What sailing teaches us about our environment, and our faith

August 2011

"What I love about sailing is it makes you pay attention to everything in the environment around you.” So noted my friend David Kane as he worked the sails of the Able, his sturdy Stone Horse sloop.

David is an instructor at Newport’s Navy base and he’s responsible for my maiden voyage on Narragansett Bay—indeed, my first sail ever. Having finally accepted his long-standing offer to see the world from the water, I and another friend joined David on a post-card-perfect Ocean State summer afternoon. You couldn’t ask for a better first sail, even if I did ram the ship’s newly painted hull with the dingy while boarding, but that’s another story.

By the time we came ashore six hours later, the sun had set over Jamestown, the moon had risen over Fort Adams and, with much guidance, I—the clumsy land lover—had steered the Able and my friends around Gould Island and tacked a few times back and forth across the East Passage. It was the first time I saw the underside of the Newport Bridge—and we did it twice. I learned a little of how those red and green lights try to protect you as they pulse on the water; I learned how to make a sailboat go where I wanted, and how to keep it safe from where it shouldn’t go.

David was right. Sailing makes you respect your environment. It’s an experience I recommend for all.

When sailing, you sense that creation is hardwired for humanity to be at home in the space where the wind meets water—those primal elements spoken of in the first words of Holy Scripture. Intuitively, the human mind—even an inexperienced one like mine—comprehends the relationship between rudder, sail, wind and current. The Able’s creator, the well respected Massachusetts yacht designer Sam Crocker, clearly knew something of the mind of God.

When sailing, you learn the nature of a community—whether it’s the shared responsibilities of three people on a boat or the good-natured communication with those on crafts passing by. Everyone is everyone else’s friend on the water because everyone’s life depends on it.

Of course, I was reminded of the quality of our waters, something near to my heart, as it is the mission of my office at the Department of Environmental Management. Clean water becomes all the more appreciated when coasting along its depths—when its spray swirls around you and you breathe it in.

And certainly, I couldn’t help but think of those first disciples who caught fish before they were fishers of men. Their experiences on the water helped formed their nature. God’s grace elevated their sea-faring nature, allowing them a role in founding the universal church, which is our great ship of salvation, steered always by the Holy Spirit.

As you can tell, in small but analogous ways that six-hour sail elevated me. For forty-seven years I’ve explored the shores of Jamestown and Newport, crossed Narragansett Bay on bridges and admired it all from the safe distance of land. When sailing, however, those familiar landmarks and seemingly disconnected places—Beavertail, downtown Newport, the nighttime brilliance of Quonset Point and the far distant glow of Providence—were now seen as they really are: a landscape of distinct places that exist in intimate union. They, like we, are in relation to each other.

Sailing, I’ve concluded, is very Catholic. It makes you well aware of your environment; it joins worlds and peoples and it teaches you that there are rules to follow that are not yours to change—even if it seems that you can or should. Sailing shows us that our individual lives and journeys are in relation with each other and with God. Indeed, like the open ocean I glimpsed well beyond the East Passage, there is much that is outside of us—much that calls to us. Only in choosing to trust and journey outward are we ever able to know what it means to be human.

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About the Blog

Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.