Reprinted with permission from the “On the Wind” column by Chris Caswell. Originally published in SAILING Magazine, copyright March, 2012.

Author Chris Caswell

Author Chris Caswell

Coincidence is a funny thing sometimes. I had been musing recently about sailing, which isn’t particularly unusual because I spend way too much of my time thinking about sailing, daydreaming about sailing, and wishing I was sailing. And, of course, I spend a lot of time sailing, too.

But I’d been trying to find a single thread that would explain why I love sailing and it seemed quite impossible because sailing has so many facets. There is daysailing and cruising and racing and just tinkering on your boat. It’s all about wind and sun and water, but I thought there had to be something in common that makes sailing so appealing. Trying to distill that one essence was eluding me.

And then I came across a piece in the New York Times that was discussing the future of marketing to the younger generation and the consensus was one word: stillness.

The point of the article was that, less than a generation after we developed all these devices—from the Internet to cell phones to computers—that would supposedly simplify our lives and give us more free time, we were trying to escape them. They were consuming our lives, and devouring our free time. And that is what the marketing gurus forecast as the trend of the future: getting away.

The light bulb that went on above my head must have been a blinding flash clearly visible for miles. Sailing is about getting away, and that is what I love so much. It doesn’t matter whether you are drifting along aimlessly or thrashing around the buoys, sailing is getting away.

There was a time recently when a fad among hotels was the “Blackberry Detox Weekend,” where guests would stay in an upscale room and actually pay for the requirement to leave their Blackberry or cell phone at the front desk, thus disconnecting themselves for a few days to decompress from our rush-rush life.

The New York Times article pointed out that guests pay more than $2,200 a night to stay at the Post Ranch Inn on California’s Big Sur coast, where one of the selling points is not having a television in the room. There are Internet “rescue camps” springing up to help wean kids off their addiction to video screens of all sizes.

In the Pulitizer-nominated book The Shallows, which is subtitled “What the Internet is doing to our brains,” author Nicholas Carr argues that the Internet has a deleterious effect on both our concentration and our contemplation.

The average American spends more than eight hours in front of a screen, either computer or television, and the hours spent on line literally doubled between 2005 and 2009. According to a Nielsen survey, teenagers send or receive more than 3,300 text messages every month. That works out to more than four messages an hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Yipes!

All this massive input of information, coming at us from the computer, from television, from cell phones that ring constantly, has deprived us of the time to actually relax and, to use a word not often heard, to contemplate. And that is exactly the pleasure of sailing.

The New York Times author labeled it “stillness” but sailing, even in a flat calm, isn’t about stillness. There is the sound of the bow wave, perhaps the tap of a line or halyard in the breeze, the rustle of the sails. But sailing allows us to disconnect, to unplug, to actually savor our lives.

The New York Times article cited studies that show how, after test subjects spent time in quiet rural settings, they showed “greater attentiveness, stronger memory, and generally improved cognition.” Their brains became both calmer and sharper.

I know this from personal experience because during my college days I had to make a choice between studying for a final exam in a class in which I wasn’t doing well and sailing in the Snipe Nationals. The Snipe Nationals won, of course, and I didn’t crack a book over the entire weekend. But on Monday morning, I aced the exam with my highest score that semester. The defense rests.

It’s also been pointed out that our world has become increasing uncivil. Road rage is on the uptick, saying thank you has gone out of style, and even holding a door open for another person is a lost gesture. Neuroscientists note that empathy (and, therefore, courtesy) is a function of relaxed neural processes. And there is no time in our oh-so-busy modern society for any relaxation.

Except when you are sailing.

Will sailing cure all of societies ills? Probably not. But sailing is a time when you can take a mental deep breath and let your mind drift, free of interruptions. You can actually have a conversation with your spouse and your family. Even when you are racing, sailing has a calming effect because you are totally focused and there are none of the moment-to-moment irritations of incoming emails or ringing phones.

The marketing gurus may want to sell us getaway weekends, but sailors know they already have that luxury. Just the ability to cast off all your links to the world as easily as you cast off your dock lines is, in itself, a gift.