Larry Sechrest
Larry Sechrest

Nautical Paradox

First I must confess something. When it comes to any sort of watercraft driven by the wind, I am intensely biased. Of course, mine is a "bias" that I apparently share with a large portion of New Zealanders, so I think I will be forgiven. I have been passionately attracted to all manner of sailing ships and sailboats virtually as long as I can remember. I have always wanted to know how they performed, how they were designed and constructed, how they were sailed, and what roles they had played in history. Sailing vessels are, to me, the most interesting of all machines.

What other class of things has served so successfully as a source of income, an object of adoration, a method of transport and exploration, an instrument of war, and a means of entertainment ? None that I can think of. Building them and navigating them across the oceans often occupied the best scientific minds. Daring capitalist-entrepreneurs created wealth by carrying highly-valued goods in their holds. Artists and photographers without number have been inspired by their beauty. They are the most gorgeous creations of the human race, the only inanimate objects that seem alive. For a thousand years they carried the commerce of the world. Now they provide us with the ultimate in sport.

Many people, especially my fellow Americans, may think that the pinnacle of achievement in team sports is winning football's Super Bowl. But they are mistaken. Nor is it winning the World Cup, or the World Series, or some Olympic team event. The finest, the most significant, the most glorious, of all team sports is yachting, and the most sought-after prize in yachting is the America's Cup. In other words, the greatest team in sports today is, in my opinion, the sixteen men of Black Magic who recently swept away the Italian challengers in five straight races on the Hauraki Gulf.

I know that I am unlikely to find very many inhabitants of NZ who would contest the above declaration, but allow me to explain my reasons nonetheless. In part this is necessary because the present essay, despite the impression that doubtless has been created so far, will not ultimately be very flattering to New Zealanders.

Yachting is the premier team sport because, at its best, it reflects and requires some of the highest qualities to be found in human beings. First of all, almost all other sports emphasise largely physical skills and involve very simple implements. Consider soccer, rugby, American football, basketball, cricket, baseball, and their like. A ball, a field or arena, some protective gear, perhaps a bat for striking the ball and you are ready to play. Moreover, the requisite skills are primarily the fundamental motor skills of running, jumping, and throwing.

These are rather primitive games, games for children in an important sense, very exciting at times, perhaps because of their primal simplicity, but primitive nevertheless. There may be active intelligence required on the part of the team's coach, but intelligence is clearly not a prerequisite for the players. In fact, even most of the professionals in these sports are really large, powerful children, immature and foolish. Just listen to the gibberish they spout whenever they are interviewed. Lest I be misunderstood, let me quickly add that these sports are certainly not without value. I myself played a lot of baseball and basketball when I was young, and I still play golf. My point is simply that these are children's sports; while yachting is a sport for thinking adults.

One of the key reasons is that yachting involves the use of machinery — the boat itself. Therefore, some of the most important persons in yachting are the designers, the builders, and the sailmakers. These are the men, part engineer and part artist, who must succeed at a conceptual level if the boat is to be a winner. Reflect on their self-appointed task. They seek to create a machine that will move swiftly through one fluid while being propelled by another fluid. In short, they use their ingenuity and knowledge to conquer nature. Theirs is a microcosm of the glorious phenomenon that lies at the heart of all meaningful human endeavor: the triumph of man's mind over the limitations of nature. They are the creators.

The artisans who sail these lovely machines deserve to be praised enthusiastically as well. The crews, and most especially the helmsman and the tactician, must thoroughly understand their boat's aerodynamic and hydrodynamic characteristics. And these they must translate into concrete decisions, such as how much tension to put on a backstay or which weight of spinnaker to set. Moreover, such decisions often must be made quickly and under great stress. There are few humans who are equal to this task. It demands that one possess complex knowledge, a cool head, and no small amount of physical endurance.

If I am right, then, yachting inherently involves science and art, clear thinking and vigorous action. And does not New Zealand stand at the top of the heap in the yachting world? Don't New Zealanders deserve to pat themselves on the back?

No and no. First of all, it is only the few men directly involved with the winning syndicate who deserve to be (highly) praised. "New Zealand" is not an entity, but an artificial grouping of entities — the individual citizens of the country. New Zealand won nothing! Don't get me wrong. In one sense it was wonderful to see tens of thousands celebrating the triumph of Black Magic. I too was delighted to see them win. However, virtue cannot be achieved by mere proximity to the virtuous.

That is the crux of the problem. It was heartwarming to see crowds of people cheering the very real accomplishments of these yachtsmen. However, there was a kind of cognitive dissonance that was also involved. As I watched, I could not help but wonder how many actually understood the philosophical significance of what had been achieved. The readers of this magazine no doubt understand, but how many others do? This was a triumph of man's mind. How ironic that it should occur in a nation populated largely by "sheeple."

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