The 1 Percent

December 18, 2011 § 1 Comment

First published on SailingAnarchy – December 2011

Almost nobody aspires to be cold, wet and scared. American kids are more likely to imagine themselves walking alongside the Mars Rover encased in Kevlar, breathing tank-warmed earth air, than traveling a few miles aboard a sailboat. Perceptions override probabilities.

To see how, you might follow a school field trip to the beach.

Every May, a second-grade class hums and hops at the top of the Milwaukee bluff, shouting out over endless water whipped blue-gray by a northeaster. They’re there to learn a bit about history, weather, commerce and ecology, and most will.

A rusty lake freighter carrying corn plows north sending white sheets over its bow. One kid wonders aloud if people are driving the ship or if it drives itself. Otherwise, the lake is empty and intimidating.

The class braves prickers and thistles on the Poe-esque descent to the beach, leaving dry breeze and a warm sun for the gray dampness that hovers at the shoreline. The teacher tells of wild weather, shipwrecks, drownings, pollution and extinctions while the kids pick sticks to find a shell or a flat rock in the smelly goo of algae, gull poop and chunks of a gelatinous carp carcass. Gulls screech. Tan waves roll and break. An opossum lumbers in the brush.

It is not sandy sand, more rough and jagged mixed with green glass and plastic pieces, littered with the massive white pine bones of the sailing ships that delivered ore from north to south over one hundred years ago and deformed concrete and rebar leftover from human attempts to slow erosion.

Then, the icy water. A few touch a bare toe to it. Like an electric shock, it punches first, hurts and then numbs to the knees. In minutes the class retreats full tilt and screaming spraying mud to the top of the bluff. There, shivering second graders are unanimous that no sane person should go in the lake nor even near it, much less out onto it in a boat. The teacher and chaperones concur. At home, nearly every listening parent agrees. Some warn that the beach and the lake are off limits. Forever. Period.

Childhood experiences almost always have Americans avoiding the water for most, if not all of our lives. We worry about undertows, or sudden storms, or bacteria, or sharks, or the sure disaster caused by swimming too soon after eating. So the idea of sailing seems so risky and foreign that most, indeed 99% of Americans, will never seriously try.

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