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A faint drawing of a sail boat

Why Is It Important to Be a Sailor?


Perhaps one of the most fertile exercises of the imagination is to think that we embark on a ship indefinitely. Here´s why.

In order to consider sailors from here, a mainland, it is necessary if not to have read something about them, to have at least devoted some time to imagine being them (or both, in the best of cases). But there are imaginations that in turn need to be imagined. The life of sailors is wrapped in a halo of remoteness, whether of time or distance, and in an exile that takes the shape of an enigma.

Perhaps one of the most fruitful imaginative exercises is to think we set out to sea on a vessel for an undefined period of time. What does it mean for the mind, for the body, not to see land for so many months? The question has no clear answer, but it is a Pandora’s Box.

First is the sense of “home”, which is an endeavor that includes us all, for all our lives. A sailor’s home is his ship and his memory. Not coincidentally the ship’s personification, the female article with which it is referred, is a universal and ominous custom. The ship as a mother to those who sail her: her foster children. In the search for home, memory and anticipation become merged in the mind of the sailor. Ithaca is the yearning of the past and the promise of the future. ––As if they lived in a no-man’s land, sailors go from land to land. Once they arrive they leave.

And even if by definition, both on land and at sea, the search for home is figurative, on land there are material placebos and intimate relationships that serve the function of housing us for some time. The sailor on the other hand gets tattoos of sparrows (which point towards home) or wind- roses, and sings folkloric and sad songs from his homeland. One is never more alone than when surrounded by water.

In second place is living among the unknown —the sea—, and at the whole mercy of her dispositions. A seaman is an outcast from his world, a foreign tourist that, thanks to his nautical skills, can live on the surface of a world that does not belong to him and never will. Melville describes the otherness of the sea as a mirror of humanity:

Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest Moby Dick tints of azure. Consider also the devilish brilliance and beauty of many of its most remorseless tribes, as the dainty embellished shape of many species of sharks. Consider, once more, the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other, carrying on eternal war since the world began.

Consider all this; and then turn to this green, gentle, and most docile earth; consider them both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? (Moby Dick)

Let’s not rule out that the nautical life has its own laws, vocabulary, and mythologies: there is nothing enforceable from one world that can be transferred unto another in any way (every man for himself, so to speak), but in its figurative nature, navigation is the perfect metaphor for human life. By comparison, humankind’s meta-discourse can easily be explained in nautical terms: Life as a journey, the search for home, being at the mercy of nature, drifting as an analogy for life, shipwreck as death or failure.

How can such a strange topic allude us all? Explaining this life’s problems by mentioning activities that belong explicitly to the realm of navigation is the epitome of theoretic knowledge. “The other is always a better reflection of this.” And the more distant one is from the other, the better the result will be (as it happens in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice Through the Looking-Glass”). This is how some of us explain the world –– by meta-comparing it another one.

To think of ships from a landlocked perspective is to give a vehicle (a ship) to our imagination; this vehicle can freight any idea about life, about the world and about death. But navigation will continue to be a rhetorical device for those of us who have never set sail. It´s hard to think of anything more fertile than the nautical universe, be it real or figurative:  enigma of enigmas.

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