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Nathalie in the Pacific Cup
Nathalie Criou at the helm of the Express 27 Elise in the Pacific Cup. ©2008 Nathan Bossett

Sailing: Tough Lover

March 6, 2011

I like to sail - and after a day spent in no wind and rain struggling to move forward in heavy current, I wondered what it was that I liked in sailing. I realized that I may like different things and different types of sailing.

The Community
First, there is a community and a camaraderie that exist around sailing. Of course, there are always the odd characters, however, for the most part, sailors are helpful, generous and committed to their sport. I experience this every time I go out on my Express 27 Elise with the team. I experienced it throughout my sailing career. When I was sick with cancer, my crew raced Elise, just because I asked them to - they put the trailer back on track and they worked on the boat to help make it suitable for the Pacific Cup because they knew that this is what I wanted to do. We had never raced together before. They were just sailing friends. I remember that once Elise was at Richmond Yacht Club with her mast down and I got an email from other fleet members who had seen her and offered their help stepping the mast and tuning her so she could be ready for the next race. I experienced it when prepping the boat for Pac Cup - without the help from friends, the boat would not have made it to the start line. I experienced it when putting together the Sarcoma Cup. It is one of these events where yacht clubs are now collaborating to success and a great cause. I experienced it just yesterday when Brian kindly accepted to have David onboard for the race - and I will experience it in a couple of weeks as friends of mine and Express 27 sailors are getting together to take Meebs (members from my team at Meebo) out on a sailing offsite, taking time off work so that others too can enjoy the fun.

Some of my friends have purchased their own boats and I can't wait to be lending them my help. I also want to continue to help on race committee so that other sailors can enjoy the thrills of sailboat racing. I will be trained as a Principal Race Officer in May.

Sailors can be rough, they like beer, they are not exactly super elegant in foul weather gear or with bits of engine grease and fiberglass on their hands - however I am very fond of them.

The Discovery and the Beauty
I like to sail because I like to travel. Spend a night and a day out on the ocean and you will experience true beauty. Sail around the rugged coast of the Farallon Island and you will dream of Robinson Crusoe, sail back at night under the Golden Gate Bridge and experience grandeur. Anchor in Drake's Bay and experience peaceful beauty. Sail around the Seychelles and find yourself in paradise. Sailing is a journey. The sea will look very different under any kind of conditions - it can be still, it can be moving, it can be cold, it can be warm. Blue, gray, green, turquoise - never empty. Always smelly. It never is just the sea - it is the sea, the current, the wave, the wind, the fish, the mammal, the coast, the spray - it is an entire world that you are exploring. A harsh and precious reality. How else could I experience the billions of stars, a warm rounded yellow moon and immense quietness of the open ocean?

The Physicality
I particularly like to sail on small boats as I feel the sea and the wind directly translated into an immediate boat response. They are harder to steer and harder to sail as they require more attention - they are also more physically demanding, and they will pump up a lot of energy, just to keep your balance. I find them more fun though - it is a constant dance, a constant negotiation between the elements and you - and the boat is your mediator.

You will feel the stern of your boat lifted by a wave, you will feel the boat accelerate under a puff, you will feel the heel angle, you will feel the boat eager to go under a new sail, feel the boat struggling against heavy current. You can close your eyes and feel the wind direction on your face. You can close your hand on the tiller and feel every wave. You can trim the spinnaker barehanded in light air and feel every puff accompany your every breath.

The wind and water speak to your body via all these tools - they are hard fiberglass, wood, aluminum, Spectra, lines - but they are not lifeless objects - they represent a constantly changing environment which your boat gently responds to. One that you can work with and take advantage of. One that can serve - or hurt you.

The Human Condition
Whenever you go out, you come back thankful. Whenever you sail, you live, you feel deeply human. Sailing needn't be dangerous with adequate preparation and well-maintained equipment, and a touch of good planning. It is a lot less dangerous than driving a car. Still, because you feel so exposed - and so much like a visitor in someone else's world, you come back grateful for a few other days of life. Grateful to be alive, not happy to have survived but happy to have lived. Sailing is not comfortable, particularly racing. You are usually cold, wet, tired, hungry. You eat badly cooked food, your body is thrashed by the elements, whipped by the wind, cursed by spray, burned by the sun, eaten by the salt. After a Pacific Cup, and sometimes even after a Coastal Cup, your hands are full of open sores and your butt hurts A LOT. Fiberglass is a cold and hard surface and rubbing against it when it is covered with a thin salty film tends to make for a very uncomfortable trip. Sailing can also be very pleasant - a warm cup of tea in your hands when you watch the sunset on the open ocean, a cold beverage when you relax on deck on a warm sunny day, or dry out after a nice bath in the Caribbean and you can't imagine a better vacation.

Sailing is full of joys and disappointments. You win, you lose. You meet friends, you experience bitterness, frustration, satisfaction - you fight, you hope, you give in, you give up, you give out - you give it all. You take in also. You break things, you fix things up. You sink and you rebuild. You keep going.

These small annoyances, the discomfort and the joys of sailing draw the most human part of me out. I have written in the past that I feel free out in the ocean. I now believe that it is only partly true. I can't escape my human condition. I am anchored by it. I feel grand, and humbled. Mostly, I feel alive, human and relevant.

Sailing does not lift me beyond my human limitations. It makes me more aware and appreciative of them. There is an element of freedom, because you need not be constrained by any set route, and you are the writer of your own destiny - however you can only operate in a narrow margin of safety and within the conditions set by the sea.

So as long as I am able, I will keep sailing, and keep crossing oceans, simply because I will keep living.

- Nathalie Criou, Elise, Express 27

This essay was originally posted on Elise's blog at Go here for more on Elise's adventures and misadventures in the 2008 Pacific Cup. The cancer to which Nat refers was sarcoma; her own experience with the disease inspired her to create BeatSarcoma and the Sarcoma Cup. The fourth Sarcoma Cup, hosted by Berkeley YC, will be held on August 27-28.

Nathalie and the Sarcoma Cup with Tom Jenkins
Nat congratulates the first winner of the beautiful Sarcoma Cup, Tom Jenkins of the Express 27 Witchy Woman. ©2008

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