Sailing the seven seas, but why?

Rebecca Sykes
12 min readAug 10, 2021

Look up from your screen and focus your eyes on the horizon… Too many walls in the way? Imagine you are looking into the far distance and focus there. How does it feel?

During lockdown I was following an online yoga class which invited me to stare out at an imaginary horizon and then I realised how much I missed being at sea. The wide open space, the possibility, the freedom, the patterns of the waves and the wide open skies.

I’m a sailor; I take people on holiday on commercial yachts and sail for pleasure with friends. I’ve only regularly sailing for the past nine or ten years but now I can’t be happy without it. It made me curious to understand why I and others go to sea and what this means about us, so I started this work as part of an MA assignment.

I created a questionnaire for sailors, and if you’d still like to get involved, you can do so here. Over one hundred lovely people responded and I’ve created this blog to share what we found together.

Chapter 1: Why do you choose to sail?

For me, it’s the freedom, the ability to travel with very low carbon emissions, the potential to seemingly visit very wild places in a relatively unobtrusive way. It’s being in touch with a world still brimming with wildlife, whether it's the minke whale spotted off the Lizard in Cornwall, or the sounds of some unknown creatures eating the weed off the hull in Worbarrow bay. It's the wide open space and the patterns of clouds that actually mean something in my day to day. I sail because a boat is a very intense community of people who often love and respect nature. These people, at sea, become partners in an exploration of ideas which are otherwise swept away under the waves of life on land.

I was so humbled to read some of your responses to this question…

Because it soothes my soul. It requires all my senses, so everything else clogging my brain just drains away

I love the sea. 26 years in the Navy. I enjoy the quiet work of sail. It is challenging but elemental using only what you can use from natural sources. You are dependent on wind and tide and we miss that in our daily lives that are so manufactured.

It’s movement, one with Nature

To begin to see how our responses perhaps indicated the underlying values we have which are shown in the act of sailing, I mapped the responses onto the global values map below, developed by Tom Crompton (Thiel 2020). For more information on how our values influence our actions see the Common Cause Foundation’s work.

Global Values. Source: Common Cause

And it looks like this!

Sticky notes of ‘why we sail’ mapped against potential values. Explore in more detail here

Where your answers matched several values, the yellow note was duplicated and a thin grey line links the two. This is to allow the map to be ‘read’ by density.

While there are notes spread across the map, a greater number sit in the values of Universalism and Self Direction. The areas of Stimulation, Hedonism and Achievement also have a lot of notes. Sailing boats are often marketed with a sense of power and prestige —so it’s interesting to see so many are not in that area.

Which values are dominant in us at a particular time depends on what’s going on around us — is someone talking about money, or how big their boat is, who’s got the longest bowsprit, that sort of thing. Or are we trying to make sailing accessible for all and is your day-to-day about helping others.

The general theme resulting from the map is that the reasons you say that you sail, suggests that your values when thinking about sailing do not align with what might be considered an extractive mindset: one driven by power and security where we take what we want or need and don’t think about the consequences for others, and in this case that includes the sea. There are quite a few responses in achievement which is a close ally to power though. In reality, we all occupy these values areas at different times, we are all human, pretty much! Yet, we might choose to encourage a different set of values to be able to think and behave differently in future.

Wim Zweers proposed a number of attitudes or mindsets we might hold towards nature, ranging from the Despot (with the ultimate extractive mindset) to the Participant with Nature (who is basically in love with nature and treats nature like a partner). Around the map I’ve loosely added the attitudes as a suggestion of how people dominated by these values might map against these mindsets. Green notes include a brief example of how the someone with this mindset might think.

On the top right, some of the responses have been set outside of the map as I see the Participant with Nature mindset translates as a deeper version of Universalism. In these responses you often said that you felt like nature or at one with it.

To feel at one with nature, might mean that we feel we are very closely related to nature, as if it were ourselves and so we might make decisions and behave in a way which cares for it. The We Are Ocean report (WildLabs, 2018), aims to increase our knowledge of the ocean by developing ‘an understanding of the ocean’s influence on you and your influence on the ocean’. The authors suggested that reaching a state of mind where ‘we are at one with the ocean’ could help reduce our detrimental impacts on the ocean as well as improving our own lives.

Chapter 2: Are there any concerns you have about the activity of sailing?

It’s not all plain sailing…and I get concerned about a million things … weather, fuel, water, is that line of cloud streets going to build up into a storm cell (happened once going across Lyme Bay with a line of white horses bearing down on us), what happens when we need to change course and we’ll be overpressed (time consuming to reef a 60ft traditional rigged gaffer), are we going ahead of that tanker, will the sea state mean it’s hard to put up/take down sails, is the anchor going to hold, are we going to swing into that boat? Can I afford new wet weather gear? Why does that guy keep ignoring me, think he’s in charge or keep mansplaining? Then there’s the wider things, can I swim in this water where all these yachts are moored who pump raw sewage into the sea? What are the impacts of sanding paint and varnish over the open water? What will happen to the ropes and the sails when they are no longer useable? What effect is the anti-fouling having on the marine life? Does the noise of the propellor disturb the dolphins, or are we something like a floating theme park with bow waves to play to pumping bass?

Any of these sound familiar? Your responses were so insightful:

There is always a fear when you leave safe harbor. Anything could happen out there but (a) wise man once told me that the minute you’re not afraid it’s time to quit.

Like almost everything else, it is increasingly consumerised, and increasingly expensive and complicated because of regulations.

2 concerns- and they are contradictory! I am concerned by the level of regulation which is incremental, and also by the unpreparedness of many participants which is giving cause to the first. I am also concerned about the rising commercialisation of moorings and harbour dues, which are in some areas putting sailing beyond the purses of ordinary sailors.

I am concerned about the number of abandoned fibre glass boats that you see rotting in many marinas

Concerns about safety, money, time, competence, the environment…to give a sense of which areas had most concern, they were mapped out, again using the values map labels as categories. This mapping shows the capability of a question to reveal a different attitude to sailing. The largest number of concerns were around Security (safety). The environment was the second concern, again rated by density. Although, many respondents also cited no concerns.

In Tom Crompton’s work, he emphasises how the focus on issues of safety, easily feeds into values of power. If our safety is threatened, we often feel the need to value our individual power more highly.

Our concerns about sailing…You can explore the responses in more detail here

Times and conditions can change quickly at sea, the wind changes, the toilet breaks, the moorings are full, the rain stops, you get a lift or a pod of dolphins swims past at night, the phosphorescence creating a shower of stars in their wake. So the values we are expressing and our behaviours will change with the conditions too. This could create issues which would not be created under different conditions. A sailor who never throws litter overboard and regularly cleans beaches may be happy to be rescued from a sinking yacht casting debris into the water.

It would be interesting to investigate whether the act of sailing creates more of a mindset of universalism when having an awesome time, and then a mindset of security and conservation when having a somewhat less awesome time. Maybe the beauty of sailing is that it nurtures so many of our values.

Chapter 3: How do you feel about the sea?

It’s a bit of an intimate question perhaps — ‘How do you feel about the sea?’. Most of us sailors said we feel love, respect, awe, fear and a feeling of home. The individual responses seemed deeply personal and so I’ve mapped them into two different shaped word clouds.

On three occasions sailors referred to the sea as mother: ‘Mother Ocean is my home and my happy place!’ and a duplicate response of ‘It is our mother.’ Two separate respondents referred to the sea as ‘she’.

Referring to the sea as mother could refer back to us all coming from the sea millions of years ago, or it could be because the feelings are reminiscent of the western view of a mother relationship. One where the mother is amazing and provides you with amazing gifts but also disciplines you and requires your respect.

Word clouds of ‘how we feel about the sea’. Explore in more detail here

When asked why you sailed, a part of one response was: ‘Don’t fight nature (you will eventually lose) but work with her and she will guide you’. Sounds like a mentor figure to me, although I’m not making any comments on my relationship with my mum…

This makes me wonder why we project a female stereotype onto the sea and what this means about our relationship with it.

Mother sea…Explore in more detail here

So maybe sailors don’t have an extractive mindset and getting out to sea is a positive thing as it helps us love and want to care for the ocean.

Chapter 4: Are you concerned about your environmental impacts of sailing, and if so, what are you concerned about and why?

Maybe we do see the sea as a sort of mother, if so it’s could be described as a small child to mother relationship, as we seem to be causing some pain. What are our concerns about the pain we cause and why do we still create them?

Some of our environmental concerns from sailing. Explore in more detail here

The concerns we had were the non-biodegradable nature of composite boats and their waste disposal, anti-fouling paint, exhaust emissions from engines, emissions from flying to join boats, waste disposal, anchoring degrading the sea floor and emissions of human waste into the sea…

Anti-fouling paint is an interesting one as this really is a compromise between using anti biofouling paint with biocides causing chemical pollution of the water, cost and time of application vs not using them incurring slower travel, increased fuel use or material wear on sails, and the potential for transporting invasive species which can incur biodiversity loss. This isn’t just a concern for us, this is really important to the International Maritime (regulatory) Authority who were consulting mariners on biofouling management when we we responding to the questionnaire (TheGreenBlue.org.uk, 2020).

I asked a sailing friend why they hadn’t changed their behaviour despite having concerns about anti-fouling. They said that they didn’t really know enough about it and feeling that they wouldn’t be able to do anything about it meant they had a sense of not wanting to know. They also thought their individual contribution wasn’t likely to do much damage.

Chapter 5: Are there any barriers you experience to sailing?

Perhaps sailing encourages us to care more for the sea and the biodiversity in it, if so, there would be benefits to encouraging more people to take part. No grumbling about the lack of moorings now, more people doesn’t necessarily mean more boats — just think of all the boats that barely leave all those marinas!

What barriers do I have — finding people who want crew that I feel comfortable to sail with, finding people with boats nearby is a bit of a challenge, being able to afford to live by the sea to make it easier to access, finding people flexible enough to want to sail when the weather is good, not having my own boat…

So what stops you from sailing more?

I’ve split up our responses into different categories, social, technical, economic and environmental. The hyperlinks take you to the maps to explore in detail.

Social barriers we have to sailing, explore this map in more detail here.

These have been mapped onto a radial background but how close they are to the middle doesn’t mean anything here, nor do the colours used. Where multiple categories were appropriate for your response, they were tagged with both and so some may appear on two maps.

Most of you said that the barriers you had were ones I’ve categorised as human-social category. Economic barriers were often stated second, not surprised? Less concerns were raised about the environment or technical issues which stopped you from sailing. Where concerns were raised about the environment, this was often the impact of the environment on the people.

So the human social category was pretty strong, what did it include? We’ve said there are barriers such as health, lack of time, your personal experience, other commitments and not knowing other people to sail with. I think this latter one is pretty sad personally, and it’s something I really recognise. Some of the most emotionally resonant for me were around the social exclusion and fear:

the square earnest tilly hat entitled whiteness of it all

The biggest barrier is fear. It’s big and scary out on the ocean and a few bad experiences, from weather to boat parts breaking far from land, that are just part of cruising, but can make it really difficult to untie the dock lines and head out again.

Finding people to go with . . . I am not confident to go alone

Men. My experience has been that despite the fact I own my vessel, people had a tendency to defer to male (significant) other. He is gone now so I look forward to seeing how I will be treated as a single female boat owner.

One of the barriers also revealed an interesting conundrum for us sailors. We can view others as being irresponsible and in-experienced, with several of us suggesting more training or experience was needed for these people. Yet, these people also need to sail to gain experience. Yes, they can take up training, but this can be very expensive for individuals yet instructors are also poorly paid. Some people suggested the need for licences to be able to sail, but this would incur more cost for individuals in the administration of a system to monitor it. Lastly, should we support licencing or not if instead we could support people to access the water more easily and create a culture of fostering competence through passing on skills?

Epilogue

Thank you — it’s been a lot of information to share with you, and you might be wondering what the point of it all is. I’d like to invite you all to share with me in saying what it all means to you. I’ll be hosting a webinar to talk through the issues and to invite you to work with me to explore what the most relevant ones are for you….

References

Cambridge Dictionary. 2020. MINDSET | Meaning In The Cambridge English Dictionary. [online] Available at: <https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/mindset> [Accessed 11 December 2020].

Etymonline.com. 2020. Extract | Origin And Meaning Of Extract By Online Etymology Dictionary. [online] Available at: <https://www.etymonline.com/word/extract> [Accessed 11 December 2020]

WildLabs, 2018. We Are Ocean: Accelerating Ocean Literacy In UK Culture. [online] Available at: <https://www.weareocean.blue/report/We%20Are%20Ocean%20Report%20June%202018.pdf?v=28062018> [Accessed 11 December 2020].

Thegreenblue.org.uk. 2020. International Maritime Organisation Launch Bio-Fouling Management Survey. [online] Available at: <https://thegreenblue.org.uk/international-maritime-organisation-launch-bio-fouling-management-survey/> [Accessed 11 December 2020].

Thiel P. 2020. A Language For The Future. [online] Available at: <https://medium.com/post-growth-institute/a-language-for-the-future-57892bbd2bf4> [Accessed 11 December 2020].

WWF, 2010. Common Cause The Case For Working With Our Cultural Values. [online] Available at: <http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/common_cause_report.pdf> [Accessed 11 December 2020].

Zweers, W., 2000. Participating With Nature. Utrecht: International Books.

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Rebecca Sykes

Thinker, engineer, creator, entrepreneur, citizen scientist … Writes about sustainability, economics, business and oceans. www.linkedin.com/in/sykesrebecca