Monday, May 22, 2017

Webb Chiles

They say the Florida Keys are  a crossroads for sailors, and I used to believe that but what I discovered was that the Keys are the end of the road for many dreams, the last anchorage in the US, the sunny spot where waters are beautiful and the money and language and habits are familiar and the fear of the foreign freezes the ambitions of sailors who would girdle the globe. Yesterday I had the great good fortune to meet one of my youthful heroes, a man who sails and writes and meditates on the meaning of life and does it all elegantly and with finesse. Meet Webb Chiles:
He was a young man adventuring and writing his stories when I was bright eyed and bushy tailed learning to sail and planning my own escapes. Now in his 70s he is fit and active and completing his sixth journey round the world on a sailboat. He parked in Marathon last week after a 1300 mile passage from St Lucia in the Caribbean, which was by his description the shortest passage he's made in years. It took him two weeks and ended in the flat calm we experienced on shore. I watched his progress on a very modern satellite transmitter he carries LINK.  I peek over his shoulder across the oceans as the Yellow Brick transmits his position every six hours he is underway. Quite brilliant.
Webb Chiles likes challenges and his vessel for this journey around the world is 24 feet long and offers a small cabin with crouching head room and not much amenity. He loves this 2000 pound "ultra light" sailboat designed and built in my former home town of Santa Cruz California to surf the huge swells of the Pacific Coast. Gannet is an extremely able sailer helmed by an extremely able sailor and has only a small electric outboard used to get in and out of harbors. This boat is his home when he is away from his wife and apartment in Chicago.
I have admired Chiles all my life as a no nonsense man of action. He loves to be at sea, so he sails. He is not a salesman or an advertiser, he doesn't push a "lifestyle" he simply lives his life and tells stories. He has a very down to earth view of life, acknowledging the fact that he will die he has created a list of music he would like  us to listen to, to remember him by, his requiem. He has faced death at sea, drifting across hundreds of miles after his boat failed him, getting arrested in the Middle East when his fellow humans failed him, pressing on with his life against the odds when his relationships failed him. I admire him enormously and I am not one to be star struck.
We had lunch together in Marathon and we made the best of a noisy mediocre restaurant to talk of his life and his plans and he was incredibly easy going and down to earth. I was delighted the conversation included the subject of toilets which if you have never been a sailor you won't understand but for some reason and no one knows why put two sailors in a room and toilets end up in the conversation. It just happens that way. We also talked about transiting the Panama Canal, and life choices about where to live. Chiles likes San Diego for its mild climate and good year round sailing. But California is crowded and Chiles made the point that most people live in the Northern Hemisphere where most of the problems seem to be generated. It was a conversation worth having and I enjoyed it very much, and I could have spent more time bothering the man.
He describes passage making as entering the "monastery of the sea" and I admire his pleasure in his craft but I have seen his videos on YouTube (search Webb Chiles and look for a series of Gannet in the Indian Ocean, commentary on the journey which will enthrall you or make you wonder why anyone would do such a thing). I am glad I have made the modest passages I have made but I am also glad I can put sailboats aside and look to travel on land where I can see more and live closer to the colors and textures that fascinate me. I never did find myself at peace with the ocean or one with nature on the high seas. Sailing entails a lot of struggle and a search for the very good bits which are so rare for me. I remember a handful of passages of perfect conditions. Chiles himself had this conversation he says in St Lucia and the sailor he was talking with suggested 15% of sailing is in the right conditions. The rest involves a struggle with too much wind or too little or from the wrong direction, or uncomfortable seas and so on.
Webb Chiles sails using his cellphone (!) which is his sextant, his library, his music station, and so forth. He writes his passage log on his laptop and if you want a  taste of the business of sailing check the link above to explain what its like at sea in a small boat. His modest electrical needs are taken care of by solar panels and he burns no gasoline. It is a rare and fascinating existence and I am so glad there are the outliers among us who will show us how it's done. I am profoundly grateful he found the time to share his thoughts with me for a few hours between my work shifts. I hope I have encouraged you  to think of looking at his writings: HERE.  Check out his stuff, it is epic.
The sailing bug hit me when I was a youngster dreaming of escape from my home situation and I read Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome. After I ran away to California I learned to sail at O'Neills of surfing fame in Santa Cruz and I moved onto my own boat full time and went sailing every weekend and on every vacation up and down the California coast and up the Sacramento delta. And I read books about boats and sailing and traveling by sailboat. Frank Mulville, Arthur Ransome and Webb Chiles were my favorites as they all approached sailing as part of life. They expressed their emotions, they didn't sugar coat and they brought to life the perils and joys of distant travel. It was fabulous. That I never attained their ease and comfort on the water is attributable to me and not them. They never oversold the experience. To have met Webb Chiles and to have found him as unaffected and thoughtful as he has been in print across the course of my adult life was a splendid and rare thing. I shall enjoy following the yellow brick later this year when he takes off from Marathon. Because when Chiles says he will be sailing away he will do just that, no hesitation, no "wimping out" no second guessing. The world needs more like him.