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Djelloul Marbrook: Sailing with Marcus Aurelius on an Ash Wind

Something is exquisitely compatible about sailing and Marcus Aurelius’s admonition to perform each act as if it were your last.

The Stoic emperor of Rome is one of the few thinkers I hear. I hear the sorrow and decency in his Meditations. I think I could have made him smile talking about sailing. I would have said the fragility of things pervades a sailor’s marrow. The boom swings and cracks your head. A rogue wind shreds your sail. A steering cable snaps you rudderless. A tang pops out and your rigging plops. Whatever can go wrong will go wrong. Mishap follows mishap; it’s the law.

Sailors of every stripe know this. That’s why the intrepid solitary sailor Tristan Jones said memorably, “Show me a man who calls himself a sailor and I’ll show you a goddam fool.” My wife, Marilyn, and I lived on a 37-foot sloop for ten years, but we never called ourselves sailors. On good days we sailed, but mostly we bumbled. Marcus was as much my companion as Halsey Herreshoff’s Sailor’s Handbook.

There’s a big difference between people who live on sailing vessels and people who race them. What they have in common, beside a glossary, is that they know the frailty of their enterprise. But the racing sailor throws money at his problems and his ambitions, while the live-aboard hopes to hell he won’t run out of money. Both of them would agree with the old chestnut that a boat is a hole in the water into which money is tossed.

The racer runs his race and goes home to champagne shampoos, but the live-aboard remains amid the day’s wreckage, listening to the boat’s complaints, moaning and groaning with the planks, lines crying in their their cleats, halyards slapping the mast, fish grazing the hull. The live-aboard knows his vessel intimately. He doesn’t want to push her too hard or deal her any indignities. The live-aboard and the boat are married, but the racer has a prenuptial agreement up his sleeve.

Marcus Aurelius knew only tubby galleys driven by their square sails and rowed by slaves using long ashwood oars. The Romans called this latter propulsion ash wind. The galleys needed the wind behind them or quartering over their shoulders. So did the Vikings centuries later. It was the Arabs who gave us the familiar lateen rig we use today, enabling boats to sail into the wind. The Romans have a reputation for being mediocre or indifferent sailors, but recent marine archaeological researches at Skerki Bank off Sicily are proving this a bum rap.

With the elegant lateen rig came a certain complexity and the vulnerabilities that come with it. Galley sailing was stolid. But lateen sailing is breathtaking and fragile. A towering mast and boggling yards of Dacron or Kevlar or Mylar require mastery of intricacies and readiness to instantly meet emergencies. This kind of sailing is one long emergency.

Accordingly, Tristan Jones’ kind of sailor, the sailor reluctant to call himself one, performs each act as if it’s his last and cheerfully calls himself an ignoramus, because he knows the sea is a vast locker of tricks and last laughs. He knows he doesn’t know enough to be out there in his precarious frivolity. No sailor knows enough. Never sail with one who thinks he does. The sailor is the antithesis of today’s politician; he has more than an inkling of his vast ignorance.

Marcus the Stoic would like such contemplations. When his generals told him they worried about the Christians he told them that what worried him was that he had generals whom the Christians worried. His stoic’s sense of proportion was perfect. He ruled like a pitch-perfect musician. I thought a great deal about him when I lived on our modest sloop, Sunsail. Slowly, as I dealt with each breakdown, each calamity, each unforeseen squall, I became a Stoic. I knew nothing, and the sea’s reward for my humility was that she didn’t kill me. She didn’t even take our boat.

But there’s no such thing as safe passage. I thought myself lucky to maneuver safely in a marina fairway. Danger comes out of nowhere fast, and the best you can hope for is to have your wits about you. But don’t count on it. Doing something foolish is always likely.

What if our leaders confessed as much?

 ©2015 Djelloul Marbrook


2 comments on “Djelloul Marbrook: Sailing with Marcus Aurelius on an Ash Wind

  1. The Leather Library
    March 14, 2015



  2. Alistair Scott
    February 23, 2015

    A beautiful meditation. As a sailor, this resonates with me. Thank you.


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