Zensekai (zen's world under sail)

The sailing adventures of s/v Zen and crew

Thursday, June 01, 2006

The Physical “Zen-do” of Sailing

Disclaimer: the following is the rambling of an old flowerchild hippie who sometimes gets too Philosophical, but spells bad.

I have heard it said in a couple of different places, from different people about getting in shape for sailing or a sailing passage. I have also heard mention of staying in shape whilst on a cruise. Recently Tillerman’s Proper Course blog had a subject on "On the Value of Physical Conditioning". So he gets the credit or blame :-) for inspiring this ramble.

A lot of my references for things come from my Kung Fu training, due to the fact that Kung Fu unlike what many people think is not just about fighting. In fact it is one of the smaller aspects of the “art”. It is a way of life, a path of living in Harmony with yourself and environment. A path of Zen in some ways. Understanding that we are a small part of the whole, we are not the whole, contrary to western thought, just a small piece of it. Those who’ve sailed the ocean understand our smallness in life.

The formal study of Kung Fu, known as Shaolin, was born like “Zen” in a Monastery in Northern China, both named “Shao Lin” ( small forest ). An Indian Monk from the warrior class, named Da Mo came to teach Buddhism to the Lohans there. He found the monks in such poor physical shape they could not hold up under the mental/physical demands of meditation. He came up with a series of exercises which were the basics of the 18 Lohan Kung Fu style, which later developed into the Shaolin System of Martial Art.

Yeah, yeah, that is interesting Zen Shrfu, but what does that have to do with Sailing,… have patience grasshopper….

One does not think of meditation as generally being strenuous. However, the act of sitting for long periods is taxing, one can fall asleep, and one can not achieve non-thought, because ones thoughts are occupied with getting comfortable. Your mind will not settle to the task at hand, of having no-mind :-). You are not in harmony with yourself or surroundings. You are focused on yourself, therefore you cannot be in a state of Zen, which is detachment from self and ego and understanding you as part of the whole and being centered. This is all my interpretation of course, & my sails maybe just full of…wind.

Do you follow how this fits with sailing? You cannot focus fully on achieving a state of “Zen sailing”, harmony with the wind and water because your mind is unsettled, your body is not at peace. Therefore your mind is not at peace, so you struggle to reach that spiritual state of let's say “Zen”. This is counter to the way to achieve it, because you can not reach it by fighting to get there. I’m not saying you can not move through the water via wind power, eg: sail, but it is not SAILING. Same as you can do the movements of Tai Chi, but unless your mind, body and spirit are in harmony, working together you are not doing TAI CHI (TAIJI) you are just doing Tai Chi movements.
You have been setting lines, trimming sheets, hosting the main, lowering the main, the jib, reefing, going out on deck and back. It is taking its toll on your out of shape Physical temple, arm hurt, back hurts. Another tack, then another, trim that line; you’re getting out of breath.
Ahh finally you are on a good course you collapse onto your cushion and reach for that beer, but you need to take a few breathes before that swallow.

Being in relative good physical shape is a tool to achieving the spiritual state of Sailing Harmony, which I’ll call Zen sailing.

Breath of the world
Fills my body and sails
Slicing through the water
I hear God.

Now as I have come to understand our existence here we have three levels or states to life. The physical, the mental, and the spiritual and this is true too of sailing, is it not? Like a metaphor for life. I have spoken of the spiritual, that elated feeling, the wind on your face flying on a reach, with only the sound water and wind in your ears, the feeling of losing yourself and all ego into the great wholeness of the Universe, you the boat and the breath of the Universe are in harmony. The perfect sail.

The physical: lifting, pulling, tugging, and climbing.

Now the mental.
There you are, tired from that last series of tacks, trying to catch your breath, because it is windier than you had thought it would be that day. You tilt your head back to take a swig of that Coors and catch sight of a big butt tanker bearing down on you fast; you did not notice because you were dealing with so much other stuff your mind, not focused, forgot to be aware of your surroundings, Oh Snap Batman!! Just as it registers, the winds shifts hard, and because you were tired you took a moment before setting the boom preventer and as the boom swings hard across the cockpit catching you off guard, you suddenly need to take a swim with some help getting off the boat…that last thing you remember is the sound of the tankers horn echoing in your ears as you feel the cold chill of the ocean embrace you and the lights go out. In the words of a single handed sailor I know on line, who circumnavigated. “It does happen, not just in the movies”.

A kind man I know on-line, who I call Bill Sensei told me in order to get in shape for his sail on an I-29 ( sister to s/v Zen) to Hawaii solo, he swam everyday. He understood the importance of being full on your JOB when sailing, even though you think of it as relaxing.


  • At 10:03 PM, Blogger Carol Anne said…

    Thank you, zen, for summing up something that's been a vague idea in my head for a long time, about needing to concentrate and reach a certain state of mind.

    I've never done martial arts, but the way you explain just plain fits with what I feel on the boat. You have shown me a hint of the sort of awareness I wish for.

    Maybe I should take up tai chi.

  • At 8:02 AM, Blogger Zen said…

    Thanks for the comments, it makes a difference.


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