Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The spirituality of sailing in a schooner

I have just returned from the wonderful experience of sailing on a schooner down the coast of Norway from Aalesund to Bergen. Sailing in a tall ship is an adventure involving physical challenge, learning, adventure and personal self discovery. It can also be a spiritual experience.
By spiritual I do not necessarily mean religious - in our society today spirituality is used to describe all the many things that bring increased richness to our experience of life. 
What then are the aspects of sailing on a big boat that bring spiritual experiences?
Firstly there is the experience of living in close proximity in community with strangers. Life at sea is a simple life - there are limited luxuries and limited space. Living in such a way increases our self awareness and our awareness of the needs of others. Tensions may emerge on a long offshore stretch as there is no getting away from the other people on the ship but this also can be a time of personal growth. I think it is sad that living in community is not part of the normal life experience of many people as social isolation and individualism have become the norm.
Also involved in the process of building community is an experience of teamwork and recognition of each others strengths and weaknesses. A team has to be built to master efficiently the hauling and sweating tasks that the crew have to do. For a ship to sail well the crew have to work as an integrated whole and this takes discipline and practice.  Working on common tasks and learning new skills can also be a point of growth as people learn and fail and grow together. We laughed and cried as we tried to master the bowline knot, practising again and again the "round the tree and down the rabbit hole" manoeuvre but knowing that we had been discouraged from using that childish narrative!  
We frequently stared blankly at the lineup of ropes on the pegs as we were trying to carry out an instruction as we were unsure which rope would adjust the right part of the rigging. But as time went on we all mastered the knots and learnt which rope did what. A great sense of self worth is created when you are successfully able to master some simple task that a few days earlier had been closed to you. On a complex large ship you know there are many more tasks which you have yet to master and which may require years of practice before a confident competency can be claimed. We watched in awe as the captain manoeuvred the seventy foot schooner in close quarters, often surrounded by obstacles to come neatly alongside the quay in just the right place. Such seemingly effortless skill takes a lifetime of practice to achieve.
There is also plenty of time on board a boat between the periods of intense activity for more reflective times. There is time for good, deep and meaningful conversations to take place which are often drowned out in our lives at home by the noisy intrusion of the radio and TV. Perhaps most important of all there is the opportunity for sitting on deck and staring out into the open ocean and meditating on the vastness of creation and the smallness of our own place in it - and when we start musing like that who knows where it will lead. It certainly helps you put the concerns of day to day life into a healthy perspective. 

For more information of where I went and the schooner I sailed on see  http://www.schoonersail.com/

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