Probably the proudest moment of the life of anyone who loves the sea, not even excepting the analogous epoch of his marriage morning, is the one in which he weighs anchor for the first time on board his own vessel. It is true that from the first hour he could call her his own his existence has been a dream of delight, unless perhaps for the passing cloud cast by the shadow of the cheque he has been required to draw for her payment. As soon as she has come into his possession, her ungainly naked bulk, as she lies upon the mud, assumes divine proportions; and as by slow degrees her ‘toilette’ proceeds, her decks whiten, her masts assume a golden hue and clothe themselves with sail and rigging, his happiness becomes unspeakable. If he is animated by the proper spirit, he has at once set himself to learn navigation; he has plunged deep into the ‘Sailor’s Manual’; and, to the amazement of his female relations, he is to be seen busily employed in tying and untying knots on short pieces of rope. But his principal preoccupation is the fitting of his cabins. The mystery of the ship’s practical garniture he leaves to his master, as being beyond the utmost effort of his intellect, though he has a certain satisfaction in knowing that he possesses a pretty accurate knowledge of the way in which the framework of the vessel has been put together.
At last everything is reported ready. He gives the order to weigh anchor, and, as if by a magical impulse, he finds that the being upon whom he has lavished so much affection has become a thing of life, has spread her wings, and is carrying him into the unknown. He paces the deck with telescope under his arm, in the proud consciousness that he is absolute master of her movements, and that with a wave of his hand he can direct her to the golden islands of the west or to the fabled homes of Calypso and the Cyclops, according as his fancy may suggest. No emperor or autocrat has ever been so conscious of his own majesty. But soon a most unwelcome and humiliating conviction damps his exaltation. He discovers that for all practical purposes of command and government he is more incompetent than his own cabin boy or the cook’s mate: that the real ruler of the ship’s movements and destiny is his’ master,’ whom his crew call the’ captain’; and that the only orders he can issue with a certainty that they are not open to criticism are those he gives for his breakfast and his dinner, if indeed he is in a position to partake of either. Officially he is gratified with the ambiguous title of ‘owner,’ while he is painfully conscious that his real social status is that of a mere passenger, and that this unwelcome servitude has every likelihood of enduring during his whole career as a yachtsman. He may indeed, as a man of education, or perhaps of scientific attainments, become in course of time a better navigator than many of the splendid rough and ready sailor-men who command the ships of our squadron; but, unless he has been able to spend more time on board than their multifarious occupations allow most owners of yachts to devote to seafaring, he must know that it is idle for him to pretend to compete either in seamanship or experience with the man whom he employs to sail his vessel for him. In short, he remains an amateur to the end of the chapter, and, if he is sensible and honest, is always ready to acknowledge himself the disciple of the professional sailor.
But in single-handed boat sailing this humiliating sense of dependence and inferiority disappears. For the first time in his life, no matter how frequent may have been his cruises on bigger vessels, he finds himself the bona fide master of his own ship, with that delightful sense of unlimited responsibility and co-extensive omnipotence which is the acme of human enjoyment.
The smallness of his craft does not in the slightest degree diminish the sense of his importance and dignity; indeed, there is no reason why it should. All the problems which task the intelligence and knowledge of the captain of a thousand-tonner during the various contingencies of its nautical manoeuvres have to be dealt with by him with equal promptness and precision. Anchored in a hot tideway and amongst a crowd of other shipping, he has perhaps a more difficult job to execute in avoiding disaster when getting under way or picking up his moorings than often confronts under similar circumstances the leviathans of the deep; and his honour is equally engaged in avoiding the slightest graze or sixpence worth of injury either to himself or his neighbours as would be the case were a court-martial or a lawsuit and £5,000 damages involved in the misadventure.
The same pleasurable sentiments stimulate his faculties when encountering the heavy weather which waits him outside; for, though the seas he encounters may not be quite so large as Atlantic rollers, nor break so dangerously as in the Pentland Firth, they are sufficiently formidable in proportion to the size of his craft to require extremely careful steering, and probably an immediate reduction of canvas under conditions of some difficulty. Nor are even misfortunes when they occur, as occur they must, utterly devoid of some countervailing joys. He has neglected to keep his lead going when approaching land; he has misread the perverse mysteries of the tides, and his vessel and his heart stop simultaneously as her keel ploughs into a sandbank. The situation is undoubtedly depressing, but at least there is no one on board on this and on similar occasions to eye him with contemptuous superiority or utter the aggravating, ‘I told you so.’ Nay, if he is in luck, the silent sea and sky are the only witnesses of his shame, and even the sense of this soon becomes lost and buried in the ecstasy of applying the various devices necessary to free his vessel from her imprisonment. He launches his Berthon boat, and lays out an anchor in a frenzy of delightful excitement; he puts into motion his tackles, his gipsy winches, and all the mechanical appliances with which his ingenuity has furnished his beloved; and when at last, with staysail sheet a-weather, she sidles into deep water, though, as in the case of Lancelot, ‘his honour rooted in dishonour stood,’ the tragic origin of his present trial quickly fades into oblivion, and during after years he only recalls to his mind, or relates with pride to his friends, the later incidents of the drama.
Another happiness attending his pursuit is that be is always learning something new. Every day, and every hour of the day, the elements of each successive problem with which he has to deal are perpetually changing. As Titian said of painting, seamanship is an art whose horizon is always extending; and what can be more agreeable than to be constantly learning something new in a pursuit one loves?
I have heard it sometimes objected that single-handed boat-sailing is dangerous. Well, all sport is dangerous. People have been killed at golf, at football, and at cricket; nor is sitting in an easy-chair exempt from risk; but during an experience of five and twenty years, though laying no claim to much skill as a mariner, I have never had a serious accident, though occasionally a strong tide may have swept me whither I had not the least intention of going; nor have I ever done more than £10 worth of damage either to my own vessel or my neighbour’s. The principal thing one must be careful about is not to fall overboard, and in moving about the ship one should never leave go one holdfast till one’s hand is on another. It is also advisable not to expose one’s head to a crack from the boom as one is belaying the jib and staysail sheets in tacking, for it might very well knock one senseless.
In conclusion, I would submit that to anyone wearied with the business, the pleasures, the politics, or the ordinary worries of life, there is no such harbour of refuge and repose as single-handed sailing. When your whole thoughts are intent on the management of your vessel, and the pulling of the right instead of the wrong string, it is impossible to think either of your breakdown in your maiden speech in the House of Commons, of your tailor’s bills, or of the young lady who has jilted you. On the other hand, Nature, in all her beauty and majesty, reasserts her supremacy, and claims you for her own, soothing your irritated nerves, and pouring balm over your lacerated feelings. The complicated mysteries of existence reassume their primaeval simplicity, while the freshness and triumphant joyousness of early youth return upon you as you sweep in a dream past the magic headlands and islands of the Ionian Sea or glide along the Southern coast of your native land, with its sweet English homes, its little red brick villages and homesteads nestling in repose amid the soft outlines of the dear and familiar landscape. The loveliness of earth, sea, and sky takes possession of your soul, and your heart returns thanks for the gift of so much exquisite enjoyment in the pursuit of an amusement as manly as it is innocent.