A cruising sailor’s creed

When I was 19 I spent a year living on a remote island in the Marshall Islands. During my time there I worked alongside the islanders, my neighbors and my hosts. I learned how to harvest coconut meat – their sole source of income – ripping open blisters on my tender palms as I ripped the tough coconut husk from the shell on a sharpened steel spike driven firmly into the ground. I taught their children in a thatched hut with a coral rock floor. When it rained heavily and the wind drove the rain in sideways under the thatched roof, I moved my students to the opposite side of the hut and kept right on teaching. I sat on woven grass mats in my hosts’ homes, playing cards or talking by lantern light late into the night about their past, their island, their adventures, their dreams. I delivered my condolences and the traditional bar of soap to a grieving family and paid my respects to the lifeless body, covered by a clean, white sheet, motionless atop a woven mat, hands folded peacefully across her chest. I attended yokwe parties and ate (sometimes I didn’t know what) whatever was put before me. Loathe to leave, I delayed my departure date repeatedly, radioing the secretary on the big island to say “one more week, one more week.” I wept when I said goodbye. I promised never to forget my island friends.

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As a kid I had always loved fish and the water, so it was natural that I got hooked on snorkeling and spearfishing while I was on Woja.  Almost every day after I’d finished my work, I’d don my bathing suit, grab my mask and spear, and head to the water. I’d bring my fish to Elie, my next-door neighbor, and ask him which ones were edible and which weren’t. Elie taught me how to prepare the fish, and I would eat supper with him and his family. Elie was grateful for the fresh fish; his boys no longer valued the tradition of harvesting their own food from the sea, canned and processed foods proving too convenient. I was pleased that my sport was useful – if not entirely necessary – and part of his culture’s tradition.

Now I’m a high school teacher and a Lake Michigan sailor. I don’t teach in a thatched hut, I don’t husk coconuts, and I don’t spearfish. I satisfy my longing for adventure with summer sailing on Lake Michigan and camping trips to the Upper Peninsula – as if being dad to two energetic and imaginative young boys isn’t adventure enough.

When winter approaches, which is right about this time of year, I enjoy reading sailing blogs. Generally the photos of far-off exotic places bring me a little warmth during the cold Michigan winter. Lately, however, the photos have left me feeling a little…cold. Spearfishing, it seems, has become a popular sport among cruising sailors – at least those whose blogs I follow. Many of their blogs feature photos of stunning and enormous dead fish – and delectable recipes. I understand the allure – trust me, I do – but I’m troubled.

When I was into backpacking there was a motto: “Take only pictures; Leave only footprints.” A few years later, when I was obsessed with my classic ’74 Land Cruiser and off-roading, the motto was “Tread Lightly.” I’m beginning to think that it’s time cruising sailors come up with a similar creed.

I’m not a militant conservationist, but my time in the islands taught me – among many, many other things – to respect the local people and their resources. The photos and videos of sailors – transients, guests, interlopers, in some cases – harvesting far more fish for just themselves than I ever caught for my adopted Marshallese family troubles me, leaves me cold. I understand the allure, but I also understand the importance of treading lightly, respecting the native people, and leaving as little evidence of your presence as possible. Perhaps sailors need to add to their extensive tradition of aphorisms, proverbs, and sayings a new phrase: “Catch only the wind; Make nary a wake.”

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