There is an old joke that suggests that women have no sense of distance because of the many and various lengths they have been told by men are six inches. Aside from the obvious joke, that story embodies the canard that women just can’t grasp that distance is a measurable absolute.
Hmmm. Distance is an absolute? Maybe so. But I would argue we have ample empiric proof that distance is really a subjective thing.
Don’t agree? Let me present some personal evidence.
I bring this up because I was recently reminded of just how subjective distance can be when I was laid up with a sore foot. I was flatly amazed at how far away everything suddenly was. Things that had been a thoughtless step away became a journey of laborious and painful seconds or even minutes. Getting the mail was a project for sober contemplation and going to the bathroom something to be delayed a long as the pain threshold would tolerate. Then, as my foot healed, things returned to their “normal” distances.
This mutation of distance usually evolves fairly slowly. We don’t notice the process, only the results.
But not always. There are rare occasions when it seems to happen in the blink of an eye. When we actually get to witness relativity in action.
You see, I have this thing about boats. And boats have taught me a lot about relativity.
My first boat experiences were aboard my father’s great toy, a twenty foot cabin cruiser. That was a purely nominal “twenty foot,” by the way. It wasn’t really twenty feet from stem to stern; it was more like eighteen feet. That twenty foot number was some odd dimension derived from tracing along the whole curve of the hull to make the boat sound bigger. It was ad-speak, another form of relativity.
Just what eighteen feet meant became crystal clear to me one day. We were on our way to Catalina when a navy destroyer crossed in front of us doing about thirty knots. Not only was the destroyer huge compared to our tiny craft, but it also threw up a wake that was higher from trough to crest than our boat was long.
I have to say it put every roller-coaster I had ever been on to shame and scared the whatchamacallit out of me. Still, it didn’t actually change the size of our boat. It just drove home rather dramatically that eighteen feet is not much when your scale is umpteen tons of turbine-driven steel.
My second boat phase began with me learning to sail in a little wooden day-sailer that was closer to a true twenty feet. She was a beautifully forgiving little thing, just about the perfect boat to learn in. Generally speaking she was a delightful one-man sailer. Of course, she did need that wind.
So my roommate and I got to learn how much the journey stretches out when there is no wind. This lovely little boat was not equipped with that useless appendage called a motor. We thought it was too expensive. Instead, she had this one long oar. Painfully paddling our way back into harbor as the sun went down made for another lesson in relativity: It made that motor look a lot cheaper.
But a much more important lesson in relativity came with learning about maintaining a wooden boat. A tiny boat somehow grows many, many feet of wood when the teak has to be carefully sanded and varnished. And shoving caulking in between every inch of planking on a boat’s hull will convince you there are miles of seams on a twenty foot boat.
It has been said that a boat is a hole in the water into which you pour money. That is certainly true of a fiberglass boat. Still, in that case there is some excuse there for succumbing to the delusion that the fun will be greater than the money. A wooden boat is a hole in the water into which you pour money and ungodly amounts of sweat. You soon learn that you spend a lot more time working on a wooden boat than you do sailing it. There is no really sane excuse for owning a wooden boat.
But I digress.
After I’d spent many years fooling around in little boats, some friends invited me to do a little crewing on their Cal 36. Now that was a boat. Just about twice as long as what I had been sailing, it had gobs of room, a real flush-type head, full-sized bunks to lie down on, and a cabin one could almost stand up in. Once upon a time that cabin had been full height, but this boat had been re-keeled (raising the floor) and re-rigged as a Trans-Pac racer. The reduced height was worth it. She was wonderfully quick and a delight to sail.
When we weren’t changing sail or trimming (i.e. when the volunteer crew wasn’t needed), my favorite spot was all the way forward, right up at the bow. I loved to stand there, hanging on to the forestay (stainless steel rope which, with the backstay, holds the mast vertical), tucked into the curve of the jib. You got the full force of the wind up there and, what with the rising and falling of the bow, the sensation of speed was incredibly exhilarating. I used to stand there and revel in the sheer size and power of that big boat. My little boats had bobbed around on the waves, pretty well at their mercy. This one seemed to crash right through them. True, it was just about impossible to sail her alone, but that is the price you had to pay for sailing a big boat. And, of course, there was never a shortage of volunteers.
I remember, too, how it seemed both exciting and somehow appropriate to look down into the water and see the dolphins tearing along with us, riding the bow wake. “Appropriate” because a boat this size, being driven along by a good wind, just naturally had to throw off a wake powerful enough for dolphins to ride on. I sure didn’t remember the dolphins trying to hitch a ride on any of my other boats.
Then one day, it happened.
We were really moving along, splitting the waves, throwing up occasional bursts of spray, and hauling along a whole school of dolphins. Then I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. Just abeam of us and about twenty feet away, was a California Grey Whale! She was huge, slowly and majestically stroking, making hardly a ripple, but visibly going faster than we were.
Later, I remembered how beautiful and wonderful she had been. But that was an afterthought. What held every bit of my attention at that moment was realizing she was there and how very big she was and how very close she was. One little flip and…
It was at that moment that I was allowed to witness true relativity in action: I swear to God that right before my eyes that wonderful big boat shrank down to the size of a rowboat.
Once upon a time I read an old Breton prayer. It meant little to me at the time, but at that moment it came back to me. And I felt I understood its emotion completely:
Oh, Lord, the sea is so large, and my boat is so small.