I first learned to sail at summer camp when I was about 11 or 12 years old, and I remember how natural it felt to hold the tiller in one hand as I adjusted the main sheet (in fact, the only sheet) with the other and zipped around in my trusty little Sunfish. It’s such a bizarre and wondrous feeling of empowerment–to harness the wind through such swift and synchronized movements, maneuvering your vessel as best you could, trying to remember the points of sail while reading the tells near the top of your main, listening for luffing and trying to trim accordingly.
Within years of those initial solo voyages on Long Pond I was crewing aboard a 52 foot yacht in the British Virgin Islands, working with a group of teenagers under the tutelage of veteran sailors and learning the basics of navigation. What a different experience, I realize now, it must have been to be a young man setting out to apprentice or crew on the schooners and clippers found in Melville and Stevenson’s work. There was none of the gruffness, no stench of sweat and filth, and aboard my particular vessel there was a lack of whatever bond it is that allows for its crew to indulge in one of the most captivating Maritime traditions: the singing of sea shanties.
Where and how were these songs developed? How is it that large groups of no-nonsense, saltwater of the earth men ended up singing together, and moreover, developed an expansive repertoire of songs known communally among sailors across the seven seas, which were in fact specific to the many various types of work aboard merchant vessels (and other sorts of vessels, I’m sure)? Well, I’m not sure I’m going to answer any of those questions, but I do hope to have some fun meandering through all sorts of thoughts related to the experience of sailors and the countless other types of people involved in maritime business endeavours. Join me!