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* One criticism that gets leveled at atheists is that we are too obsessed with the negative aspects of gods and religions and, thus, are defined by negatives. It probably would surprise those critics to learn how little merit there is in the complaint. As I noted in another essay (“Rebutting Rabbi Gellman: an angry atheist speaks out”), “We are too busy living our lives, loving our families, working, playing, enjoying our friends and trying to lead lives that are productive.” However, since the notion that atheists spend the bulk of their time obsessing over religions seems to be so widespread, I thought I would begin peppering this site with a selection of essays that deal with other areas I find of interest. Here’s one. —GR

Under sail: a voyage of the spirit

By George A. Ricker

I don’t want to pose as an expert on things nautical, so let me say at the outset that when it comes to boats and boating, I am a novice.

But the glimpse of a sailboat, whether at sea or cruising up a waterway, is enough to send my mind off on flights of fancy. Power boats don’t have that effect on me. However, a yawl, a schooner or a sloop, under sail, is a thing of such delicate beauty—surpassed in loveliness only by a beautiful woman—that it can be heart-stopping.

As an atheist, I normally refrain from using words like “spirit” or “spiritual.” The words are useful for describing moments of emotional transcendence, but they have taken on religious connotations in the minds of many. Consequently, people hear the words and assume they are affirming some sort of supernatural experience.

Suffice it to say, my use of the words in this essay have to do with experiences that are perfectly natural and have no religious or supernatural meanings. They refer to those moments that enrich human life, that bring us joy, inspiration and, sometimes, peace. I have known many such moments in the contemplation and experience of art, music and literature, in relationships with loved ones, in the sheer elation to be found in viewing a beautiful sunset or a distant galaxy through a telescope and in many other ways. I also have known them while sailing.

My love for sailboats came about by accident. Oh, I had seen the pirate movies when a boy and had been captivated by tales of whaling ships and life at sea, but none of that was responsible for it. What really triggered my interest was a visit to my uncle’s new house on a lake in Hialeah (That’s in Dade County, Florida for those who don’t know, in what used to be called the Greater Miami area.). I was in my late 20s, as I recall.

The Currys, Aunt Milly—my mother’s sister—and Uncle Bill, had acquired a small, sailing dinghy when they bought their new home. The backyard ran down to a fairly sizable lake. Actually it was a glorified rock pit—but then, most of the “lakes” in Dade County fell into that category.

I had never been in a sailboat in my life.

Bill asked, “Do you want to give it a try?”

I said, “sure,” and the next thing I knew, I was being hastily propelled from shore by a push to the stern of the boat with a few shouted instructions still ringing in my ears.

The rest of the afternoon was spent familiarizing myself with what was and was not possible. I stayed out there until it was almost dark.

Some months later, the wooden dinghy had been exchanged for a fiberglass Sunfish, manufactured by AMF. The Sunfish was much quicker, more responsive and easier to capsize than the dinghy had been. I spent most Sunday afternoons out on the lake, sailing the Sunfish. My aunt quipped that I got more use out of it than anyone in the family. It probably was true.

Sailing was a totally absorbing activity. I had only the boat, the water and the wind to focus on; yet, the possible combinations created by those three elements were endless and varied.

The best days were when the weather was trashy—wind kicking up some wave action in the lake, gray clouds scooting by overhead. I would be stretched out over the water, only my legs from mid-thigh down remained in the boat, with the sail close-hauled, winding the small boat out for all it was worth. It was exhilarating but at the same time, peaceful. In the midst of chaos with the gusting wind and spraying water, body shifting constantly to counter the surging wind and keep the boat moving as quickly as possible without overloading the sails and causing it to capsize, there was a curious serenity. It was a kind of meditation.

After a few hours spent like that, I was ready for whatever the next week would bring, be it good or bad. In sailing I found an experience that was pure joy, unencumbered and undiluted.

Many years have passed. My aunt and uncle moved to Melbourne, Florida, and both are now deceased. They were two marvelous people, and I remember them with great affection and profound gratitude for the part they played in my life. The sailboat and the house on the lake are distant memories. I have not touched tiller or rigging in all of that time but still can remember those Sunday afternoons when the forces of wind and water were focused on a few square yards of nylon sail and a dagger board and rudder knifing through the water.

An analogy from literature comes to mind.

Power boats are works of prose, useful for doing things, descriptive and functional, the workhorses of modern navigation. But a sailboat is a poem, an emotional nexus complete unto itself. For to sail is to be one with wind and wave, with all the forces of nature, and to use them without, in any way, causing their diminution or your own.

Among my favorite traditional paintings is “The Fighting Temeraire” by J.M.W. Turner. In it, the graceful, old sailing ship named in the title is being taken to its final rest by a steamship, squat and ugly. With a brilliant use of light and color, the artist mirrors the coming of the industrial age and laments, with a Romantic’s eye, the passing of such loveliness from the world.

While conceding the efficiency of steam and diesel and other forms of power-driven craft, it is still the sight of billowing sails against an azure sea that most captivates me.

I have never owned a boat and probably never will. Should I buy one, though, it will be a small sailboat, one that I can handle by myself, one suitable for day trips or slightly longer excursions.

Power-driven craft are fine for those who demand speed and efficiency in their voyages.

But the trips I have in mind are not journeys from place to place but voyages of the spirit. And only sail will do for them.

© 2007 by George A. Ricker

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