sailing as a spiritual experience



forgive me a few generalisations....

but it seems to me that most of the sailors I have met have tended to be of a scientific or engineering bent

many are well educated to degree level in the sciences.

I think it is that the physics of what happens over a sail is such a beautiful thing that to fully appreciate it you have to understand it.

However, I seldom meet out and out artistic types helming or owning boats

sometimes they come along for the ride and can be good sailors - but by and large they are not the first to want to grab the tiller

I myself am an ag engineer who drifted into journalism.



A couple of years ago, while on a long car journey with a BBC producer, a devout Catholic, we talked about spirituality. We got onto the infalability of the Pope - a concept I find so very hard to accept.

(a bit of background..... the leader of the Catholic Church is infalable and can never make a mistake - but only as long as he is sitting in a certain chair)

The producer described me as the most unspiritual man she has ever met.

I did not say it, but my immediate thought was... but I am a sailor.... with the underlying idea that although I do not believe in a hairy bloke in the clouds I do think that I find sailing to be a spiritual experience - on some level

sailing helps me to gain an understanding of myself and my place on this blue ball in space.

So, chaps, is sailing a spiritual experience for you?

The reason I ask is that this summer I am going to sail to Lindisfarne - the holiest place in the UK.

Inevitably I am going to write about sailing there  and about spirituality.

I would welcome your thoughts?


I did  pose the question on cruising anarchy and YBW - I am always amazed at the different reactions you get on different forums. It is wonderful sharing ideas with other sailors

Ryley said this:

I'm with you on this one, Dylan. When I had my first boat when I was a kid I put it on a lee shore that happened to be the Stonington Fish Dock.. I screamed at God for letting me get the boat into such a bad scrape.. honestly I was hysterical by the end of it. Fortunately I figured out how to get off and get back to my mooring. I was probably in 6th grade at the time. From that point on, I started to really pay attention to what makes a boat go, the dynamics of it, the fluidity of air vs water, when I was in trouble and when it was literally smooth sailing. I made my peace with God as nature, and I think that it fits really well - Nature provides everything that you need, you just have to know how to harness it. That's what I think is the balance in life - not being handed a decree by some hairy bloke, but accepting that nature's gifts might just be the raw materials to true enjoyment. Perhaps that's why "thinkers" gravitate to the sport of sailing. Not to mention that to truly enjoy it, you either have to be able to write big checks or suss things out on your own - again, gravitating towards thinkers and tinkerers. I've known a few granola-types that have owned boats, and in general their boats have been poorly maintained and while enjoyable to them, something you or I would look at and say, "nope, not going out on that. Ever." However, I've found that most of my sailing friends, regardless of their technical or professional backgrounds, have been highly spiritual and - if they've ever been through any storm on a sailboat - deeply religious in their own way.


Valis said

I'm an engineer by training and by nature, and would call myself an atheist (I could be wrong, but I suspect not).  The techical aspects of sailing are interesting I suppose, but that's not why I sail.  For me, sailing, especially long passages, is as close to a spiritual experience as I've probably ever had.  It's not about God exactly, but more about my connection with the world and the universe.


WHL said

The times that sooth the rabid beast, are the simple and quiet ones, the majestic and awe inspiring moments offshore in heavy weather, a night sky mid ocean, or the miniature moments of discovery paddling, rowing or sailing in small boats along the shore in secluded bays, shallow inlets ...deserted beaches, the sound of wavelets lapping against a clinker hull....


Mung Breath said

Sailing is a metaphor for life. My scientific leaning brain hasn't connected with organized religion or felt a need for intermediaries since I was a child forced into Catholic school asking, WTF? Count me in with the athiests who still appreciate the academic History of Religion. I even enjoy the rare history lesson by an intellectual Congregationalist pastor with a Quaker background and anthropological perspective, sans the stained glass of course.  But I don't believe in a God that doesn't sail.

Every ounce of my spirituality is derived from offshore helming, especially at night, preferably alone or at least with kindred spirits, when the constellations hang low 360-degrees on the horizon with stars and galaxies as their backdrop, finely shaped sails carving through the universe. My 3D spacehip. I have literally screamed out loud at how fucking awesome it is to be alive and that my friends, never gets old. That passion never happened in church. So yes, sailing is spiritual.


over on the UK YBW board Phoenix of Hamble said

There's been the odd night passage while alone at the helm when i've found myself suddenly laughing out loud and full of joy..... I guess that's a 'spiritual' experience of sorts... but i'd prefer the term 'uplifting'

Jonic said

It is without doubt a spiritual experience, especially if you go far and long.

My 6 years away on the boat will never leave me.

Mid-Atlantic at night, when your nearest human neighbours are the guys 200 miles up in the international space station, the nearest land is three miles straight down and you have a 40 ft whale alongside for company is pretty moving.

Johnalison said

I don't think I find any meaning in the word "spiritual". To me, there are two worlds, the real one and the world of the imagination. Sailing puts me into the real world but also feeds my imagination. If that's what you mean by spiritual, then it does for me.



have-n-t-a-clue said

Couple of years back I was sailing up the Hamble a week after my friend and colleague suffered a fatal MI and went overboard from a friends boat he was helping to move. I was drifting along with about 5 knots of breeze on the beam with the incoming tide and I shed a tear or two for the loss of a good mate. I had a moment when I felt he was near me and almost could hear him saying " nothing like it, is there, mate." Magical or spiritual, I don't know but it calmed my grief and I wished the river could have been 10 miles longer, to hold on to that moment.
A few weeks later I went to the humanist service and drew great comfort from this memory, only wished that they had read out Elizabeth Clark Hardy's "Unknown Shore". To me, sailing is about those moments, magical (!)
"The Unknown Shore"
by Elizabeth Clark Hardy

Sometime at Eve when the tide is low
I shall slip my moorings and sail away
With no response to a friendly hail
In the silent hush of the twilight pale
When the night stoops down to embrace the day
And the voices call in the water's flow

Sometime at Eve When the water is low
I shall slip my moorings and sail away.
Through purple shadows
That darkly trail o'er the ebbing tide
And the Unknown Sea,
And a ripple of waters' to tell the tale
Of a lonely voyager sailing away
To mystic isles
Where at anchor lay
The craft of those who had sailed before
O'er the Unknown Sea
To the Unknown Shore

A few who watched me sail away
Will miss my craft from the busy bay
Some friendly barques were anchored near
Some loving souls my heart held dear
In silent sorrow will drop a tear
But I shall have peacefully furled my sail
In mooring sheltered from the storm and gale
And greeted friends who had sailed before
O'er the Unknown Sea
To the Unknown Shore

- Elizabeth Clark Hardy

cameilia said
I find it about as spiritual as cleaning my teeth.



cavelamb reminded us about this from 1970
In sailing there is a term called "lift" which is both technical and po­etic at once.
It describes the moment of acceleration in a sailboat—the moment when the sails
harden against the wind forcing the keel sideways against the water, and the boat
begins to slide forward, faster and faster, until you can suddenly feel what William
Buckley meant by the title of his sailing book Airborne. How something moving so
slowly—about the pace of a moderate jog—can impart such exhila­ration in this
moment is probably unanswerable. Hang gliding, drop­ping in a parachute, doing
barrel rolls in a light airplane—the thrills are easy to understand. But at seven miles
an hour the moment of lift in a sailboat is just as much a leap off the earth.


From "Setting Sail" By Tony Chamberlain Boston Globe, July 20, 1979





I'm not sure I agree with all your assumptions, but I do agree there's something spiritual about being on the water under sail on a beautiful day, or night. After 40 years sailing I still don't fully understand why, but it's just as magical today as it was that first summer when I learned to sail. I can't remember a wholly bad day on the water, pure bliss IMO...


floating dutchman
I don't have a religious bone in my body,

The plaque on the main bulkhead on my boat says:

Dear God, be kind to me,
The sea is so wide and my boat is so small.

I pity the person that even mentions that I remove it.





This is about Dylan Winter's Blog. Tags:

29 Responses to “sailing as a spiritual experience”

  1. 7 February, 2013 at 12:31 amPaul says:

    Sailing is the opposite of Spiritual. I guess I don’t fit the mould – I have a degree in the arts (not science or engineering) have two left hands, and am probably one of the Granola types someone mentioned. I go out there, cut my motor and throw up some sail, and it just makes me happy. I do enjoy reading about the physics of sailing, but I’m not really that concerned about getting everything just right. If one tell tale is flying aft on my boat it’s a good day! I too have been known to have outbursts of laughter for no apparent reason, but then I also get that messing about with my guitar and Ukulele and many years ago, got it from riding motorcycles.

    The word spiritual is about the divine, in other words, it relates to all that fairies, gods, goblins type stuff that people are still somehow led to beleive. It is about what isn’t real. An antonym of the word spiritual is “physical” and sailing is very physical and real and makes one feel alive. So for me, Sailing is the opposite of spiritual. If on the other hand, we are changing the meaning of “spiritual” to something like: makes one feel alive, fantastic, and happy, then I’m all for using the word, but I’m not sure the people who believe there is an Englishman with a long grey beard sitting in the clouds looking over and protecting us, will be happy with us stealing their word…

  2. 7 February, 2013 at 5:04 amTomH says:

    Don’t get me goin’ on religion.
    But spirituality – or better, a ‘spiritual experience’ – maybe. Suffice it to say that my definition leans toward viewing ‘spiritual’ as meaning something that is aligned with ‘my spirit’ – so yes, whatever is sympatico with my personal ‘likes’ works for me.
    Crewed sailing seems to not be anything near a ‘spiritual experience’ – but there’s no surprise in that for me.
    I will say that sailing solo is a completely different experience – well worth the time & effort it takes to create the opportunity.
    The older I get, the more I appreciate every one of those opportunities. So I had better stop posting on forums and get myself unplugged from the self-imposed rat race.
    Time to “Do a Dylan” Maybe a “Start Turning Somewhere” version !!!

  3. 7 February, 2013 at 6:26 amTay Moss says:

    Well, I’ll be the lone Christian willing to fess up. I’m an Anglican Priest and an avid sailor. I have a highly technical mind, and would probably have ended up as an engineer or programmer if God hadn’t called to me this line of work–so I do fit your mold in that way.

    I think the word “spiritual” is difficult to use in this context because it means so many different things for different people. I would generally use a very broad definition–certainly broad enough to overlap pretty much any of the feelings expressed so far on this blog in such poetic language. Spirituality, for me, is about discovering the truth about how there is something beyond the horizon of our lives and experience, something grand and beautiful that recedes away from us even as we progress towards it.

    Of course I choose to believe certain things about that truth, and I don’t begrudge anyone who feels differently. But, yes, I certainly do think sailing is a spiritual experience and don’t think one needs a religious framework of any particular sort to agree.

    By the way, Jesus was a small boat sailor. Several times he takes to small boats in order to travel, preach, and escape from the crowds (i.e. rest). So I guess you all have that in common!


  4. 7 February, 2013 at 6:33 amNautihamstern says:

    A couple of years ago a friend of mine, Farid Touaiti, wrote me a poem in arabic. I have it inscribed on my tiller. The english translation goes:

    “Come, let’s turn all the pages and forget
    the nights of sadness and sufferance
    Come, let’s settle in the land of dreams,
    reality is a prison for man.”

    I think that pretty well sums it up for me.

  5. 7 February, 2013 at 9:24 ampotter says:

    Cor………and I thought it was just yachting!

  6. 7 February, 2013 at 11:20 amdylan winter says:

    it is never “just” yachting surely

  7. 7 February, 2013 at 11:23 amdylan winter says:

    good for you Tay. I agree that spiritual is open to interpretation. So that makes it an open question about sirituality and sailing.
    this is genius “Spirituality, for me, is about discovering the truth about how there is something beyond the horizon of our lives and experience, something grand and beautiful that recedes away from us even as we progress towards it.”

    Well nailed Tay

  8. 7 February, 2013 at 11:23 amdylan winter says:

    I agree – I think that it has to be solo to get the full zen

  9. 7 February, 2013 at 11:25 amdylan winter says:

    sailing makes me happy that is for sure – I love the feeling of perfect balance when the boat is in harmony with its surroundings and you are along for the ride – sure you are in charge but your decisions put the boat into balance.

  10. 7 February, 2013 at 12:44 pmTony says:

    My first boat was called Pastoral. I bought it third hand but was reliably told the first purchaser was a Vicar called Alan who had sailed her around the river Humber area for many years. The boat is still moored up the river Hull at the head of the tidal section. It never dawned on me that the name was a play on words relating to his religious office Pastor – ALan!

  11. 7 February, 2013 at 5:12 pmpotter says:

    Nowt spiritual about sitting on the weather deck punching a 25 knot North Easterly through the Hessle Whelps, mind you the jokes are quite good!

  12. 7 February, 2013 at 7:22 pmabc123 says:

    I fit the mould being yet another engineer (field) but for the freedom only, but have always been artistic from an early age and also into motorbikes, which seems not uncommon either, probably all individualists who crave freedom? But sailing for me is an antidote to the modern rat race UK life – peace, still with a semblance of freedom ( just about) , and of course nature and also the polar opposite that was the stress of motorycle racing.

    I’m interestedtdo a degree in the physics of it all by nessecity but I’m more interested in the places and experiences sailing takes me rather than boats themselves. The idea of this particular pastime is purposely remain slightly ignorant of the latest and greatest and just make sure I enjoy myself.

    As for religion? – by man, for man. and for those too weak/impressionable or indeed arrogant to contemplate “peacefully” living the here and now with the uncertainly of not knowing what lies beyond, and without dragging the rest of us poor buggers into their insanity.

    I sometimes muse, that I cant wait to see their look when all the “believers” are not first in line at whatever version of the pearly gates they subscribe too, but in fact last! ! As maybe “God” wont be quite so welcoming as they first thought, as to being granted the greatest gift, the ability to have original thought and yet still slavishly follow some man made absurd construct, might just be the greatest sin of all? – who knows? (no-one actually!) :)

    Great website!

  13. 7 February, 2013 at 7:55 pmdylan winter says:

    well written

    there does seem to be a strong agnostic thread among sailors

  14. 7 February, 2013 at 8:42 pmPaul Rogers says:

    My dictionary defines faith as a belief held without evidence or proof. That sums up religion for me.

    Sailing single-handed is relaxing and enjoyable and there is an aesthetic pleasure in the shape of the sails and the boats motion through the water, not mention the absence of man-made noise.

    I am a civil engineer by the way. I have taught several people to sail, and logical, analytical types were the easiest to teach. Good post Dylan.

  15. 7 February, 2013 at 10:11 pmTripper Dave says:

    Tay nails it again, but he does have a masters in theology….
    all that aside, he’s a pretty decent tactics guy on Wednesday nights,
    might even make a good helmsman one day, but he’s best as a drifter and a dreamer. That’s what it’s really all about.

  16. 7 February, 2013 at 10:13 pmdylan winter says:

    you are talking about racing not cruising – racing blokes are crazier than brushes

  17. 7 February, 2013 at 10:42 pmPaul says:

    I can get my boat to take me accross the bay with a bit of bungee cord at the helm while I’m happily playing with my Ukulele on the foredeck :-), and I’m also often quite happy to roll out a coupla feet of jib and drift along at 2 knots with the tide (just like a certain engineer I know often does). I guess my point there was more that all types are drawn to the sea, and sailing.

  18. 7 February, 2013 at 10:57 pmpotter says:

    Guilty as charged m’lud!

    BTW “Team racing in Enterprises………….”

  19. 8 February, 2013 at 12:29 amPaul says:

    Hate to be a realist but try googling a few of these:
    Skateboarding is a spiritual experence
    Surfing is a spiritual experience
    Sking is a spiritual experience
    Sex is a spiritual experience
    Banjo playing is a spiritual experience
    etc and see what you come up with.
    Sailing is what it is and we love it for what ever reason. If people want to refer to that happy feeling they get as ‘spiritual’ then good for them I guess…

    Ya see,, Those of us trained in the arts (Social Sciences) are in fact trained to be analytical and logical in the way we think too, sometimes too much so my wife says.. Its just that we cant fix as much stuff on the boat ;-)

    Id be more likely to describe KTL as a spiritual experience. I can sit there with Dylan happily enjoying the freezing cold rain sheeting down on a 10 dollar plastic tarp, or seeing the boat covered in lovely white snow and trying to sleep with a few tea lights as heating, or miles from land on a horrible overcast day with no wind listening to D complain about the horrible light, and be totally relaxed enjoying all these experiences thinking, oh ManI wish I was there,, yet in ‘reality’ if I was in my own boat in many of these situations, I’d just want to go home :-)

    Oh and someone once told me that riding his jet ski was a spiritual experience. So I guess even things created by the devil can bring a spiritual expierience.

  20. 8 February, 2013 at 8:45 amdylan winter says:

    you are, of course completely correct. There is probably nothing inheretntly special about sailing. Spirituality is probably written into the DNA of the human race – even among people who do not beleive in the hairy man

  21. 8 February, 2013 at 8:46 amdylan winter says:

    did I ever team race enterprises against you – great, great years

  22. 8 February, 2013 at 8:52 amdylan winter says:

    I agree…. the zen of the bungee

  23. 8 February, 2013 at 12:43 pmJean-Pierre stoop says:

    Mr Winter,
    I used to smoke a pipe , now I sail.

  24. 8 February, 2013 at 1:35 pmGee says:

    I am yet another engineer (electronic). I have always loved sailing. I was taught to sail by my Great Aunt Thora on the River Thames at Staines when I was about 5 by all accounts. In fact I had a little sailing dinghy instead of a bike, Aunt Thora thought the river was safer than the roads !. I do have a spiritual side to me, but not in any organized religious sense. Religion often seems to get in the way of spirituality. My own justification for want of a better word being that there is simply no reason why the universe should exist at all !!. Sailing does give me a lot of challenges (it would I sail in the Bristol Channel !) , but also lots of time to reflect and think things through. I just love the sea !

  25. 8 February, 2013 at 5:32 pmdylan winter says:

    the seagulls follow the trawler

  26. 9 February, 2013 at 7:54 pmSimon says:

    Sailing at 90 degrees to the wind or greater, sitting in the cockpit on a remote anchorage, having a beer after a long trip, diving off the boat into warm water, being the master of you own craft no matter how much of a shed it is; are all facets of the sport that you could say are spiritual.

    You purists may love it but there is nothing spiritual about going to windward. I confess, I hate it.

  27. 9 February, 2013 at 8:10 pmdylan winter says:

    deep keeler owners love it

    us flat bottom wallers have to learn to ease off the wind

    sail a bit slack

    find the inner zen

  28. 9 February, 2013 at 8:11 pmPaul Mullings says:

    What’s all this dislike of going to windward? It is, in my mind, by far the most interesting point of sailing requiring a range of skills that reaching and running never do. I guess if you have never experienced sailing in a boat that can actually make good progress to weather (under all conditions) you will have missed out on a thrilling experience. Lets face it stick a rig on anything and it will sail down and across the wind but the real magic,satisfaction and dare I say spirituality is actually reaching that distant point that lives in the eye of the wind.

  29. 10 February, 2013 at 10:57 amhenrik scheel says:

    ‘After half an hour on the sea you seem to be in a different world.’ This was said by a 99 year old sailor who passed away last year after having owned sailingboats all of his life, the last a swan 82. In his last years he did sail with crew doing daysailing most of the time.

    It think this sums up the spiritual side of sailing. I feel very different when sailing rather than driving or walking through the same area. I can not explain why sailing through an area is different from driving through but I can feel it very much.

    Privately I enjoy watching the sea when sailing. The sea will never look the same as it is always changing, the probability of the surface being the same at any two instances is close to zero and I think we are somehow able to percieve this.

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