What makes sailors want to go to sea?

A boat is not a simple thing. A boat is many things to different people. A fishing boat can provide pleasure or livelihood. A cruise ship provides a means to travel in style. A dinghy gives the option of racing or playing. But a sailing boat has many options of things it can deliver from racing on Thursdays to sailing off into the sunset. It delivers absolute freedom in an increasingly complex and controlled world. It uses the wind to propel us around the earth with the currents. It lets us escape the rigors of the "real world" which we quickly learn wasn't real at all. A boat is about dreams and fulfilling them. It's about being drawn out to sea to see what is beyond the horizon.

Last week, we were contacted by a young man doing a research project for his dissertation. The subject he chose was studying what instigates a decision to sail offshore. We were fascinated, particularly since he was the winner of a goodie basket from the Irish Sailing Association at Christmas time which included a copy of our book, Cruising the Wild Atlantic Way. Such a small world in Ireland, which has far fewer than 3 degrees of separation.

He asked us a series of questions like "How did you start sailing?", "What made you go offshore?" and "What makes you continue to sail offshore?" The one that stumped me was "What's the one word that describes what sailing offshore means to you?" and he had a list of words. I chose freedom, but then I emailed him that he was missing a word: ADVENTURE. And although sailing gives me a sense of freedom, it's the adventure that I crave.
Adventure encompasses the exhilaration of total freedom, experiencing nature, learning new things, being self-sufficient and inventive, never knowing exactly what to expect, rising to challenges, overcoming fear, seeing new places and meeting new people different from myself, self-reliance, ultimate responsibility, and seeing things you would never experience sitting on a couch in front of a TV.

Another experienced cruiser who did the same survey asks, "How to explain communication with fish solo 2,000 miles from land to an undergraduate?" I can relate to that. I talked to the dolphins every morning and stared at a fin whale bigger than our boat directly in that all-knowing eye just meters from our hull. There was communication taking place.

A blue water sailor looked at it philosophically, "At sea I control my own destiny. No person or societal norms tell me what I should or shouldn't do. I am captain of my own ship. I can relate to people in past generations who took to the sea; passage making transcends generations. It lets you observe nature in all her splendor: the sea, the stars, planets, sunrises, the Gulf Stream, nature's amazing creatures."

Other people describe sailing offshore as delivering fulfillment. One sailor says, "Passage making takes you completely out of whatever routine or rut you might live with ashore. It helps you gain perspective of the greater truths of the universe; it helps you live your life more fully. When you sail into an exotic port after a passage you appreciate it on an entirely different level than when you fly in by airplane. There is no comparison between the two."

I remember when we sailed from our home in the US to our new home in Ireland and picked up the mooring in front of our house.  It was surreal to have crossed the ocean and not have jet lag. We'd been crossing by jet on one week stints for decades but this was so real yet unimaginable. 

A female single hander with many thousands of miles beneath her keel put it this way, "Without being an adrenalin junkie I'd say that the clear and present risk of death distracts me from the ultimate futility of life made evident when I pursue security. As a bonus I enjoy the places I visit as I would hate to be proved an idiot by expending all that time, money and effort to reach somewhere I didn't like!"

I define sailing offshore as going out of sight of land. Another takes it a step further. He defines offshore as "Far enough away from land that you are entirely self-dependent; returning to land in the event of emergency is not quick; outside assistance is not readily available or even assured."

The same themes pop up again and again. "A clear night at sea, in a good sailing breeze, is beautiful. The stars, the bioluminescence,the boat moving well, the sounds, on watch a cup of hot chocolate on a cool night... What other reason does one need? Other times may be a challenge, but accomplishing a voyage of any length is satisfying. And when you sail to new or old places that are fascinating, the end of the voyage provides another type of satisfaction. Returning to a familiar harbour after a long absence is like coming home; cruising you have many homes, with the boat the central one. A 3rd element the experience gives is to get to know others who have sailed, and share experiences, or just the ambiance of being with those others who have had similar experiences."

Then there are jokesters who say that going offshore avoids sclerosis of the liver, presumably because one usually doesn't drink on a passage. Another says, "Because it's there and we can - nothing deeply philosophical - and it gets us out of the house!"

When asked why she goes to sea, one sailor said simply, "Wanderlust."  I can relate to that, as I'm sure could Sterling Hayden in his wonderful book by the title, "Wanderer". 

But why do we go again and again. Why do we cut those lines? And why do we return to shore? That's the even bigger question for me. Personally, I cannot be away from the sea for more than a few days. It's in my soul and it nurtures me. I get agitated without it. It soothes me, even when it's fury is unleashed. 

Periodically, I have to go out and see what I'm missing. And periodically I have to come back to see what I have missed. I firmly believe you have to know the worst before you can appreciate the best, and there's some of each in both places. Doing some of each helps me appreciate the best of both. 

I look forward to the results of his survey. 


  1. As a couple who has yet to make a significant offshore passage (across the Gulf of Maine would seem to hardly qualify), I found this enlightening AND delightful. Thank you! Why DO we yearn for the sea on its own terms? I've never done an extended passage and yet I have such a strong desire to do so... My wife, not so much yet!
    Is it adventure I crave, as you describe it? I think it may be.


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