Copyright (c) Marc Dacey/Dark Star Media 2006-2020. Above photo (c) Marc Dacey. Powered by Blogger.


Do you cruise on port or starboard?

Cartoon (c) 2016, Steve Benson
Political discussion amongst sailors is nearly as verboten a topic as declaring which anchor style is best, or other sincere matters of faith. And yet sailors, not tending to be shy with their opinions (although there are always exceptions) will, between each other, tend to talk about anything contentious or even divisive, particularly after the third sundowner.

While I can't say there is a strictly political preference among the Canadian, British or French or Caribbean sailors I've encountered, there are certainly more politically conservative American sailors, at least to judge by various sailor-centric forums and Facebook groups of my acquaintance, along with a few I've met in person. This may be because a lot of American sailors, mindful of their Constitutional rights and often with a record of service in police or military organizations, often favour being armed in their boats. But many Americans, in my view, while very clear on the Second Amendment, seem less clear on the Fourth. I would add that a lot, or at least a lot of those whom blog or post online, don't seem to understand why other countries don't always allow them to sail armed in their waters. It's not just Americans, of course: many rich-country sailors are not always as attentive to the local laws of the often-poor and often-corrupt places to which they sail. Even the wealthy can learn the hard way that, yes, ignorance is no excuse.

Now, a fondness for weaponry is not necessarily a trait identifying a person with right-wing sympathies, although I'm not sure precisely what "right-wing sympathies" means when America is concerned. I do know that a relatively moderate or nuanced political viewpoint among U.S. sailors, at least among the bloggers, is less common to my eye. It doesn't mean it doesn't exist, clearly: my sample size is not overlarge, but it's equally not difficult to imagine the average investment-portfolio-funded cruiser failing the "feel the Bern".

In the broader sense, however, politics of any stripe is only a small part of sailing, although political considerations have influenced quite a few sailors, such as Leslie and Carolann Sike of the steel sloop Aqua Star, pictured above circa the late 1980s, to undertake voyages of nautical detente. Also, it can be argued that sailing itself tends to make sailors both conservative and liberal in their outlook, for this is what the sea itself demands: entrepreneurial innovation and anarchist vim in equal portions. The sea, after all, doesn't care how you voted; it doesn't give a tinker's about "dreams" and will kill the underprepared. There is among sailors, therefore, a certain OCD, double-checked list, give 'er a quarter-turn and check the belt tension mentality at work, a fussy sort of "I do what works because I must" attitude that is sometimes associated with conservatism. 

The sea will drown Bolsheviks and Objectivists alike, tovarisch.

And, in a more basic sense, we love to "make and mend" and hate to part with something that can be fixed. Most of us love the latest gadgets, but bring leadlines and sextants. Many of us are also sailing for the solitude and the participation in nature, which is a different sense of conservation. Yet opposing this mindset is an often tolerant and, I dare say, liberal approach to human relations, otherwise one would never get off the boat. This is frequently combined with a near-anarchic sense of personal responsibility best expressed as a wish to flee well away from the herd mind of shoreside affairs, along with a determination to travel as cheaply as possible. I've met, and I'm sure many of my readers have, some crusty old salts who have been "hard left" politically while quietly making long back splicings by feel. Crusty need not equal conservative, and a '70s Marxist, presumably thanks to a pension, can be found at many a helm. I don't know how to categorize politically the new generation of crowd-funded cruisers, but surely there's a socialist element in having society pay for one's voyaging.

Of course, just as planning to cope with fickle Nature by drawing on 500 years of sailing and life preservation techniques (hint: if they drowned, it's not a great technique) and being rigorous about clipping on, lashing down and keeping the mast up appeals to the inner conservative, so does provisioning, hot-bunking, watch-standing and a constant sense of "we are all in this together" foster a sense of brotherhood and communitarianism so often absent ashore. Many sailors, travelling deep into the cultures and daily life of exotic countries, are often moved to acts of support and charity. In fact, this is quite common in the world of sailing, where, admittedly, there is often the odd wealthy person to be found, some of whom seem conscious of the role good fortune and accidents of birth have played in their ownership of big, gorgeous boats. Others of less flush circumstances donate time, skills and labour to improve the lot of those whose countries they visit.

It's tricky, however, not to come off as arrogant, insulting or to exude the scent of noblisse oblige. Not every one you may visit considering themselves particularly deprived and giving away pencils and old T-shirts may be rude, when wage work or errands from rich yachties (and even the poorest North American or European arriving in a filthy old boat is often "rich" by definition) would be much preferred. There's quite a history of well-meaning charities doing wrong in attempting to do right. In some places, a jerrycan of watermaker output, or a few hours of Honda 2000 runtime to do a construction job on a distant atoll may prove more ingratiating than any number of good-condition textbooks or dollar-store reading glasses. Check before you gift, and be aware of the social customs, some shading into taboos, of the places to which you're sailing.

The charitable impulse need not flower from a bed either right or left, but can arise naturally from the experience of sailing, which is itself a privilege. The context in which Westerners have political difference is luxurious as few of us are so hungry or so overworked so as to not have time to develop political viewpoints. This is not always the case in the places you'll go. I plan on sailing lightly as much as we can, and that includes politically.
She's unhappy about illegal logging in the Solomons, and rightly so. Photo credit: Catherine Wilson/IPS
Nonetheless, and irrespective of your crew's love for Donald Trump or Naomi Klein, sailors go places where they may be literally the only available face of the West's (including China) rapacious appetite for resources. The forests may be cut down and the seas plundered in some places, and your visit, representing the countries that are raping the local environment through their corporations, may not be welcoming. This may not discourage you from sailing where you feel it's safe, but only a fool would sail unaware of local feeling about happy, well-toothed foreigners in beautiful boats swanning into the bleached-coral lagoon.
And if they want you to buy a fishing license, do so.