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2014-10-06

Sailing is relative

Surprisingly clewless.
A man dead nearly 60 years still holds in the popular imagination the role of designated scientific genius, even, arguably, more so than the still-with-us Professor Stephen Hawking. Albert Einstein was many things, of course, besides the pre-eminent physicist of the first half of the 20th century, a theorist so innovative that he is mentioned in the same breath as Galileo and Newton. He was a musician, a refugee emigre from Hitler's Germany, a philosopher and an early peace activist.

He was also a poor, if enthusiastic, sailor. Tales from Einstein's American life, comprising the last 22 years of it, are clear on the point that the great physicist seemed to have no sense of direction, experienced difficulties with his line controls and even keeping his mast stayed, and was regularly so oblivious to time and tide that he would often ground out on sandbars.

And he couldn't swim.
Einstein and vacation pal. Note Einstein's "women's sundials".


But like so many sailors not burdened by an excess of formal skills, Einstein certainly seemed to enjoy his time on the water. Reportedly, he would spend hours becalmed scribbling down his thoughts with pencil and pad, and clearly, he was able to think of ways to bring his radical physics down to the level of (relatively) easy explanation.

Certainly, when one sails out of a boat club, there are plenty of opportunities to see excellent seamanship. Some people, and I count myself among them, seek out situations of boat, wind and weather to improve their sailing skills, and books are consumed and courses taken to that end.
Space and those shrouds are curved.
But just as clearly, there are sailors whose ambitions do not extend much beyond "messing about in boats", and while that can make for interesting docking scenarios, such skippers are rarely a danger to others, and if they are a danger to themselves, they frequently seem unaware of it and get themselves out of whatever trouble better seamanship might have avoided. These days, of course, truly bad sailors just hit the big red button.

For the most part, however, the restorative and relaxing process of sailing, rather than its relative efficiency, would seem to be the goal of some of the sailors at my club, and of Einstein, who sailed a very nice boat given to him in Germany...until the Nazis stole it.

Of course, seamanship requires both vigilance and focus in order to make use of its precepts. Einstein wouldn't have been the first scientist or sailor to have his mind drift farther than the boat, but there is also suggestions that for all his nautical vagaries, Einstein could actually sail perfectly well when his mind was on it.
Einstein's German boat: state of the art for 1929.

Perhaps this focus on focus, outside of racing and passagemaking, is a little overdone. Clearly, Einstein personified the unruffled helmsman and even when in clearly dangerous situations, he never seemed to panic. His passengers, less so. But relatively speaking, can it be said that he got less out of sailing than the more skilled? It would appear not. The great genius, who died in bed and not on deck, loved sailing and if his methods were unorthodox, that is emblematic of a great number of folk at home on boats.