Ocean : simplicity, pleasure and peak experiences.

Title photograph : Weymouth UK.  Freedom 35

Or just hedonistic pleasure seeking ?

A bit of navel-gazing (Ted)

“The sea, perhaps because of its saltiness, roughens the outside but keeps sweet the kernel of its servants’ soul.” 
― Joseph Conrad

In a recent post i touched on a couple of things that the late Bill King said about his time at sea as a sailor when he was competing in the Golden Globe race and when he went on to sail a cruising circumnavigation.        In the first post of this theme i mainly talked about his sense of self-reliance and personal responsibility.  In this post i intend to delve a little deeper into the ideas of simplicity and happiness at sea but with a sideways look at something Jordan Petersen has said a few times and with which i disagree.

In the following video, at around 4 minutes Bill King speaks briefly about his sense of happiness at sea, he really doesn’t waste words either.   If there is a theme in what he says it is that being alone isn’t a problem, that there is beauty out there, that there is plenty to occupy the mind and that there is much less temptation to chase fleeting pleasures.   He says that there is less opportunity to ‘sin’ and i had to really think about that one.

Several months ago i mentioned my current early morning work routine which i have scheduled in such a way that i have thinking/writing time when i am at my sharpest.   Ok, so ‘sharp’ isn’t that sharp at the best of times but what i do have is usually at it’s best in the morning when i am working on posts like these.    For this post i have been circling around the three themes of pleasure, simplicity and peak experiences as related to sailing.            I often find that many people think of sailing as either a purely hedonistic pleasure or a demonstration of social class and wealth, i find i disagee with both of those views, not the least when i am up to my armpits in yet another smelly bilge !   What then does sailing mean to me or what do i get out of it ?

Bill King said that he went to sea for a purpose, and that purpose was to recover himself from the overwhelming stress of driving a submarine throughout the war.  I have listened to what he has said several times and tried to think about each point that he makes….he really makes his words count.  The other person that i will refer to several times here is of course Dr Jordan Petersen….clinical psychologist/lecturer and now media bad-boy.    Petersen is the complete opposite to Bill King : very wordy and sometimes very difficult to follow….his tangents even have tangents !

To get at Dr Petersen’s points for this series i have had to go over many of his past lectures and catch up with all the debates and interviews he has done in the last few months.  One major point is that he talks a lot about purpose and meaning in life…that we are much happier and fulfilled when we are doing something that is meaningful to us, when we have purpose and are working towards a goal. He says that happiness might just be a useful side effect of working towards a goal.  I was just reflecting that i have often been ‘happy’ when doing things that are, in themselves. fairly unpleasant….like cranking out weights in a gym, or on my back on a muddy slipway underneath a boat !

I would posit that Bill King decided to go to sea and try and sail around the world to get his head straightened out after his wartime experiences, that then he was working to a clear purpose, his life at sea was then simple and satisfying with enough problems to deal with and had none of the annoying distractions of shoreside life.  His quest was certainly not just seeking out hedonistic pleasure and yet he found pleasure from doing something moderately difficult .    I certainly don’t want to conflate my own experiences with his : my life as a specialist nurse was often frantically busy and often quite stressful….enough to wreck my sleep pattern….but equally no-one was trying to kill me and my crew at the same time !    I do know that many sailors today do go to sea as a relief from stress, nothing wrong with that in my book.

One of Petersen’s recent talking points is about poverty, not necasarily absolute material poverty but ‘relative’ poverty and more recently ‘spiritual’ poverty.  I would be here all day if i tried to cover those points and still not get close.  The facts seem to be that real poverty is actually decreasing across the world, less people starving and living in dire poverty for example but that relative poverty might be increasing in the west and could be one of the drivers of crime.   In relation to this post he says that meaning and purpose are frequently absent from life, that spiritual poverty is partially a result of that alongside nihilism and that much of life is driven towards material hedonism….wanting more and more ‘goodies’ for example.  He did take a couple of side-swipes at ‘yachts’ and lives of pure hedonism which i had to then go and do a lot of thinking about  While i was in hospital i went over this again and again in the sleepless hours as i posed the question “is what i am doing in my sailing just seeking out hedonistic pleasure ?”  If you had asked me that question while i was wet, cold sick and tired ‘barfing’ my way across the Tasman sea i might have given you a somewhat salty reply.   As it happens i don’t think it is much about hedonism although i’m not always sure exactly what it actually is.

Hedonism ? or just plain old Essex mud.



There is undoubdtably hedonism in the sailing world though, and not just the hedonism of tropical sun, booze and easy sailing.         Go and look at any one of a number of the sailing youtube channels : La Vagabonde comes to mind, and all you will get is babes in bikinis, tropical islands, endless sunshine and to my mind endless boredom.  Many of those channels go all ‘snowflake’ the moment that reality intrudes.   If i asked many of my non sailing friends what their idea of the ultimate yacht experience would be it would probably involve sitting on a superyacht in the Carribbean being served drinks and having an endless party lifestyle : i would be bored within minutes.   In fact i have always been aware of my own tension and paradox with ‘yachting’…..much of the white plastic parked in Uk marinas just seems to be status toys that go nowhere.  What really turned me on to my own vibe about this was, i think, the classic yacht regatta in the Solent about 20 years ago.  I went to see the boats and it was line after line of high end craftsmanship in one way of looking at it and an obnoxious display of high-end wealth in another….it actually made me uncomfortable and with a degree of disgust.  I left professional sailing soon after that ‘woke’ moment.

What exactly is this ?


Ok so lets turn this whole post around .

It certainly isn’t obvious to me that pure hedonism has been any part of my sailing life especially when i think that the Caribbean generally sucks and that superyachts are obnoxious status symbols.    Often, my sailing hasn’t been directly and immediately even enjoyable….when i think of the years i spent racing offshore in the gold, grey and often grim conditions of the Irish sea.  So, i have had to spend a lot of time while writing this post why and how i have actually gained something, if not immediate pleasure, from my sailing life.

If i go right back to those years, usually perched on the windward rail of an IOR boat, it was most often cold grey and wet and we weren’t ever even a competitive boat…..and i kept going back for more even when it was difficult to do so because of my job.  I can’t remember how often i would have to jump on my motorbike with my seabag lashed to the tank and ride the 100 miles or so to get to the boat. Often it was also a trip on the night ferry across to Dublin with very little sleep….curled up in the corner somewhere….then race the boat back to say Holyhead and then ride straight back for an early shift the next day.  I don’t think i ever arrived back on the ICU ‘still dripping’ from an offshore race but i do remember at least once riding straight into work and just making handover.

If there was pleasure it was gained from the incremental progress of competence and eventually, maybe, some degree of mastery and increase in personal endurance.  Although a bit shouty and ‘bloke-y’ it was also a good escape from the job.  It seems strange, even pretentious to say it but those years sacrificing time and comfort for minimal achievement eventually gave me the huge reward of the Whitbread race and then even better a full circumnavigation as a professional.  Even with what i had done before i was barely ready for the longer trips and always there seemed to be new skills to master and new situations to deal with….and yet the race and the circumnavigation were 2 of the most significant peak experiences  that i have ever had in sailing.

If there has been a theme in my sailing and pleasure it is that the pleasure has mainly been a side effect of competency and sometimes just the ease and rest after a hard passage.    My sailing is of course very different now than stomping through the southern ocean but, just like Bill King, i have enjoyed the peace and the beauty and today enjoy the simpler satisfaction of a passage well sailed……and so often just the simple pleasure of a dry bunk,a bacon butty and  a satisfying sleep .

Sleep after toil, port after stormy seas, Ease after war, death after life does greatly please”   . Edmund Spenser


1 Comment

  1. Your navel well-gazed their Steve. Enjoyed your “woke” wisdom about the status-imbued plastic fantastic marina caravans so prevalent in the Solent. My first sailing experiences were down there and I must admit the vibe almost put me off for life. It’s people like you that have shown me that there is another way.

    I’m sure Charles Stock got as many” peak” experiences, as much personal fulfilment and simple pleasure aboard Shoal Waters on the Thames Estuary as Webb Chiles did rounding Cape Horn single-handed. You’d have never caught Bill King eating a bacon butty on a voyage though — he lived on almond nut paste and cress!


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