Girl Against the Sea | Bleader

Girl Against the Sea


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In 1992 Webb Chiles’s sloop sank, several miles off Fort Lauderdale. He expected to die. “I was calm,” he would write. “I was Socrates after drinking the hemlock, waiting for the numbness to move upward from my feet, asking, ‘Why should I fear death? For when I am, death is not. And when death is, I am not.’ Courage did not enter into this. I had lived a certain way, and it had brought me here. ‘Live passionately, even if it kills you, for something is going to kill you anyway,’ I had written; and now it would. ‘Intensity, not duration,’ I had written; but against all odds I had lasted fifty years.”

This was his state of mind when he entered the water. It did not remain that. Five or six hours later, somewhat amazed by how relaxed he still felt, he found himself thinking about Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the French aviator best known to most of us as the author of The Little Prince. Saint-Exupery had survived a plane crash in the Sahara and described the experience. Chiles's narration would continue, “Dying is simple, a natural act, Saint-Exupery said, as he struggled not to die. He survived the crash, only to die flying in World War II. I wondered what Saint-Exupery thought in his last seconds, if he had time to think at all. Dying might be simple. Drowning might be a sailor’s death. But the animal wasn’t having any.”

More hours passed. Chiles was becoming exhausted. He found himself falling asleep in the water, waking when he breathed water in. “I made two discoveries. First, that Saint-Exupery was wrong: dying is neither natural nor simple; and that the weaker and more exhausted I became, the stronger became my will to live. I was ‘not going gently into this good night.’ If for the first nine hours I had been Socrates, now, as I weakened, I became Dylan Thomas.”

He’d been in the water 26 hours and carried 125 miles by the Gulf Stream when a fishing boat picked him up.

If Chiles had disappeared at sea I’d have heard about it sooner or later, because we were high school classmates. But at the time I didn’t even know he sailed, let alone sailed prodigiously. He was just someone else I’d lost track of. But it turned out that he’s sailed around the world five times in some astonishingly small boats, set various records, been the first American to sail alone around Cape Horn, and written five books. He’s also married six times. “He wanted to live an epic life,” Chiles says about himself on his voluptuous Web site. “Perhaps he did.”

For the last few years Chiles and his wife Carol have lived in Evanston, though he’s usually on some other continent sailing. Before he came over for dinner several months ago, I read his fourth book, A Single Wave: Stories of Storms and Survival. It told me a sailor’s life at sea is serene except when it is not, and adversity can be sudden and overwhelming. Chiles is a romantic but his book — which I quote from above — persuaded me that as a practical matter sailors who go where he’s gone need to first think through the possibility that they will die out there.

I thought about Chiles when I read about Jessica Watson. She’s a 16-year-old Australian girl who recently completed a seven-month solo voyage around the world in a 34-foot yacht, a boat Watson’s Web site assures us is “capable of consistent speeds and one that Jessica can easily handle.”

The AP reported that Watson admitted when she returned that she wasn't certain beforehand she could pull it off "because I hadn't actually done any solo sailing. And here I was telling the world I was about to sail solo, nonstop and unassisted around the world — and I hadn't actually been out by myself." Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported there was “fierce criticism of her parents for allowing her to attempt such a feat.” But the parents replied that she’d been sailing since she was eight, and when she made it back safely all reservations were apparently set aside. “I don’t think any of us would ever doubt Jessica Watson again,” said the premier of New South Wales, welcoming the teenager home. It is claimed that Watson is the youngest sailor ever to circumnavigate the earth alone, but no formal record could be set because the World Sailing Speed Record Council had dropped the category.

Good for them. On the basis of what I learned about sailing from A Single Wave, Watson’s adventure was nuts. I emailed Chiles and asked what he thought. “I am, of course, aware of Jessica watson's voyage, but have no real interest in it,” he replied. “The children who have been the youngest before have been puppets on a string, fulfilling not their ambitions but those of their parents.”

He referred me to a couple of mentions of Watson on his blog. On January 14 he wrote:

This morning I read in the SYDNEY MORNING HERALD of the girl who is attempting to be the youngest to sail solo around the world. She has just passed Cape Horn.

The article quoted her manager. Manager? After all these years I find out that you need a manager to sail alone around the world.

The article further noted that the girl’s parents are going to fly over her today and speak to her by radio, and that ships from both the Chilean and Argentine navies are going to visit.

Both of these people are maintaining websites while at sea.

I recall Francis Chichester complaining about having to make daily radio reports to his sponsors during his one stop circumnavigation. I felt no sympathy for him then or now. You take the money, you dance the tune.

And 12 days later he wrote:

Evanston: “I understand the sea.”

The quote is not from me, but from a teen-age girl who is the latest child to set off in an attempt to become the youngest to sail around the world alone.

I do not follow such voyages. A video clip appeared on the morning television news, including the above sound bite.

I expect that these attempts will continue with ever younger participants until one of them is killed, or, considering that they are closely monitored puppets on a string, gets into serious trouble and has to be rescued, at which time I believe the parents should be prosecuted for child abuse.

Of course that won’t happen to this girl because she understands the sea.

To understand the sea is to understand the risk, and perhaps Watson does, but at 16 it’s unlikely. What I cannot imagine her possessing is the equanimity to accept death, if it comes, as the price she was willing to pay for the life she chose. Did her parents prepare her by drilling her in Socrates and Saint-Exupery? I doubt it. Alone in the water, Chiles abandoned Socrates and Saint-Exupery, but not before they did him a world of good. He didn’t ask, why me? And he didn’t panic.


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