CRUISING over the waves, course set for the shores of the earthy mound I call Grandpa’s Island, I am encouraged that so many others share my love of the sea.  I gave the island that name because it is where my grandfather took me when still a boy and made me both a man and a sailor. 

Around its shores I learned to fish and read the waves.  I learned to love the solitude that accompanies the sea, where most people are still strangers and visitors, as out of place as summer tourists in winter.   Now, as I see fellow travelers around me, I am struck by the difference between the sailor and the boater.  

The sailor belongs on the water just as sure as the elephant belongs on land.  His vessel is his mate, it is no wonder ships are referred to as she.  The sailor is wedded to her, committed to her, and she takes care of him, sees him through perilous times as his partner, not his servant.  When she is treated with dignity and respect, she repays the kindness with cooperation and succor.  The vessel is not something to be driven, it is something to be led.  The wheel is an extension of his arm as sure as his fingers and it responds to his will as sure as a spoon is placed in the mouth at mealtime.

The sailor knows the weather, the tides, the mood of the ocean.  They speak a language he readily understands, and they shape his decisions more forcefully than any magistrate or law.  They are nature’s law and cannot be argued or trifled with, let alone changed at the whim of a politician. 

To the sailor, the entire world is his neighborhood, and he will easily traverse a thousand-mile coastline or a serpentine river as easily as the city dweller walks several blocks to the supermarket.  A sailor says with no sense of absurdity, “I will be in California at the end of the week, Japan two weeks after, and Singapore by the end of the month.”  He has friends and sometimes enemies in most of these places, sure.

The boater loves the water, too.  I do not mean to disparage.  But for the boater, the sea is a means to an end, a place where one may find joy, but not the joy itself.  The boater’s vessel is transportation, sleek and fast, yes, but still a piece of machinery, not a spouse.  He rarely even names it and if he does, it is something clever like Aquaholic or Sea Senor.  It is not a woman’s name.  It is not even a woman, it is an it.

The boater is always fighting his boat, bending it to his will.  Take me there! Go faster!  It is the relationship between master and slave.

Boaters do not practice the nautical rules of the road, many do not even know them.  How many times I have tooted out a message on the horn only to be replied to with a wave.  Fool, I did not salute you, I asked if you were passing on my left or right.  They rarely understand the weather, or the myriad signals put forth by the sea.  They clear out at the first dark cloud, ignorant of which way it will move or whether it represents danger.

Still, all sailors started as boaters, just as all adults sprang from adolescents.  And better a boater than a land lubber.  At least boaters have surrendered to the fact that seventy percent of the earth is water.  At the end of the day, sailors and boaters have more in common than knot.

BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.

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