The sun had dipped behind the hills to the west, but the soldiers of the spandex army kept pouring in from the road. Sweaty, dirty, tired and parched but smiling with contentment, they returned from a battle they had won — against the road and against themselves.
Since the wee hours of a day that brought sub-Saharan temperatures to the Pacific Northwest, they rode their bicycles from Seattle to Portland, covering 204 miles in the process. Known as the STP, this is not a race but a chance for Joe Sixpack to prove his mettle — a bit like a cruising rally with a mildly competitive character. Some do it in one day, but the majority take an overnight break at the halfway point. Participation is limited to 12,000 riders who pay a $125 entry fee, part of which benefits the Cascade Bicycle Club.
That success has many factors, including legions of volunteers who cater to riders’ needs with food and water along the route, maintaining portalets at rest stops, conducting safety patrols on motorcycles and fixing bikes that develop a limp. And they help with logistics, such as luggage transfer and transportation after the race. You do it for the challenge, for the experience and because someone’s on watch. If I hit a wall, I won’t be left to die.
Randonneurs USA, an organization that coordinates bicycle rides in the French tradition of touring cyclists, held a 187-mile event on the same day and got a grand total of four signups. This one’s not a race, either, although there is a time limit. Think of it as the bicycling equivalent of a small-craft raid: You show up, pay 10 bucks for a cue sheet with directions and a control card, and off you go. Support? “Trust thyself,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it. The motto for these jaunts, which can go to 745 miles, is simple and instructive: Finish the ride.
To recap: Charging 125 bucks for a fully supported ride attracts 12,000 participants, but 10 bucks for a do-it-yourself affair brings out only a handful. What’s at work here — laziness, marketing, pragmatism? — and how does it apply to sailing?
The dividends of skill and effort
I asked Capt. Robert D’Arcy, of Port Townsend, Washington, about his observations regarding self-reliance in this concierge economy, where outsourcing is king and there’s an app for everything. Martha, the impeccably restored 107-year old Crowninshield schooner in his command, is a throwback that requires sweat equity to be sailed properly. “Coming on board this vessel is like traveling back in time,” says D’Arcy. “Many things are done the old-fashioned way, and many guests like to sail on her because they are curious.”
They are encouraged to take charge of the journey, figuring out stuff on their own and putting their backs into it to make it happen, rather than pushing a button, drink in hand. There is no autopilot, no powered winch, no bow or stern thruster. Whenever safely possible, this staysail schooner with an overall length of 66 feet is sailed on and off the anchor. That’s as rare as a Blue Mauritius.
“I see these modern boats that move so efficiently upwind and spin on a dime, yet they almost always motor in and out of the harbor,” D’Arcy says, shaking his head. “It is faster and more convenient, but if the engine quits, they call for a tow.” And there’s the thread: Conditioned to seek convenience, we blithely relinquish control and independence. Encouraged to improve efficiency, we become specialized but also narrow in our focus. We have toys and love using them, but if we don’t work on them, we won’t understand them. It’s like checkbook gardening.
By casting aside peripheral tasks and the requisite aptitude to perform them, we give up an important part of ownership and the satisfaction that stems from personal skill and effort. Here, simple and honest vessels such as Martha found their niche as a place for people who want to rediscover the beauty of spiritual connectedness to an activity while taking a vacation from their jobs, their screens and the voice of Siri.
“We’ve all had the experience of driving to a place we know perfectly well, but we still allow [an artificial] voice to tell us to turn left,” laughs David Barrie, author of Sextant (the subject of my column last month), who senses a “deleterious effect of over-reliance on mobile technology.” He cites the research of Claudio Aporta, an anthropologist who mapped historic Inuit trails and studied the impact of GPS use on younger Inuits’ wayfinding ability in the Arctic wilderness by relying exclusively on their senses and ancient techniques.
Although accurate navigation during ocean voyages represented a major challenge for many centuries, reliable communication was not far behind. Today cruisers don’t think twice about using the radio and emergency beacon to guide rescuers to their position when things go seriously wrong. It’s a no-brainer. But is it, really?
Enter Wolfgang Hausner, a childhood hero of mine, the Austrian answer to Robin Lee Graham. At 21, he bought a one-way ticket to Australia, where he worked odd and dangerous jobs and built a 32-foot catamaran, which he proceeded to sail around the world alone. Considered the first man to do that on a DIY multihull, he also survived 1,001 adventures that would have killed lesser men. The calamities included getting washed overboard in the Atlantic while sailing alone (he dove for the sea anchor and pulled himself back on board); being attacked by a 12-foot tiger shark while skin diving in the Gulf of Panama (he killed it with his harpoon); and wrecking on an uncharted reef near Papua New Guinea on a rainy, stormy new-moon night. Saving only the barest of necessities while the boat was systematically chopped to pieces, he escaped in his dinghy, which he rowed for 30 hours until he reached a missionary station in the d’Entrecasteaux Islands. Not once did he mention using a radio, which probably would not have done him any good and was not high on his equipment list to begin with.
“Sailing solo means being alone and expecting no help,” Hausner says in his book, Taboo. “Even installing a radio implies that one flirts with [the possibility of] calling for help eventually. I also instinctively dislike the fact that you’re considering right from the start the loss of your vessel, because calling for help on the open ocean only makes sense if you want to abandon your boat to continue by steamer. It would be easier to convince me to carry a radio on a crewed yacht for [the purpose of] getting someone off who’s sick before continuing.”
Implicitly, Hausner suggests an approach that guided sailors for millennia: Go only if you are sure of your ability to deal with all of the contingencies yourself. If that has a strange ring to it, maybe it’s because we don’t take umbrage at the possibility of others getting us out of trouble.
Taking care of your own affairs
The result of dialing 9-1-1 is known; it summons rescuers who have to risk life and limb, and taxpayers get stuck with the bill. It is a flawed deal, especially in combination with modern contrivances, because it does not discourage risky behavior. I stopped counting the stories two eternities ago.
But sometimes even competent and conscientious travelers before the breeze get caught in the wrong spot at the wrong time. Canadian solo sailor Glenn Wakefield had to abandon two attempts to circumnavigate singlehandedly and non-stop going west-about, against prevailing winds (see my May column). His first mission ended in April 2008 when he was taken off his boat, which was severely damaged and taking on water in a storm near the Falklands.
That incident still weighed on him during his next attempt five years later, when his standing rigging started to fail in the southern Indian Ocean. He had to decide whether to carry on and risk the loss of the rig or turn back and throw in the towel. He opted for the latter. It was a heartbreaking decision but the only sensible course of action. “One of the things that crossed my mind [was that] I was rescued last time,” he says. “There were planes flying out from Argentina and big ships. Nobody criticized me for that, but there’s an unwritten law that you look after yourself if you go out there. And I always lived by that.”
Today’s affordable and proven communications technology has saved many sailors’ lives that were in danger through no fault of their own, so Hausner’s remarks about solo sailing sans radio might come across as outlandish and outdated. But if you simmer them down, his philosophy is sound. Take care of yourself and your boat. Plan and prepare accordingly. Exercise good judgment. Know when to hold and when to fold. D’Arcy advocates something else that seems to be in short supply these days: patience for learning ancillary skills that could be just as critical and rewarding as the glamour stuff, such as trimming and steering.
Distilling it all, I think the essence is finishing the ride, whether sailing a boat or pedaling a bike. No need for records — and hopefully none for help, either. The goal is doing it on my own time and pace, staying independent and focused on executing the simple tasks so the big stuff comes off right, and accepting responsibility for my own success or failure. That’s easy to say and difficult to do while listening to the siren song of convenience. But it’s worth the trouble. It’s invigorating and liberating. Satisfying, too.
Dieter Loibner is sailing editor for Soundings.
September 2014 issue