Last year, I spread my father’s ashes in the waters just outside the Golden Gate between Mile Rock and Pt. Bonita. It was a grey overcast weekday morning on an ebb tide. The harbor porpoises, seals and sea birds were the only witnesses. As Grace (my Wauquiez Pretorien) and I turned back toward our dock in Sausalito, I imagined my father’s remains eventually catching the California Current southward on a final journey toward the warm waters of Mexico. He had lived a full measure of 86 years, but in the end there were internal assassins who hunted him relentlessly.
As he ping ponged between doctor’s offices, specialists and hospitals, he landed in an assisted care facility in Santa Rosa where he spent his last few months. What ultimately ripped from his beloved home and garden and from his marriage of 61 years was his inability to balance. Not being able to stand up without falling, it became the bright line between my mother’s ability to care for him and the repeated falls and calls to the paramedics for assistance.
During my visits, I got to know some of his fellow residents at the care facility. Many of them were there like my father due to their inability to balance when standing or walking. It’s a common condition of advanced age.
We take our ability to balance for granted until, of course, it goes away. Step on a boat at the dock and our bodies start to automatically adjust to the heeling in a complicated cascade of messages from our muscles and nerves to our inner ear and brain. Sail across the city front in a 20 knot westerly and we are conditioned by the boat to anticipate where and how it will move under us as we mentally construct the next handhold or foothold just before it’s actually needed.
Balance is at the heart of our ability to sail. We balance the shape and power of the sails to the conditions so that there is less pressure on the helm. We adjust their angle of attack, draft and twist to match the wind and waves. We balance the contents of the boat fore and aft, windward and leeward to reduce pitching, rolling and yawing. A boat that is balanced almost sails herself toward where we want to go. Even at a great distance, we can spot a yacht that is balanced and one that is not. The tip of the mast of a balanced rig will march steadily upwind. The mast of an unbalanced boat will oscillate like the end of a pendulum as it labors uncomfortably forward.
One of my greatest pleasures is to sail on the ocean for weeks at a time with only a wind vane steering. A thousand miles will disappear effortlessly under the keel once the boat is balanced and the wind vane seeks its relationship with the wind.
I believe that the lessons sailing teaches us on the water can remain with us on land. We try to balance the needs of our family and friends with our own. We seek work/life balance. We yearn for the politician or judge with a balanced view. If we are open to the idea, sailing can point us toward the importance of balance our lives – our bodies, our minds, our spirits – joined and equal partners in a voyage of discovery.