True leads for lines and lives

Ahoy T,

A sign of life from across the seas. We’re currently moored in Kristiansand, Norway, for the Tall Ships Races here. Sailing in the Norwegian fiords has been rather confusing and frustrating. Confusing because the wind never seems to be a coherent force, but rather seems to consist of independent parties all acting in their own specific and contradictory way – leaving us in a situation where we’d often find the jib filling from one side and the mizzen from the other (I shall refuse the temptation to draw an allegory to Life here). This, together with rather little wind, has meant that we’ve spent a lot of time motoring. Scenery has been beautiful, although mostly hidden behind rain clouds.

Did you ever see the excellent article our sailing friend wrote about permaculture on board a sailing ship? It has been in my mind a lot over the recent week. One of the advantages of sailing is that you can see the repercussions of your actions immediately, as the ship becomes a closed feedback system. It is a form of living in truth I suppose (although Thoreau may not agree) – you cannot disregard the truth since there is nowhere to pretend that it has gone off to. As such, if you take an excessively long shower or use fresh water for the deck scrub, you will have permanently diminished the fresh water reserves on board and everybody will feel (and smell) the consequences. Further, all skills are geared towards making things last, because you can’t carry a huge reserve with you. That means storing vegetables in a way so they don’t go off, leading the ropes in a way so they don’t chafe and break, furling and storing the sails so they don’t stay damp and mould… I could go on. Almost all action we take on board consists of preservative or preventative measures to ensure the highest possible quality of our materials for the longest possible time. A healthy and well-needed contrast from society dominated by planned obsolescence and a throwaway mentality.

But there is also more to take into consideration. We have a watch system so that the boat is sailed continuously without any one individual being burnt out and exhausted, and a lot of attention is paid to evenly distributing the burden of dishes, cleaning, and other less exciting tasks. There is awareness that, in order to sail our ship, we need to make sure the humans on board are not exhausted or misused, just as the materials can’t be exhausted or misused. Chafing is just as bad for long ropes as for social or individual relationships. Better nip it in the bud when you first notice it than wait until the damage on the line is of such a permanent nature that even if you give it a true lead the damage will persist and weaken it.

There is nowhere to avoid the consequences of our actions. In a way, I see sailing a boat like this as an experimental opportunity to observe the impacts of our behaviour towards one another. As an example, on board this particular ship, the culture of instruction and sailing is one of trying and failing, having your mistakes pointed out to you (in a more or less harsh and loud manner), and then being left to try again. There is very little initial instruction or explanation of how things work – rather, this should be figured out individually – and crucially, very little recognition or encouragement of things done correct or well. To my mind, this fosters a culture where there is very little initiative taken by our trainees, in fear of doing something wrong. As a consequence, all action is sourced from one or two individuals, leaving the boat being sailed and run exactly as they want it. This is not necessarily a negative thing, especially if these individuals are competent and knowledgeable as they are here, but it does limit the creative space for alternative approaches or methods.

This has got me thinking about dynamics when facing other challenges than the winds, waves, swaying topsail booms and tangled sheets. When responding to climate change, if people are consistently fed with all the things that they do wrong, all the things in society that is contributing to the mess we are increasingly finding ourselves in, does this not act as a disempowering force? Does it not leave people, as our trainees on board often found themselves, looking to somebody who should be in charge, waiting for the next instruction, and then following this without understanding the bigger picture? It reminds me of the poem Emily Hinshelwood read out:

we do our recycling – we do what we’re told

but the haycrop’s all ruined, the riverbank’s burst –

d’you know

since I’ve recycled, it’s only got worse

I wonder what would happen if debates about climate change were dominated by recognition and encouragement of things done well. I know it fosters a more alert and creative culture on board a sailing ship, where people understand the bigger picture of the challenges we’re facing together much faster. And I wonder whether this doesn’t mean that relationships on board are better, and that trainees and crew alike understand the importance of true leads for lines and for all the rest.

Love from M with bruised legs and constantly wet socks


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