I had been at the U.S. Sailboat Show in Annapolis for a couple of days when I took a brief break from the 50-footers and seven-figure multihulls that new sailors were reportedly buying as starter boats. My friend Steve Earley was in town on his 17-foot gaff-rigged yawl, Spartina, and he’d invited me to go sailing.
As a reality check, it was just what I needed. We headed out on a breezy, bluebird day, eventually making our way into the Chester River where the wind was puffier and the gusts more pressing. Under Steve’s steady hands, Spartina simply flew on every point of sail, urging us onward. The messy world clarified and focused to just the water rushing along her hull, the wind on our skin, the shimmering river, the precise movement of our bodies as we shifted to meet her motion.
I was there to ask questions, but I found myself speechless for long periods, longing for no words. It was easy to be this way—a relief to be this way—simply taking it all in, responding only to the boat and its conversation with the wind and water, being profoundly in the moment.
I know this same feeling is achievable on big boats; I’ve sailed enough star-stunned nights offshore and slid deliciously into long reaching grooves in flat water on fast boats to realize it there too. But there is an immediacy inherent in sailing small boats that makes it different, more elemental. Every move you make has a consequence. It counts.
In a world full of meaningless, frenetic motion and blather, this clarity of purpose is comforting, even energizing.
You learn this if you start sailing in dinghies and small boats. In dinghies, you learn how to screw up and pay for it with a capsize, you learn how to trim for speed and sprint ahead of that boat over there. In small boats like Steve’s, your senses are sharpened, so you’re ready for a shift or gust before it puts your rail under and soaks your shorts (or worse).
I think you also learn something like gratitude in the wonder of guiding this winged craft with simply your hands and body and senses. It might be as close as we can come to feeling flight, to finding our bird selves.
You learn to love the act of sailing, not just being on a boat that sails.
Steve built Spartina from John Welsford plans in his garage. On his own, with just birds, sky, dolphins, and horizon for company, he routinely sails her hundreds of miles each year along the East Coast’s rivers, bays, and sounds, in all weather. I have sailed on the Chesapeake and much of the East Coast my whole life, but as we talked, I grew envious of his travels, his unique communion with waters I realized I have only obliquely known.
“My Bay is bigger than yours,” he said simply, and he’s dead right. My Peterson 34 Luna is a joy to sail, but his small, nimble boat can slip into places she and I could never go. Spartina is somehow more a creature of the water, and she and Steve more profoundly and intimately connected to that realm.
Every boat is a compromise, of course. In my perfect universe, I’d have (at least) a Spartina and a Luna and all the time to live and sail in both of their worlds. But as we head toward boat show season, where big, complex boats grab the attention, I invite you to enjoy the stories in August/September issue of SAIL that celebrate the opposite. Whether Steve and Spartina meandering a marsh or Peter Gibbons-Neff crossing the Atlantic in a 21-footer, these little boats—and their people—sail big.