Sailing Seas Alone: Sporting Performance and Spiritual Insight

Richard Hutch

Ph.D., Professor, School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia.

Address: St. Lucia Brisbane, Queensland, 4072, Australia.

E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Abstract: What makes sport spiritual practice? How is sport a means of spiritual insight and character formation? A cue is taken from considering together modern technology and the ethical responsibility of the current generation to look after future generations. Elements of sport as spiritual practice are identified and illustrated by yachting people who venture on long offshore passages alone, including single-handed or “solo” circumnavigators of the globe. Personal autobiographical accounts of their voyages of self-discovery from approximately the past one hundred years are described, compared, contrasted and analysed with the relationship between modern technology and ethical responsibility in mind. The argument is that although a person may be technically self-reliant at sea while engaging in their sport, limits to such extensions of human will are ever-present and potential threats to life. Once those limits are reached in any lone sport, then a person’s lived relationship to the world can undergo basic transformation and their personalities can be changed forever. How do perilous circumstances change human character for better or worse? One can ask, how is technical failure at sea, paradoxically, moral success, or a result of spiritual insight? A phenomenology of sport as spiritual practice is presented in the context of competitive and cruising yachting (sport as technical finesse, cosmic quest, personal test and dreams and nightmares). The insight to which such types of sporting practice leads is moral presence, or an inner realisation about the importance of the moment and limiting the actions to be taken amidst uncontrollable events. Moral presence contributes to the formation of human character and represents exercises of wisdom in action in life.

Key words: sport, spirituality, sailing, failure, success, morality, character, wisdom.

Received at April 26, 2019.

How to cite: Hutch, Richard (2019). Sailing Seas Alone: Sporting Performance and Spiritual Insight. Researcher. European Journal of Humanities & Social Sciences. 4 (2), 69–93.


Copyright © 2019 Authors retain the copyright of this article. This article is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Sport and spirituality are linked together in popular culture by the theme of personal challenge that may lead to enhanced living. In this sense, the topic of sport and spirituality frames in a microcosm the existential nature of human life in general, and the focus is on mortality. Brushes with death punctuate life in spite of progress and rationality, which otherwise typify modernity and our technological present. The theme of discerning elements of human existence “beyond the realm of progress and rationality” that characterises modernity and has spawned high technology in our time is central to the intellectual focus of the history of religions (Kippenberg 2002, p. xii). The theme also is taken up in studies of how major accidents happen. Being inflexible and sticking to rigid plans often contributes much to accidents. After accidents, such plans become only empty “memories of the future”, ones that had paradoxically deflected human attention from changing personal and environmental circumstances and thereby underscored one’s peril (Gonzales 2003, pp. 43–54). According the existential philosopher of sport, Harold Slusher (1967, pp. 206–207),

…when man faces death, he really faces life. Sport provides for a voluntary and regulated expression of this confrontation. Man tends to be most authentic when close to death. At this point there is no need to fake. The hunter must stop ‘playing at being a hunter’, when he awaits the charge of a wild boar. Now the superficial and superfluous are not necessary. There is no one to impress. Now he faces the ultimate reality. Is man capable of passing the test? It is real ability that counts. It is rather paradoxical that man needs to escape the ‘real’ world (which might not be so real after all) and enter into the artificial realm of sport in order to determine the authentic self. He now must admit real existence of the self, something he usually can manage to avoid. To this degree, the man of sport is closer to truth. He learns his potentiality. He realises what, perhaps, he has already and always known — namely, who he is. He no longer needs or can fool himself <…> man is forced to realize his own worth.

Often the impact of realising self-worth is projected on a cosmic scale. Religion commentator, Michael Novak (1985, p. 353), writes:

Sports are religious in the sense that they are organized institutions, disciplines, and liturgies; and also in the sense that they teach religious qualities of heart and soul. In particular, they recreate symbols of cosmic struggle, in which human survival and moral courage are not assured. To this extent, they are not mere games, diversions, pastimes. Their power to exhilarate or depress is far greater than that. To say “It was only a game” is the psyche’s best defense [sic] against the cosmic symbolic meaning of sports events.

This paper concentrates on one sport in particular to demonstrate this, namely, the sport of yacht racing and cruising. The focus is on the individual sporting person who takes to the sea in a sailing yacht, or the single-handed or “solo” sailor. The basis of research for this study is a close reading of dozens of autobiographical accounts of such sailors, along with several interviews with solo circumnavigators of the globe. The aim is to determine if lessons for living are learned from such activity, ones that go to matters of lifestyle and larger than ordinary self-understandings. Recent scholarship on offshore sailing usually associates the sport with the utopian aspirations inherent in sailing subcultures and feeling of heightened aesthetic experience in the lives of individual sailors (Macbeth 1988, 1992, 2000; Csikszentmihalyi & Csikszentmihalyi 1988). The paper’s scope takes this association into account but also goes beyond it. It considers not only the sanguine aspects of offshore voyages, but also interruptions to utopian aspirations and heightened positive aesthetic experiences individuals may enjoy at sea. The argument of the paper is that such interruptions can give rise to new moral postures toward living. These postures represent invigorated spiritual meaning and purpose, a force for living that changes a person’s overall outlook and daily lifestyle.

Lessons from Psychology of Religion

Such a focus carries forward the formative discussion in the psychology of religion about varieties of religious experience in the lives of individuals first raised in the Gifford Lectures of 1901–1902 on Natural Religion by William James (1961), a foremost contributor to the history and phenomenology of religion. For James (1961, p. 42), religion is “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine”. Religious experience comes in two general varieties for James. First, there is the gradual dawning of spiritual insight associated with manic elation (“sublimity”). James identified this type of lived experience as “healthy-mindedness”, or a life lived without severe self-doubts. Second, there is foundation-shaking experience linked to ominous depression (“morbid compunction”). This type of lived experience James associated with the “sick soul”, or a life lived always on the edge of profound self-doubt. What does James’ typology of religious experience mean for a consideration of sport in life? How does it fit in with the emphases of Slusher and Novak on the crucial and passionate engagements with life that sport provides? Is sport a religious experience (Morgan 1993)?

On the one hand, “healthy-mindedness” could be said to be like athletes achieving incremental improvement in sporting performances over time, where goals are set and training is designed to meet those goals. When those goals are being achieved athletes report a deep satisfaction with themselves. Often they refer to that feeling as “being in the zone” or experiencing “flow”, expressions which they associate with their top performances and goal-achievement (Murphy & White 1995; Cooper 1998; Murphy 1998; Csikszenmihalyi 1988, 1990, 1993, 1996, 1997; Csikszenmihalyi & Csikszenmihalyi 1988; Jackson & Csikszenmihalyi 1999).

On the other hand, what interested James most was the “sick soul”. The person with this kind of lived experience goes beyond simple incremental athletic performance. Sanguine experiences of “being in the zone” or in “flow” rarely come to such individuals, who are instead usually wracked by personal torment. Nevertheless, experiences of torment go to the heart of the meaning of sport as an idiom of human morality and self-worth. This is captured well by what Michael Novak (1985, p. 355) writes about spectators or sports fans:

Fans are not mere spectators. If they wanted no more to pass the time, to find diversion, there are cheaper and less internally exhausting ways. Believers in sport do not go to sports to be entertained; to plays and dramas, maybe, but not to sports. Sports are far more serious than the dramatic arts, much closer to primal symbols, metaphors, and acts, much more ancient and more frightening. Sports are mysteries of youth and aging, perfect action and decay, fortune and misfortune, strategy and contingency. Sports are rituals concerning human survival on this planet; liturgical enactments of animal perfection and the struggles of the human spirit to prevail.

Such a view of the meaning of sport represents the kind of engagement in life and self-doubt (“Will we or win or lose?”) that typifies individuals identified by James as “sick souls,” which he took to the be the most interesting kind of people to study and from whom to learn lessons about existence and the building up of human character (Corlett 1996). How does this relate to yachting enthusiasts and, more specifically, to solo circumnavigating sailors themselves?

Life-threatening depression bears the greatest capacity to bring the global circumnavigation plans of single-handed sailors to a standstill in spite of high moments and aesthetic joys along the way. The sea forces a lone sailor to realise who he or she is. Defining sailing as a spiritual endeavour can be undertaken by analysing their reflections about sailing alone far offshore, and then probing those reflections for signs of a Jamesian spectrum of existential peril[1]. The argument put here turns on a distinction between what I call technical self-reliance and moral presence, with the latter ideally offering a counter-balance to the former.

Technical self-reliance can be defined as being able to control one’s circumstances at sea and to extend that control by means of relying on high-tech equipment installed in most modern yachts going around the world. A sailor relies on rational self-confidence and assumes this is enhanced by means of the use of cutting-edge technology even though breakdowns of self and equipment can occur at any time. An over-emphasis on technical self-reliance amounts to closing one’s eyes to the possibility (and probability) of serious mishaps at sea.

Moral presence is a counter-point to technical self-reliance. Moral presence can be defined as a practical and larger way to live life than is ordinarily the case. It is a lifestyle that is not self-serving, but paradoxically the opposite: a clear-sighted preparedness to accept necessary failure and defeat (as one must accede to the trajectory of human mortality and its simulacra during life), to eschew grandiose heroics when the chips are down and, nonetheless, to exercise courage with maximum practical and personal effect in the face of extreme and, mostly, adverse circumstances. Moral presence psychologically reframes technical self-reliance in a higher key, one that goes beyond hubristic and persistent assertions of a will to control events. Moral presence lessens the importance of technical self-reliance at sea. It does this by inserting human fallibility into a perhaps naïve dependence on technology and the assumptions about a person’s capacity for rationality that undergird it.

Moral Presence Illustrated and Elaborated

This distinction can be illustrated from the recent local Australian sporting scene in the build-up to the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Technical self-reliance has recently been expressed by the practice of “doping” by athletes. The issue of “doping” in competitive athletic performances is an application of high technology to the human body (a pharmacological extension of human capacity). The issue of the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport is contentious not only because it makes for uneven competitions, but also because it shifts consideration away from sport as an existential test that could well bring about failure, albeit with increased human meaning about one’s life-commitments. Moral presence was recently illustrated by the twenty-one year old Australian swimming wonder, Ian Thorpe, who is considered by many as Australia’s most accomplished swimmer to date. During trials in the 400-metre freestyle heats for the 2004 Olympics, Thorpe accidentally lost his balance and fell off the blocks of the pool before the starting bell sounded. There was absolutely nothing he could do about it once his balance was lost and he began to tumble into the pool. He was automatically disqualified from competing in that event and, hence, from the possibility of going to the Olympics in Athens to represent Australia in the 400-metre freestyle event. The swimmer and the public united in anguish as they realised what had happened. It was not supposed to be that way, but the reality of the loss of control and being helpless to do anything to recover from it made a sporting event into high human drama. People urged Thorpe to lodge a protest, but he went silent about it, preferring to abide by the judges’ decision. The event stopped a nation, even evoking emotional comment from the Prime Minister, John Howard. One journalist quoted Thorpe (Hywood 2004, p. 15):

“Although it doesn’t seem fair, and in a lot of cases life isn’t fair, you just have to deal with it <…> I’m not so unlucky or unfortunate”. As the journalist went on to report, “Thorpe show(ed) all those who seek the limelight, in any field, what leadership and character are all about <…>. Thorpe has set the benchmark for grace in adversity. He has moved from being a great sportsman with nice manners into a genuine leader. For someone who has experienced only success, that capacity to deal with disappointment will prove more important than one more gold medal <…>. For a country that has become seriously wealthy over recent decades but has seen the decline in many of the institutions that provide it a moral compass, it is important to have Thorpe and his colleagues in the public eye <…>. Thorpe has shown much older men that real leadership is rising above your instincts.

The Thorpe event and the existential complicity of the public in it well illustrate the difference and interplay between moral presence and technical self-reliance.

Such an illustration can be distilled into something more abstract and applicable across a range of sporting activity in which the focus is on the lone individual. According to Harold Slusher (1967, p. 207),

Facing death makes the man of sport available to an awareness of authentic existence. Performance, faced with such extreme stakes, will tend to represent authentic being. Putting it another way, man is rarely as moral as when he is facing death. Death tells man to “face up” to life. Meaning comes to the performer when he becomes aware of the end. The totality is taken into account.

Yachting people rely heavily on high technology in their sport, less so on simply “being human” (Hoberman 1995). A case is put for being morally present in yachting, at least more so than is currently done by sporting people in general and the yachting fraternity in particular. Passionate participation is what counts most and makes for a meaningful life through sport, including yachting. It creates for participants a “genuine option” for living according to William James (1962, pp. 32–62). Being morally present is synonymous with spirituality; getting there constitutes human “spiritual formation” without any philosophical or theological trappings.

There are two experiential dimensions of moral presence. Both indicate how to “face up” to life, or how to cultivate what Slusher calls “authentic existence” and James calls passionate participation in a “genuine option” for living, rather than carrying on ignoring such personal tests. According to Laurence Gonzales (2003), a well-known researcher in the field of survival in extreme environments, the two dimensions can be characterised by aphorisms. The first is “Be here now”, or the experience of Zen mind (Gonzales 2003, p. 121). This means that chances of survival increase if one can transcend past plans and future prospects, and then focus on the present. Accompanying this among those who survive in extreme circumstances is the realisation that they are overcome with wonder and marvel about small details of the environment into which they have been thrown. For example (Simpson 1988), a mountain climber who broke his leg could no longer be supported by his climbing partner, who held him by a rope from higher up the snow-covered mountain face. The partner was forced to cut the rope in order to save himself. The climber who was dangling from the end of the rope then fell into a crevasse of snow and landed on a narrow edge of ice on the side of a dark cavernous chamber inside the mountain. After an almost miraculous feat of survival crawling foot by foot out of the chamber and down to his base camp thousands of metres below, he reported not thinking about his dire circumstances but about how beautiful the inside of frosty chamber appeared glinting in the sunlight that penetrated from the slit above.

The second experiential dimension of moral presence is “Everything takes eight times as long as it’s supposed to”, or survival seems to take forever (Gonzales 2003, pp. 121–122). By focusing on the present, breaking down large crises into small, more manageable tasks is invited. This involves a “one step at a time” approach rather than trying to overcome perilous circumstances by investing increasing amounts of effort to correct them. Accepting friction as a fact of life rather than trying to overcome it is the key. The harder a person tries to overcome life’s friction, the more complex becomes his or her plan for reducing friction, and the worse things get. As Gonzales (2003, p. 122) puts it, “…plan for everything to take eight times as long as you expect it to take. That allows for adaptation to real conditions and survival at the boundaries of life and death, where we seek our thrills”. Consciously setting goals and then achieving them over the long haul is what counts in crises. Sailors alone at sea are familiar with reducing sail area (“reefing”) in gales, which takes a step-by-step procedure that can last for several hours during which being swept off a yacht is perilously possible in spite of being harnessed to a hard point on deck. Panic can lead to trying to reduce sail in one fell swoop in such circumstances, and this could increase such moments of danger beyond control.

Moral presence can be cultivated best when a hitherto perhaps happy reliance on technology at sea breaks down and little else can be done in the face of serious peril (Fry 2004). A sailor is forced to “face up” to life. Here a sporting performance ends and the making of self-worth begins. The responses of sailors to such issues vary, of course, but those who move beyond considerations of technical aspects of yachting begin to reckon in their own ways and in their specific contexts, or “sailing spaces” potent with meaning, with the morality of being as a source of human happiness. According to one researcher (Luper 1996, pp. 6, 17, 45–46), there are two strategies to realising happiness in life. The first, typically Western, is “optimising” in which the optimiser seeks to subdue the world”, or make it conform to his or her desires. The second strategy is characteristic of Eastern approaches to happiness, or “adapting”. Adaptors change themselves and work to conform their desires to the world. While the adaptive approach is attractive to those who wish to make their happiness invulnerable, the optimising approach to invulnerability depends on power and control over the world that humans just do not possess. Hence, hubris is a ready potentiality for optimisers in a way it is not for adaptors. The risk of simply adapting to circumstances is a possible impoverishment of life, but this must be balanced with reasonable optimising if life is to be enhanced. Sailors who come to a realisation that being an adaptor is a better option than being an optimiser undergo an internal shift of value-in-action, namely, from doing things to survive at sea to being who they truly are, stripped of most illusions as they face the mirror of the impartial sea. They see in that mirror their own helpless, chaotic turmoil that human will cannot calm. Moral presence becomes a viable human stance in the face of peril at sea when other more technical options no longer suffice. Life-changing idioms of moral presence may often take hold. They are ways in which self-worth as a human being is discovered during yachting alone, as well as realised in a wide range of sports that focus on sporting performance by individuals and what happens when achieving desired performance goals fails (e.g. failure to repeat one’s personal best time, or “PB”).

I shall note three (3) idioms of moral presence under sail, which together are a phenomenology of single-handed sailors’ lived experience at sea. However, a worst-case scenario is instructive first. What happens when complete faith is put in technical self-reliance at all costs (an “Indestructible Titanic Complex”, perhaps), or when hubris tragically pushes moral presence entirely beyond a sailor’s reach? Can happiness be achieved in such a way, or is such a strategy patently counter-productive? How can life at sea be optimised while at the same time adapt to the ever-present dangers faced by single-handed sailors?

Technical Hubris at Sea

Engineer Donald Crowhurst had tragic recourse to a delusion that he was an emissary from the farthest reaches of the universe with esoteric truths to impress upon humankind. He became a man under sail alone at sea whose plans to show the world his genius and skill turned quickly into only “memories of the future” (Gonzales 2003), a future that became an abysmal fate in so far as he failed tragically to account for his changing personal and environmental circumstances. Nothing granted Crowhurst a “reality check”, so to speak. He soared in a world of grandiosity all his own. This played itself out technically by means of his unusual inventions never before countenanced by the yachting fraternity (perhaps rightly so). His electronic gadgetry and “self-righting” device on his trimaran, which were purported to be revolutionary developments, never worked. His pièce de resistance for technical innovation on trimarans was his system for preventing total capsizes. If the boat heeled or tilted past the “flipping zone” of fifteen degrees or more, electrodes in the side of the hull would signal a switching device that Crowhurst called his “computer”. Peter Nichols (2001, p. 90), who chronicles Crowhurst’s participation in the first “solo” around the world yacht race during the late 1960s, describes the way in which the device was envisioned to work:

[the] switching mechanism <…> would fire off a carbon dioxide cylinder connected to a pipe inside the hollow mast, which would inflate a buoyancy bag at the top of the mast. This would prevent the boat from completely capsizing. At that point, partially inverted, Crowhurst would pump water into the upper hull, which, as it grew heavier, would push downward and eventually flip the trimaran back upright.

Such a feature sounds like a good idea, but when builders sat down and actually tried to make such a device they were faced with almost insurmountable difficulties. The inflatable bag would have to be so large vis-à-vis the trimaran that its weight would destabilise the vessel from above. This would require a lower mast to counteract the problem of top-heaviness. Crowhurst told the builder of his yacht that he had issued publicity everywhere indicating that the features of the self-righting device “had been tested and were ‘now operating successfully’ and were the results of a ‘development project’ by Electron Utilisation Ltd.”, his then faltering engineering company (Nichols 2001 p. 90; Crowhurst quoted by Nichols).

No such “development project” ever took place. Moreover, Crowhurst’s onboard “computer”, as he called it, was projected to “electronically monitor stresses in the rigging, sounding warning lights and alarms if loads became critical. Hooked up to a wind-speed indicator”, says Nichols, “it would automatically ease sheets and sails” (Nichols 2001, p. 90). All of this, and other preparations for safety at sea, were total failures. How did Crowhurst react? Technical failures led to extraordinary means to regain control of his perilous situation alone at sea. Crowhurst fudged his logbook, in fact keeping two separate logbooks. One was his actual log of merely bobbing around in the South Atlantic Ocean for 243 days and 16,591 nautical miles between England and Uruguay during the 1968–1969 Golden Globe Race from England and back, all this while the other contenders sailed around the world alone, non-stop and unassisted as they were supposed to do. The other logbook was falsified to depict a global circumnavigation. The former represented Crowhurst’s mood swings between mania and depression, while the latter sketched out how he ideally wished to understand himself even though deep in his heart-of-hearts he knew otherwise.

When he rejoined the fleet sailing back to England Crowhurst managed to manoeuvre his yacht, Tiegnmouth Electron, into second position just north of the Equator on his way to England. He was satisfied to be second because this would mean that race officials would not inspect his log-book(s). Only the logbook of the winner of the Golden Globe would be inspected for accuracy, that is, seeking a congruence between the record contained in the daily logbook and any corroborating evidence like radio reports of positions and sightings during the global voyage. However, fate took an ironic and cruel turn for Donald Crowhurst. The front-runner’s yacht got holed by floating debris and pulled out of the race; Crowhurst was catapulted into the leading position by default. When he heard about this on his radio and subsequently realised that his fraud would be discovered, he made a fateful decision. A reconstruction of the scene after his empty yacht and its logbooks were found floating in mid-Atlantic points to the high probability that he perished at sea by his own hand, slipping quietly over the side amidst his psychotic turmoil and confabulation of self-importance.

Crowhurst’s final entries describe his unshakeable conviction that he could leave his body and make himself divine whenever he wanted to. He underwent delusional ego-inflation without bounds. Alas, he argued the case for his belief on the basis of the mathematical puzzle, namely, the square root of minus one, which he believed was a powerful mystery. Just as the square root of minus one can turn ordinary numbers into “imaginary” ones, which would be inconceivable to stalled minds, his new idea could turn ordinary thinking into unimagined forms (Tomalin & Hall 1995, p. 239; Crowhurst’s log-book is quoted):

I introduce this idea [the square root of minus one] because [it] leads directly to the dark tunnel of the space-time continuum, and once technology emerges from this tunnel the “world” will “end” (I believe about the year 2,000, as often prophesied) in the sense that we will have access to the means of “extra physical” existence, making the need for physical existence superfluous.  In the process the “mechanism of second sight” and “prophecy” will be laid bare as a process simply linked with the possession of intelligence, and likely to be possessed by all intelligent animals. It is the application of intelligence that will allow this mechanism to be used at will as a superfluous by-product.

Such a delusional worldview buffered his imminent fraud. Like the ancient gazer Narcissus, he refused to see the deeper truth of his state of being amidst his circumstances at sea. These were masked by his tragic delusions of control in the face of failure. He assumed himself to be no ordinary mortal, but one for whom sound seamanship was now trivial in his cosmic scheme of things. Attempts to manage unrestrained hubris and the possibility of humiliation that is often implied in the process is an agonising human experience (McNamee 2002; Miller 1993; Fisher 2002). Crowhurst unconsciously resolved at the end of the Golden Globe that moral presence of any degree was beyond his grasp.

Phenomenology of Moral Presence at Sea

Moral presence is an existential counterpoint to the breakdown of technical self-reliance at sea, or failures of sporting performance. It appears in sailors’ lives in three characteristic ways, and becomes evident in their autobiographical reflections on risk-management and self-worth at sea. The three ways are:

1. Techincal Finesse;
2. Cosmic Quest;
3. Personal Test.

Each will be elaborated by way of illustrations from a number of sailors’ lives at sea and their thoughts about their nautical experiences[2].

First, moral presence may appear as the technical finesse of Robin Knox-Johnston, who skilfully avoided possible excesses of technical hubris and won the Golden Globe of 1968–1969. For him, the kind of spirituality that he found at sea always gave rise to pragmatic outcomes, or a “God helps those who help themselves” point of view. As he put it (Knox-Johnston 1970, pp. 172–173) after rounding Cape Horn and taking stock of the readiness of his yacht, Suhaili, to make the final run up the Atlantic to the finish line in England,

…the sea and ships are great levellers. There is certainly no room on a small boat for a person who is incompetent or won’t pull his own weight <…>. All share the same risks in a storm, and no earthly influence will select you above the rest to be saved if the ship founders <…>. Their whole existence depended on their ability to come to terms with the wind and sea, and to use these forces to drive their ship <…>. It is not surprising that most [seamen] thought more of their counterparts ashore about the cause of these forces, and not in the least surprising to me that so many were superstitious or developed unshakeable religious beliefs, and sometimes both. I have found myself thinking deeply on the matter when out in rough weather on a small boat. It is all very well for someone sitting in an office to explain logically how the waves can build up before the wind, for we have discovered the natural laws that control this, but to a seaman, the explanation of these laws does not always seem sufficient <…> the rules are there, the physical laws that we have slowly learned. If we obey them we have a chance of survival.

There is “action through non-action”, which is the Chinese Taoist doctrine of wu-wei (Waley 1958; Confucius 1971). An example of wu-wei is the natural wearing down of rough stones into smooth pebbles over time in a flowing stream. Human gestation is similar, requiring little effort other than the virtual passivity induced by pregnancy. Moral presence is a similar inner or “spiritual” posture assumed by sailors as they learn to get used to the sea. If they are lucky, then they come to learn that there is much that can be accomplished by taking action balanced by “non-action” after all. Writes Knox-Johnston (1970, pp. 172–173):

It is no use knowing that your boat is heading towards the eye of a storm and praying to God to see you through it safely. That’s not his job. It’s your task to steer the boat away from the eye, and you are asking too much if you expect the boat to survive when you deliberately ignore the rules. My own philosophy is developed about the phrase, “The Lord helps those who help themselves”. It is no good lying in your bunk, listening to the rising wind and feeling the boat beginning to strain and praying for God to take in reef. No one but a fool would expect anything to happen.  One has to get up and reef the sails oneself before the boat’s movement will ease <…>. When everything has been done that you know you can do, you put your trust in your Superior Being, and just hope that what you have done is right <…>. Because of this belief, throughout the voyage I never really felt I was completely alone, and I think a man would have to be inhumanly confident and self-reliant if he were to make this sort of voyage without a faith in God.

A statement like this one testifies to Knox-Johnston’s sense of achieved Zen-like “wisdom”, which is perhaps as the psychoanalytic thinker, Erik Erikson (1964, p. 133) puts it, namely, a capacity for “detached concern for life itself in the face of death itself”, albeit with occasional recourse to religious thoughts and behaviours. The achievement of such wisdom is a spiritual endeavour.

Second, moral presence may invoke a large and purposeful cosmic quest as it did for Bernard Moitessier, who felt driven to circumnavigate the globe as long as his food, water and stamina allowed, opting out of the Golden Globe of 1968–1969 entirely. If it can be said that Knox-Johnston carried forward a mainly competitive style of yachting as racing, then Moitessier represents a more leisurely style of yachting as cruising. For Moitessier, spirituality meant drawing close to the elemental sea and believing it to be infused with a life-giving mystical force, a power that could be made one’s own. For example, there is no better illustration of his resistance to keeping and using high technology on board his yacht, Joshua, as his means of communicating his progress during the race.

The staff of the Sunday Times was eager to get as much publicity for their newspaper as possible by featuring frequent stories about Moitessier’s voyage. They offered the Frenchman equipment that he had never before owned. The skipper of Joshua came to resent such offers, but mellowed towards key staff once they took into account his views about just how much equipment was needed. Writes Moitessier (1973, p. 5):

…I stopped resenting the staff of the Sunday Times <…>. Robert, the head of the team, would have liked me to ship a big transmitter with batteries and generator. They offered it gratis <… >so [I] could send them two weekly messages. The big cumbersome contraptions were not welcome. [My] peace of mind, and thereby [my] safety was more important, so [I] preferred not to accept them <…> Steve, <…> from the Press Service, loaded [me] with film, as well as watertight Nikonos cameras <…>.

While a transmitter and batteries are one thing, a fancy camera was a manageable concession. The problem arose with timing: how would pictures be able to be sent to the newspaper in lieu of radio broadcasts in order for the Press Service to report on the race day by day, week by week? Moitessier (1973, pp. 5–6) reached back into the arsenal of his youth in Hanoi for a solution, namely, his tried and true and trusty slingshot and a packet of fresh properly sized wide rubber bands:

I preferred my old, quiet friend the slingshot to two or three hundred pounds of noisy radio equipment, but [Steve] could feel the “how” and “why” and helped me to find good rubber bands, supplying me with aluminium cans to contain messages I would shoot onto passing ships. A good slingshot is worth all the transmitters in the world! And it is so much better to shift for yourself, with the two hands God gave you and a pair of elastic bands. I will try to send them messages and film for their rag. It would make them so happy <…> and me too.

One reads with delight how perplexed and amazed sailors on passing ships were to see Moitessier on his yacht shooting his message and film-filled cans into the air in the direction of their ships, which then accurately fell on board in one shot and clinked across the deck to be retrieved by crew. News of Joshua would then be wired back to London by the captains, and the photographs would be passed on to the nearest British Consul and posted to the Sunday Times by diplomatic courier. Moitessier’s slingshot was technically efficient but primitive or, perhaps better, simple. Moitessier did not care. Moderating any urge to get carried away by modern marine technology was the priority of sustaining a mystical sense of purpose and relationship with the natural elements.

The matter of a camera and film took his memory back several years when he sailed from Tahiti to Alicante, Spain with his wife, Françoise (Moitessier 1973, pp. 26–27): “…we never dared take pictures of the sea before the Horn, and least of all our big gale in the Pacific. Not because of danger or fatigue, but because we felt, in a confused sort of way, that it would have been a kind of desecration”. He was convinced that destiny controlled the moral nature of men and women as did the stars of the horoscope, but also that destiny allows a person a range of technical options with which to play out one’s moral nature in history, from event to event (Moitessier 1973, p. 33): “Destiny deals the cards, but we play them”. He often waxed lyrical about his solitude and likened himself to a seagull (Moitessier 1973, p. 3):

I felt such a need to rediscover the wind and the high sea, nothing else counted at that moment <…>. All Joshua and I wanted was to be left alone with ourselves <…>. You do not ask a tame seagull why it needs to disappear from time to time toward the open ocean. It goes, that’s all, and it is as simple as a ray of sunshine, as normal as the blue of the sky.

Moitessier sees himself as a sea mystic in tune with the elemental forces that bathe in natural wonder.

Third, moral presence may also come in the form of a personal test for sailors who are realistically unsure of their skills, but who also are bold enough to embark on an offshore voyage alone in order to do their very best in the face of such a challenge. Australian Kay Cottee lacked self-confidence at the outset, but recouped heaps of it during her record circumnavigation of 1988 (first woman in record time, 189 days). Nearing Cape Horn is a major emotional, technical and symbolical event in the life of any solo yachtsman, more so than approaching and rounding any of the other four capes along the way. Cottee’s autobiography comes to something of a crescendo of feeling that is mostly sublime in an aesthetical sense, but also physically demanding. The description of the beauty of the heaving Southern Ocean is perhaps one of the most captivating portrayals of the sea at its elemental best and worst, a powerful personal epiphany or primordial experience of mysterium tremendum et fascinans (Otto 1917). The mysterium tremendum et fascinans is not an ordinary lived experience, but an extraordinary event in the life of an individual, one that does not immediately make sense as it is beyond rationality and too powerful to contain. The mysterium means “mystery” in the sense of the unknown and unknowable; it is the “sacred”. Tremendum is that face of the sacred that induces feelings of awe and fear when an extraordinary event is experienced, and it always combines with the face of fascinans, feelings of fascination, allure and a sense of the sublime. Like a moth before a flame, a person who undergoes and experience of mysterium tremendum et fascinans must reckon with a coincidence of opposites, ones that could well conspire to create and destroy the self all at the same time. Just 585 miles from Cape Horn and in winds of 55 knots, Cottee (1989, p. 192) comes as close as she ever gets to undergoing a personal epiphany:

It wasn’t easy trying to slow down the boat. The further south we went the higher were the seas, as in the south latitudes of the Southern Ocean there is no land mass to break the speed and size of the waves as they hurtle round the globe. By 1600 hours we were under bare poles, towing the sea anchor, still doing a steady 7-plus knots and surfing up to 12 knots on the breakers. I tried setting the storm jib again and backing it with the helm down to put the boat into irons. After all my efforts I remember standing below, looking out of the clear companionway slide and watching the sea anchor, towed behind on the end of 10 metres of chain plus 70 metres of line, bouncing down the face of the next wave after the one we were riding. I estimated the waves to be approximately 20 metres high and breaking with a nice curl. When we were in the troughs I looked up, and despite my fears of being pitchpoled I was captured by the beauty of the aquamarine colours of the sun shining through the peak of the next approaching wave.

Such an epiphanous moment became physically incarnate, the mysterium presenting its perhaps more destructive tremendum face. Cottee’s physical tension at the time was unshakable. With the Horn approaching, she writes (Cottee 1989, p. 74):

The tension was really getting to me. My shoulders felt stiff and my neck hurt badly since I had put it out a few days ago winching the storm jib up. There were tingles down my spine and my hands continually went numb. I was increasingly worried that I couldn’t relax enough to get my neck to click back into place. If I settled into that position, permanent damage could be done. But no show of relaxing tonight, with land only a few miles away.

Blackmores First Lady was rounding Cape Horn in mid-January 1988. Cottee’s protracted personal epiphany progressed from a sense of destructive power that could not be controlled, even when it became embodied in the contorted vertebrae of her neck, to a fresh sense of excitement and personal accomplishment (Cottee 1989, p. 77):

After all the stories I had read about this ocean graveyard, here we were, only a few miles from it. I had thought it would give me a spooky feeling, considering the number of sailors who had been dashed to death on the treacherous black cliffs, or drowned in the mountainous seas. But my prime emotion was excitement and I had a great sense of accomplishment that I had reached what I then perceived to be the major obstacle in the voyage.

Hiding deep within herself was a fear of rounding Cape Horn, but she now was doing it in the light of day and fully conscious of how far beyond that inner fear she was then growing. As a fitting ritual gesture to commemorate the powerful event that had come good, Cottee opened the Cape Horn present that had been given to her by her mother, a bottle of her favourite “Joy” perfume. “I sprayed myself with the lovely scent, then put on some lipstick, before sitting down to a delicious belated lunch of fresh bread with crab and mayonnaise and the remainder of the bottle of Grange” (Cottee 1989, p. 77).

Cottee used the sea and the fine balance between action and non-action to test herself not only as a self-reliant technical sailor, but also as a moral being in formation. Terrifying experience associated with the mysterium tremendum as an epiphanic moment could be converted mentally into the mysterium fascinans, or the glass being “half full” not “half empty”. This is a spiritual event, or a means to ultimate personal transformation. She writes (Cottee 1989, p. 77):

I was very lucky on this particular day because the sun was shining, and as the next huge wave rolled up behind the boat blocking out the sun, the sun shone through the top of it and the colours of the sunlight refracting through the water were just magnificent. I immediately thought that not many people would get to see a sight like it from that angle and how beautiful the waves were. So, after that, the bigger the waves got the more beautiful they became, and that’s when I realised you definitely can change your thoughts if you put enough practice and conviction into it.

At the end of the day, Cottee’s lesson is one of inner growth, or an inner reframing of self-worth as a moral being above all else. The human virtue of “wisdom” manifests in her character. Such insight is fashioned by the inchoate sea and wind and all of the chthonic forces at work in combination with them (Cottee 1990, pp. 159–160):

…there are not enough years of life given to any of us to accomplish all of our dreams and hopes. Some people battle all their lives to get somewhere or do something, against insurmountable odds, only to end their existence as they started out — frustrated and incomplete. Happiness and pleasure at all times with whatever we do in life, whilst working towards a goal or actually achieving it, should be the prime objective. That’s not to say we should be greedy with our time and spend it on ourselves and our projects, becoming single-minded, selfish bores (which I felt I was sometimes, in the months before leaving on the trip, nearly destroying some precious friendships in the process).

Lesson learned, Kay Cottee was on her way home a changed woman, perhaps with a maturity that would allow her to go home but never again as she first imagined she would, only to fall again into dependency on others for her self-esteem. She became free from all that.


So, sailors may hope to sail wisely. Doing so catapults them into always facing life itself in the face of death itself. Presented are occasions for reflection on just what they understand themselves to be as human beings first, competent yachtsmen second. Being in peril at sea could well turn into damnation and demise, but also it could be redemptive, or a personal process of “getting life into proper perspective”. While astronauts could take “one step for a man and one giant leap for mankind”, a sailor at sea is no less a voyager stepping ahead on behalf of their individual lives and also for the entire human species (Erikson 1964; Jonas 1984). Especially for the single-handed sailor, when the chips are down and peril is imminent, doing things to survive is critical. However, they would be regressive as people were they to respond only in a reactionary manner without also being morally present at such times, when little more can be done to survive. Important questions arise. Is a sailor able to find an “inner calm” amidst calamitous circumstances and learn to be totally “present” within such a personal storm? Being who they may become as peril is faced may be more important than survival itself. Sometimes doing nothing saves the day, for example, not abandoning a dismasted yacht that remains afloat. Are they reactionary? Do they panic or despair when things break down? Or does a paradox of “action through inaction” appear? Is being present to witness such circumstances a deliberate stance, rather than automatically and without consideration trying to do more when little more can realistically be done? To be present is to insert human vitality into perilous circumstances, and that is about all that is called for when nothing else can be done. In general, the study of sport and its relationship to developing spiritual insight and overall moral resilience (“character”) remains important to the maturing consciousness or global human spirit. For example, yachting worldwide can be more than simply knowing how to sail from “Point A” to “Point B” and theory about what to do in emergencies. Like other sports, yachting also can facilitate knowing who people are as human beings in the universe, with the sea as a microcosm of nature’s indifference, impartiality and caprice in regard to human will.

Human Face of Sport: Tragedy and Comedy

The human face of the sport is what makes yachting so compelling. In the end, it could be said that the sport of yachting is drama writ large, a combination of comedy and tragedy all in one. Only around the edges of the drama is the technology of yachts and their equipment a topic worth consideration. The comic aspect of the sport would certainly include the often obscenely exorbitant financial costs for state-of-the-art boats, equipment and, in highly competitive racing, professional crews. For the average weekend sailing aspirant, the costs of marina berths, annual haul-outs, regular anti-fouling of the boat’s hull and the not infrequent need for repairs is laughable to outside observers. Some standard jokes in this regard go like this: “Yachting is like standing in a cold shower and tearing up $100 bills” or “like throwing money into a great hole in the water”; and “There are two wonderful days in yachting — the one when you buy the boat and then the day when the boat is finally sold”. Indeed, even committed yachting people often wonder why in the world they ever got into sailing in the first place, and what keeps them “hanging in there”. The comic irony of yachting escapes no one, and it always elicits a chuckle.

The tragic dimension of the human drama of yachting takes in all of the existential peril that is faced both by competitive racing and leisurely cruising sailors. Peril is taken on board and reckoned with over the course of time and miles offshore on the high seas far from effective immediate assistance. For average sailors the standard advice is, “Log on with the Coast Guard before setting out”. No search and rescue procedures will be put in place if a yacht calls the Coast Guard on the radio upon returning to the marina to “log off”, indicating that a safe and sound return from a sailing venture. Weekend sailing is hardly high drama, though it can become so. However, the same cannot be said for much longer passages. For offshore sailors, tragedies can be woven out of the jagged separations of leaving family and friends behind, psychological oscillations between profound solitude and unsettling hallucinations inhabited by companions of varying sorts, real anxieties about the boat striking whales or shipping containers that have fallen off ships and float just below the surface of the ocean, being unable to control the yacht in wind and waves, worry about one’s mental health and whether a voyage will succeed. Whether the human drama of going to the sea in a yacht is more or less comic or tragic must be discerned case by case from reports of sailors themselves. Only afterwards do the meanings of their voyages dawn on most sailors. Most single-handed circumnavigators of the globe attest to having been profoundly changed by what they did and all that happened to them at sea. If yachting is drama write large, combining comedy and tragedy all at once, then a naïve or shortsighted reliance on the technology of yachting can make voyaging into a fool’s paradise.

Perhaps it goes back to the kind of worldview that one assumes, and whether it is like the pre-modern earth-centred vision of Ptolemy or the modern “cosmic” outlook of Copernicus and moon-based astronauts. The pre-modern worldview always implied that when human beings found themselves in difficulties, then appeals could be put to higher powers or “God” for divine help. Christianity (and Islam among world religions) represents such a clarion call most. In pre-Christian ancient Greek drama, such appeals were represented on stage by a simple technical device called a deus ex machina, or “god from a machine”. Attached to the set on which a dramatic performance would be staged was a small crane. The crane was used to lower props as needed into scenes of the play being acted out below. Included among various props were “gods”. They represented the chief divine and semi-divine players of Greek mythology. Representations of Zeus, Prometheus, Demeter and so on could be attached to the deus ex machina and lowered into dramatic performances, and this was done usually at moments of heightened comic or tragic feeling in the audience. The “gods” could always be relied on to “save the day” for mere mortals or condemn them to tragic fates. The stage-bound mortals always happened to find themselves in difficulties that evoked crying and tears of sorrow as well as peals of laughter and joy from onlookers. The result was a catharsis, or sense of emotional release and insight into the drama of being human across the crowded amphitheatre.

The chief question this raises is, will single-handed circumnavigating sailors (and others) persist in hoping that something like a deus ex machina will help them sort out their perilous human dramas at sea? In other words, how might sailors with an otherwise “blind faith” in technical self-reliance learn to abandon hope that such modern “gods” will appear and be effective when they think they are most needed? And so sailors play their parts on the dramatic stage of the sea. Some soar to heights of technical skill thinking nothing of it, until things begin falling apart and nothing goes exactly according to plan, and when it would be comical if that was all there was to it. Do the “wheels fall off” the deus ex machina of technical self-reliance? Other sea-bound actors venture bravely into the whirlpool of such comedy, where they enter into a maelstrom of desperation that leads to tragedy, perhaps even to their deaths. These sailors are forced to face themselves without “gods” of heaven above or technology below, teetering on a watery abyss all by themselves. If, somehow, the deus ex machina of technical self-reliance can be repaired, if the “wheels” can be put back on, then they can continue to believe that survival may become much more possible. However, a general sense of futility persists in all of it. Such is the existential nature of the human drama at hand for most single-handed sailors, and perhaps for other sporting people.

A critically important point must be noted. It is not the technological device of the “god machine” itself that is so important. The most important thing is the human end served by the deus ex machina, whatever form that technological device may take in critical moments on the ocean. (Does the radio suddenly work again? Does rain replenish empty water tanks? Do flooded bilges pump dry? Does the chopper locate the damaged yacht? Is a long-missing bottle of brandy finally found?) Between tragedy and comedy, the most important thing that is served by technology (i.e., a physical extension of human will) at sea is the human drama played out to a final catharsis by the yachtsman. Such a catharsis is a spiritual operation that transforms the seemingly mirror-like waters of the sea into an impregnable “Other” in the modern period, neither friend nor foe by dint of its indifference to a person’s life. As single-handed sailor and author, Jonathan Raban (1992, p. 34) puts it:

In a secular world, it is this sacral quality of the sea that survives most vividly in poetry of our own time. The sea lies on the far margin of society, and it is ― as nothing else is ― serious and deep. The last line of Derek Walcott’s epic narrative poem, Omeros, has Achilles (a West Indian fisherman who, in Alcott’s poem as in Homer’s Iliad, is the prototype of a busy, mortal man) walking away from the end of the story: When he left the beach the sea was still going on.

The sea is made to reflect not only its impartial and perilous nature, but also all that the sailors have witnessed of themselves out there unaided and mirrored by the sea, either liking or worrying about what they observe about themselves. Bearing such witness to oneself pressed into personal peril in sport is a stepping-stone to spiritual insight. That sort of insight leads to a life in which doing nothing may often be the most effective action to take and represent a zenith of human value. This is especially so when the ever-veiled cosmic stakes that underscore human existence are taken into account, terms for living that embrace failure and defeat and, nonetheless, make for exhilaration and a revitalisation of life come what may.

[1] This article reflects a larger research project in which not only autobiographical accounts of sailors’ recollections are reviewed. It also relies on personal interviews with some notable Australian single-handed global circumnavigators (e.g. Jesse Martin of Lionheart, 1998–1999) and shipwrecked sailors of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race (e.g. John “Steamer” Stanley of Winston Churchill 1998).

[2] Perhaps a fourth way in which moral presence dawns in the awareness of single-handed or “solo” sailors is through experiencing voyages and trials at sea as Dreams and Nightmares, but such awareness comes only in glimpses, each with different human lessons to teach, if surviving technically at sea is effective enough. Whereas moral presence as Technical Finesse, Cosmic Quest and Personal Test are clearly evident in the lives of sailors, “Dreams and Nightmares” lack clarity. Moral presence as a clear realisation is clouded by shadows of profound and ongoing uncertainty; it does not build up continuities of significant human themes that go to coherent self-understandings, being only partial in nature. One is led to wonder whether sailors actually are fully “awake” to what is at stake, or whether their innocence and/or lack of technical skill at sea together represent a “slumber” or somnolence of a sort? Eventually, these sorts of sailors “wake up” to what they have done, but this occurs usually well after the fact of their voyages. The lucky ones, like seventeen-year-old Australian Jesse Martin, eventually fulfil their dream, though the gravity of undertaking a solo circumnavigation around the globe floated on his naïveté and lots of backing from sponsors, family and friends. Martin was often pleasantly overcome by a vague sense of higher purpose that undergirded his solo circumnavigation from Melbourne from the end of 1998 and through most of 1999, but the nature of that purpose remained elusive (Martin 2001). Unlucky somnolent sailors, like Tami Ashcraft, seek only an end to their dream-turned-nightmare. Her boyfriend was swept overboard and lost at sea while they were making a yacht delivery from Tahiti to San Diego, California. Ashcraft knew very little about sailing. Her terror was stayed only by an “inner voice”, a sign of being on the verge of imminent personal disintegration and psychosis, though she managed to survive in the end and reach Hawaii. Also naïve, such unlucky sailors are thrown into treacherous circumstances against their will, and must somehow try to maintain inner strength to survive (Ashcraft 2002).


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