Saturday, April 7, 2012

Passage Preparation: A Reflection on Sailors and Mountaineers

Passage preparation for going offshore is a bit like preparing for an expedition to Everest. (Not that I've been to Everest, but I've read enough mountaineering literature to imagine it.) For example, lately I've been musing about the role that zip-lock bags play in most modern expeditions. While provisioning for our ocean passage, for instance, we strip off all the cardboard and excess plastic packaging and repackage everything in zip-lock bags. Once empty, the zip-locks can be reused over and over the next time we provision. In our case, this serves several purposes:  1) to leave the trash at the dock in a developed country where there are better facilities to dispose of it, instead of opening things offshore and then having to deal with the garbage when we arrive at some small island; 2) to leave pests at the dock (some pests like cockroaches and weevils lay eggs in cardboard); 3) to conserve limited storage space by reducing bulky packaging; and 4) to protect items stored against the hull or in the bilge from dampness since condensation tends to collect in those areas of a boat. Likewise, mountaineers cut weight, keep things dry, and reduce the amount of trash packed in to sensitive areas by packing things into zip-locks.

Another similarity between mountaineers and sailors is that travel documents and permits to visit some countries must be lined up well in advance. (These, too, are hastily tucked into zip-locks or page protectors in order to prevent moisture damage and ensure their longevity.) Other documents vitally important to both sailors and mountaineers---those made objects holding infinitely more mystery and which are pored over intensively in the planning stages---are charts, for the former, and topographic maps, for the latter. Navigation is an essential skill common to both mountaineers and sailors that, while being diluted in the GPS age, is still practiced in the old ways by those who are truly self-reliant.

While packing for a voyage in both cases is done with an eye to weight, weight reduction is the most important criterion for the mountaineer; while weight distribution is most important to the blue water sailor. Although the amount of weight carried is a factor in the performance of some lighter, faster cruising boats (and definitely for racing sailboats!) all crews headed offshore first stow their boats to make sure that the weight is evenly distributed. 

There are more significant comparisons to be made between sailors and mountaineers, of course. In both cases, one is preparing to go to a remote environment. (In the mountaineer's case, we call this an extreme environment, but in the sailor's case, that only becomes true in the case of extreme weather.) The choices made before leaving for the journey affect the success and comfort of the journey and ultimately, may affect whether or not you survive. Once underway, you must do without, substitute for, or invent anything that you didn't bring with you. Sailors swapping watches in the middle of the night must trust and depend on their partners the way mountaineers trust those sharing their rope. 

Both sailors and mountaineers share a questing spirit. It's no surprise that many of the early explorers were both accomplished mountaineers and sailors. Eric Shipton's title Blank on the Map encapsulates the reason why many explorers go:  the thrall of visiting somewhere hitherto untouched by humans. While that has become less possible above the ocean's or earth's surface---technology has made the world less remote and satellites and hydrocarbons have left nothing unsullied---it is still possible to be one of a limited number of people willing to make the sacrifices to seek out the extraordinary. In addition to harboring a desire to explore the unknown and a love of adventure, like monks in a monastery, both sailors and mountaineers are willing to subject themselves to ascetic conditions and physical discomfort in order to achieve their goals. (Unlike monks, however, most mountaineers and sailors I've met revel in the sensuality of food, drink, and song, and there may be a grain of truth to the expression "swears like a sailor!") 

Perhaps the only true physio-geographical areas of exploration left to humans are the vast areas of the seafloor which remain unmapped and beyond to the Earth's core (what scientists refer to as inner space), as well as almost all of outer space. We live in an era when the adventuring spirit must wait for technology to catch up with it or must invent new technology in order to proceed. However, preparing to sail an ocean or climb a mountain brings us face to face with another kind of inner space---our psychic landscapes---and takes us on a different kind of adventure all together:  the kind that tells us what we are made of. 

Karen, a fellow cruiser on Sockdolager, has inspired me to read Joseph Conrad's The Mirror of the Sea. Without reading, I can tell that the title does not simply refer to the reflective quality of the ocean's surface, but to the reflection of ourselves in and as we confront that surface. As the sea or mountain holds our reflections up to us, we wonder, can we navigate that surface with grace? Can we carry our hulls, like hermit crabs, across oceans, our homes to the high camps in packs on our backs? Do we have the skills, physical stamina, mental resiliency, and ingenuity necessary to meet the sea or mountain head on and to give as good as we get? Are we a worthy adversary? Can we weather boredom, fear, the weather itself? 

I am going to find out.      


  1. yea! goose bumps while reading! I'd venture that you've touched on some vital ponderings and questions...and, coming from a fellow ocean sailor, may you find wonderful new parts of yourself "out there"....

    be well, good fortune,


  2. Heading in with eyes open, it seems. And I daresay, you're a blogger now! Really well-written.

  3. Whatever challenges arise, I am sure you are as prepared for them as is possible. I think what your doing is a marvelous undertaking and the experience you gain will be the high point of a life well lived.

    Good Luck!

  4. Thanks for your kind words Rodney. We've had a great time so far and are expecting more to come. Please say hello to my friends at the Pub!