still enjoy all of them—the GPS with chartplotter, radar, autopilot, onboard electricity, radios, heads, etc. Whenever I hear about a new-fangled gadget, I read in amazement and dream of having one—although generally they are still out of my budget. Yet I also long for that simple wooden, beautiful sloop I cruised the Bahamas in. But this is the duality that I have found in most sailors: the desire for tradition and the desire for the modern.

Many sailors would like to have a staysail schooner with sweeping overhanging transoms and long bowsprits with carved figureheads, boats made of varnished wood, carved dolphins as handholds when you go down below. All this, of course—as long as the boat was super fast in a windward/leeward race, had low maintenance like fiberglass, roller furling sails, GPS chartplotter, radar and depth finders that showed the bottom profile.

Sailors are the ultimate combination of left brain/right brain thinking about spatial beauty, creativity, enjoying the cruise as the sun sets, with the quietness of the wind and solitude of one with the sea—our god of peace and serenity—while thinking of winning the next race as the boat points to the next marker, going fast, but with the best technological advancement known to man of self-steering—controlled by the GPS—while at the same time using dead reckoning and use of a solid, well-crafted bronze sextant, along with the tables and stars and sun to guide us to our destination, eating fish we speared or lobster we grabbed at the last coral head or perhaps a meal with the best wine—while listening to music coming in from a satellite above.

Some might call it a contradiction; others might call it balance. Call it sailing, the sailing mindset combo of technology and serenity all rolled into one.