Smile and Nod: Sailing to My Doom


I remember it was covered with rust. Which, considering it spent its days bobbing up and down in the salt water of the Atlantic Ocean, I should have expected, but I was surprised nonetheless. I’d never seen a deep water buoy close enough to touch it, much less crash into it, wreck my boat and become stranded, perhaps clinging to it with one hand while punching sharks in the eyes to survive long enough for the Coast Guard to come (they have sharks in North Carolina, don’t they?) so it just hadn’t ever come up.

Now, here I was, within a stone’s throw of the thing as it rode up and down the gentle crests of the waves, their glass placidity belying the tempestuous current beneath their surface. It was smaller than I expected, and, as I’ve mentioned, covered with rust. I tried to remember when I’d gotten my last tetanus booster. It was coming nearer. Or rather, I was coming nearer to it. And there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it. This was the moment I realized videogames had finally done me a disservice.

A few weeks ago I took some time off to go to the coast, lay in the sun reading a book, drink mojitos in my hotel room, watch the waves crash into then beach and, if I was lucky, sail a boat. I’m no pro sailor by any means, but I can handle a small sailing vessel. That I don’t do it more often is a function of the availability of free time more than anything. If I had my druthers, and a small personal fortune, I’d be out sailing every day.

In spite of my passion, with my meager sailing experience any man would have been a fool to rent me a boat to sail into the Atlantic. There happened to be one such fool hawking boats right outside my hotel. Within hours of checking in, I was out on the waves, clipping along with the increasing, storm-driven wind. It was windier that day than it had been all year, the sailboat guy told me, a sure sign a storm was coming. But the weather looked fine for now, so he took my money and I, his boat. Which of us was the more foolish is up for debate.

A lifetime of playing videogames has made me more or less impervious to the suggestion I should read the frakking directions. Today’s games are the worst. In most modern games you don’t need to even crack the manual to figure out the rules; instead, the game usually spends half of its first ten hours holding your hand like a child, teaching you which button to press to make your dude do what. And if you screw up, what the hell, that’s what save points are for.

I’m a horrible student. Most of everything I’ve ever learned, I’ve learned from doing, not from studying. I have a nasty habit of not waiting around to ask for directions before plunging head first into whatever the problem may be, and for biting off slightly more than I can chew. This is part of the downside of having spent my youth dallying in multiple career paths; there isn’t much I haven’t had at least some experience with, sailing included. And yet, in the back of my mind, I know that if I focused a bit more, applied myself to learning and, above all else, listened, I’d be a bit more skilled at a few more things. But, as with games, I’ve barely mastered one before diving into the next. Videogames may not be Her Satanic Majesty’s all-in-one force of societal ill, but they do, at the very least, enable bad students.


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Out on the water, I could finally see the storm clouds approaching. Unfortunately, the wind wasn’t going my way. Before gasoline and steam, the world was driven by horses and wind, necessarily green. Unfortunately, wind doesn’t always do what you want it to. Sometimes it doesn’t blow at all, becalming your boat. Other times it’s blowing so well in one direction, it’s hard to go in another. On these occasions, one must tack, zig zagging to the limits of the boat’s ability to sail into the wind in one direction, then veering in another. It’s hard work, and slow, but it’ll get you there. On still other days, however, the wind seems to come from multiple directions at once, eddying off unusual land formations, swirling around a harbor or, as on this day, driven by an approaching storm to do both.

About the time I noticed the approaching clouds I decided it was time to call it a day. I’d been alternating sailing downwind – screaming across the water, head thrown back, face locked in a rigor of glee – with slowly tacking back toward the safety of shore. I didn’t want to get so far out that I wouldn’t be able to return, and, to be honest, I didn’t have much experience tacking in this sort of wind. I needed to continually remind myself I could do it. Turns out I could. Trial by fire, my favorite kind. Achievement unlocked: Tacking in High Wind. As I approached the buoy, however, I suddenly couldn’t.

There was a convergence of varying winds at that spot, just short of where I’d need to start turning the boat, such that if I wasn’t willing to continue further out to sea, I wasn’t able to move at all. I turned hard to port (that’s left, one fact I learned from a book) and was becalmed in an instant. And that’s when I learned another new thing about sailing: Once you’re stopped, it’s damn hard to get back going again.

I hadn’t really noticed it yet, but the ocean current was pulling me out to sea. To head back to shore, I’d be fighting both wind and current. So even if I was able to catch a little wind by tacking, I’d need to catch enough to overcome the current, or I’d still be moving in the wrong direction.

I’d experienced this phenomenon a few years before, in a 20 foot power boat just off the coast of Massachusetts. That day, again right before a storm (I must be crazy) I’d ventured out with a few friends to tool around the Bay for a few hours, then was chased back into port by the approaching storm. On that day we learned the joy of bouncing hard down on the waves, and how a boat that seems big tied up to the pier feels very, very small against the fury of the sea.

Even at full throttle, the boat’s engine wasn’t powerful enough to propel us forward against the swift, storm-driven ocean current. For a full ten minutes I held the throttle down, bow pointed toward shore, crashing through the waves, while watching the shore slip further and further away. I’d had to tack even then, angling into port, just off center of the current to gather enough speed to barrel into the harbor just as the clouds closed in and the rain began to fall.


Looking back, I wished I had those problems. My little, rented sailboat couldn’t muster even half the horsepower of that power boat, and as I struggled with its sail, coaxing the wind to fill it, jamming the rudder to starboard in the hopes it might answer and carry me out of the path of the rapidly approaching buoy, I realized I may have finally met my match. That here, in this ocean, on this boat, I may have finally found the limits of my ability to fly by the seat of my pants and make it look easy. To survive even, if there really were sharks in these waters.

What is it about the sea, that we men must continually break ourselves against it? Odysseus was a fool to tempt the fury of Poseidon, proclaiming himself the equal of the ocean god, the match for all mortal men. We know this. His is one of the pictures you see beside the definition of hubris. For his audacity he was cursed to spend 10 years sailing for home, being battered by the sea until he finally learns his place. He was a fool, this we know, but having once captured the wind and evaded the tide, it becomes clear how easy it can be to feel oneself the master of nature. And then, with the approaching storm, you realize the bottom of the very ocean upon which you gloat is littered with the bodies of men just like you who failed to learn that same lesson.

I will say this though, if hubris born of an addiction to videogames is what drove me into those waters, to test myself against the mettle of the sea, then it was diligence born of the same pursuit that drove me to find a way home.

This may sound simplistic, but one of the cardinal rules of videogaming also works in real life. In a videogame, the solution to the problem always exists. Whatever the problem may be, it’s there for you to solve, therefore the solution must exist. In life, this does not always apply, but I’ve found it does more often than not. Whatever the problem, there is usually a solution, you just have to be diligent.

On that tiny sailboat, it was even simpler than that: I controlled the sail and the rudder, everything else was wind and tide. There had to be some sweet spot where wind, tide, sail and rudder would work in concert to carry me home, I just needed to find it.

As the sail filled with wind, the rudder finally answered and the boat carried me in a swift turn away from a rusty, shark-riddled doom, I realized I’d found it. A good thirty minutes of tacking later, and I was safely ashore.

One more thing videogames have taught me: there’s no substitute for having real adventures.

Russ Pitts would rather be sailing. Seriously. His blog can be found at

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