With Sails Well Trimmed

I’ve been lucky so far this season. Each time I’ve been out on the water the weather has been beautiful, and today is no exception. 

Taking advantage of ideal sailing conditions, local skippers have seized the day, garnishing the sea with sun-lit triangles of sail.

From this point eastward the Sound is wide enough to notice the curvature of the Earth’s surface. As far as the horizon, graceful sailboats stand out upon blue sky and green water; reminiscent of a tiled Mediterranean mosaic. 

The back door to New York City, Long Island Sound has always been a vital waterway. About 98 nautical miles in length, at its eastern end the Sound opens into the sea out past Montauk. Traveling west, it gradually tapers into the narrow tidal straight of Hell Gate.

Traveled by generations of mariners since Captain Adriean Block sailed past these islands of Norwalk in 1614, the British men ‘o war and blockade runners of colonial times have since given way to local oystermen and recreational boaters, the latter of which set sail for the sheer pleasure of doing so.

Upon salt water since boyhood, I have always been inspired by boats carrying sail. To my eye, nothing has ever surpassed the graceful beauty of a yacht with sails well trimmed.

Quiet and inherently seaworthy, boats of sail demand skill and endurance from their crew, and mastery of a time honored and traditional art.

As any student of sail has discovered, the art of seamanship cannot be learned from books or lessons alone. A skill to be improved upon each time one sets sail, there exists ample enough challenge to keep things interesting, as conditions, circumstances and gear are never exactly the same.

Unlike the rumbling power vessel upon whose deck I now stand, sailboats do not produce their own energy, but silently withdraw it from the wind and then convert it into propulsion.

At first glance, one might gain the impression that a sailboat traveling along with sails stretched tight is doing so because it is being pushed by the force of the wind.

While it is true that the wind blowing on a sail from astern (behind) will drive a vessel forward, how a sailing vessel makes continual progress with the wind blowing from abeam (the side) requires further explanation.

With the wind blowing from astern (referred to as “running before the wind”), it is easy to understand how a boat moves through the water. The wind fills the sails and forces them to move in the direction it is blowing; in much the same way as it carries a loose piece of paper swirling through the air until it slowly floats down to the ground.

Less obvious though, is how a sailboat makes forward motion with the wind coming from abeam (referred to as “reaching”).

Unlike running before the wind, when a sailboat is reaching, the vesseldoes not rely on the pressure of the wind on the curved-in, or windward side of her sails to develop a significant propelling force.

 A well-cut sail has a curve fore-and-aft with a fairly steep curve at the luff (the forward edge) gradually flattening out towards the leech (the after edge), not unlike the wing of an airplane.

When the air stream meets an aircraft wing at the correct angle, by flowing up over the hump at the leading edge it creates a partial vacuum there, tending to draw the wing upwards and forwards.

A similar vacuum is formed by the wind at the luff of a correctly shaped sail, but as the sail is not in a horizontal but rather a vertical plane, the vacuum tends not to lift the yacht but to pull her forward

As long as the sail’s angle relative to the wind is correct (properly trimmed), smooth airflow over the sail will be maintained and a strong lift will result.   

There is then, a critical distinction to be made between forward movement caused by being pushed from behind and movement due to being drawn forward.

The phenomenon of forward movement or lift may lend itself equally well if applied to non-physical realms. For instance, if applied to matters of the heart and mind, the term lift could be exchanged for the words; growing, developing, evolving or even transcending.

Now applied within a different framework, the same sort of lift that draws a sailboat forward would instead refer to the process that draws a person’s soul forward, reaching, as it were, towards something existing before us, or from above

Many of us are quite convinced that it is only through forceful determination and “luck” that we are able to make any headway at all towards our goals.

And who would disagree that progress in any endeavor will largely be the result of some measure of determination on our part.

But like the sailboat that seems like it is being pushed forward, this argument is only partially true.

In our illustration, the major propelling force of the sailboat was not due to its being pushed from behind, as initially assumed, but was instead the result of being drawn forward or lifted by forces in front of it.

 I submit that like the sailboat being drawn forward, our own progress is largely the result of being drawn forward as well.

Not unlike the force of the wind on the curved-in or windward, side of the sails, a percentage of our progress may be due to our own pushing.

But if we wished to avail ourselves to the energy that would draw us forward, how would this be accomplished? How would we prepare ourselves to be lifted?

The sailor knows that to extract energy from the wind, he must learn how to set and keep his sails in proper trim, regularly making adjustments in order to create and maintain a condition of maximum lift

And like the sailor who must know the characteristics of his craft in order to successfully navigate the sea, we too must know ourselves for any advancement to occur.

But instead of trimming sails, we must learn how to trim our own egos, before we expect any real head-way to be made.

Despite how hard we may push in an attempt to drive circumstances and events in a favorable direction, it is only when we have prepared ourselves to be drawn forward, or lifted, that any significant movement can and will occur.

The wisdom and good fortune we seek, which seems so elusive and hard to get, is with us all the time, like the energy contained in the wind.

But it is only when we stop demanding it, feeling deserving of it, and being resentful that we didn’t get it, that we will become aware of, and touched by, all the extraordinary events that lay unseen due to our self-imposed blindness.

When finally underway with sails well trimmed, each one of us will undoubtedly be drawn forward and upward, sailing on the eternal wind of God’s grace.