Facebook Sailing

March 6, 2013 § 1 Comment

Seen first in the March 2013 issue of Spinsheet Magazine.

Facebook Sailing

“Thunk… kerplunk.” The sound of a cell phone dropping from a pocket, bouncing on a deck, splashing and sinking into the dark water.

“Awwww #^%$#%.” The sound of the owner of said cell phone. Thinking about lost calls, forgotten numbers, missed texts, and worst of all, the 7 or 8 hours of upcoming frustration sorting out the terms of the next contract with a hungover store clerk or someone in a distant call center.

“Splash, gasp, laugh and holler!” The sounds, a short few hours later, of said cell phone owner, lost phone forgotten for the time being, entering the water to cool off between sailing races.

Have you experienced such a day of loss and recovery? Or witnessed it? It’s a common modern weekend sailing story. Day-to-day disappointment and stress turned to joy in the course of a few sunny hours spent sailing.

The contrast is striking; a lost phone conjures dark feelings, and a summer sail and swim erases them completely. I think it’s evidence of an important sailing storyline.

Let’s explore why it happens.

We’ve been told that the cell phone connects us to something, and while it may seem counter-intuitive, it might also be said that the cell phone is disconnection in the extreme. While we anticipate human contact through it, the contact is, in reality, more absent then present, more fleeting and frustrating than fulfilling. Why do we stare at our phones anticipating tweets in buses or in line at the grocery cashier? Often, I find, I’m tethered to the screen, awaiting seven or eight inconsequential, usually misspelled words. I reply with something equally cryptic (and undoubtedly more flawed grammatically) and then step off the bus or shuffle forward in line. Imagine a future with no eye contact, no complete sentences, where no person can sense a change in the direction of the wind, or where nobody has an outdoor adventure to remember together.

Sailing, on the other hand, is both materially untethered and socially connected at the same time; freeing and encompassing in both large and small bursts.

When the phone goes kerplunk and sinks to the bottom, the buzzing and beeping are silenced, leaving all other things feeling more real. Face down postures turn face up. Thumbs must do more than type. Dock lines are let loose. Crewmates haul halyards and trim sails to get things started. The boat heels over and everyone plays some role in flattening it out. Some spy the water surface to find more wind. The driver heads down and the trimmer eases. Later, the spinnaker needs setting and the pit crew tails while the mast team jumps. At the end of the swim break, the swimmer needs a hand climbing back aboard and his or her crewmate gives it. The social and natural connections are so obvious and real that they are often durably memorable, in harsh contrast to the forgettable grocery aisle tweet.

Furthermore, while sailing satisfaction may come from winning a race, more often than not, it comes from feeling the breeze, sensing a shift, teaming on a task, inventing a new game, or doing a cannon ball into the water to douse the rest of the crew. For most of us, our richest, deepest and happiest experiences will happen while touching nature with friends in these ways. To veteran sailors, the experiences I describe may seem normal, routine and obvious; but for Facebooking non-sailors — well, how could they know them at all? The fact is, they can’t. And the phone, twitter, streaming YouTube videos or sailing simulators will never be surrogates for the actual outdoor group experience. You simply gotta do it.

A couple of years ago, America’s Cup promoters told us that they planned to break promotional ground and find new sailing fans among “the Facebook Generation.” After all, there are five hundred million subscribers to the service, so sailing ought to benefit somehow from clicks and tags, one organizer told me. I wish them luck, but don’t have high hopes. In the end, Facebook is the place where I tell you about me. Maybe you’ll read it. Maybe you won’t. It’s a self-centered instant gratification machine. It’s where one can hold a phone at arm’s length to snap a quick image proving position in the grocery line. It’s the world’s largest repository of puppy pictures, or in a best case, where friends tag friends in photographs from the night before. But it’s not where people get together and do. That happens offline, on boats, outside, in company.

So while the sunken phone might have been useful in getting the people to the boat, after that, it’s arguably better in the water than out. Except, of course, for the fact that in, it leaves plastics, chemicals and heavy metals in the silt. Perhaps it would have been better to just turn it off and stow it.

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