“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; . . . then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”— Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
The Italian side of my family hails from the Lake Como region, and I have numerous unknown relatives flowing out from there southward to Milan. It was this heritage that inspired me to pick up Letters from Lake Como, written by the German priest and academic Romano Guardini between 1923 and 1925. While Guardini was tramping around the lake, my grandfather was escaping inexorable poverty and seeking to make his fortune in America.
Guardini was a year old when his family relocated from rural northern Italy to industrial Germany. He clearly appreciated his return to his ancestral homeland. In his letters, Guardini reflects on culture as a way in which humans work with nature to move beyond it. A good example of this, to him, was sailing.
“Do you not see what a remarkable fact of culture is present when human beings become masters of wind and wave by fashioning wood and fitting it together and spanning linen sails?” he writes in his second letter. “In my very blood I have a sense of creation here, of a primal work of human creativity. It is full of mind and spirit, this perfectly fashioned movement in which we master the force of nature.” Other examples come easily to Guardini’s mind: the capture of fire in a hearth to warm a home, or a plow drawn by an animal to open a field for planting. He calls this “human living.” He deplores the way modern technology has “cut” our “link with nature,” creating a “totally artificial situation”: “Everything that was achieved by human existence before an open fire is a thing of the past.”
Around the same time Guardini was skimming across the surface of Lake Como, another man, a little older, was sailing the coast of England. In The Cruise of the Nona (1925), the fifty-five-year-old Hilaire Belloc writes less about sailing itself and more about one’s state of mind while one is sailing:
The sea has taken me to itself whenever I sought it and has given me relief from men. It has rendered remote the cares and the wastes of the land; for of all creatures that move and breathe upon the earth we of mankind are the fullest of sorrow. But the sea shall comfort us, and perpetually show us new things and assure us. It is the common sacrament of this world. May it be to others what it has been to me.
Several decades later, well into the time of powerful and speedy motorboats, the avid reader still gets a sense of the glory of sailing. William F. Buckley Jr. often recalls his sailing excursions in his literary autobiography Miles Gone By (2004). The motor on a sailboat is to be used as seldom as possible, he writes, especially when racing:
The rules are explicit: Under no circumstances do you turn on your engine, except to save a drowning man, preferably a member of the Race Committee. So that when a calm attacks you—as one notably did in the Bermuda Race, when the sails flapped, the sun excreted its heat upon us, and we moved not one hundred yards in thirty-six agonizing hours—it is all strangely tolerable only because there is no alternative.
Buckley captures some of the same spirit Guardini and Belloc write about. His sailing was far more adventurous, however—crossing oceans and racing competitively up and down the Atlantic coast.
When I was in high school and living in Southern California, my father decided to take up sailing. One weekend, Dad and I sailed to Catalina Island, under sail only and without the aid of the motor. Crossing to Catalina from the Southern California mainland on one of the larger ferries or a private motorboat can take about an hour to an hour and a half; relying on sail from our departure point, it takes about seven. I remember stepping out sleepily onto deck the night we were making the transit to see my father, his eyes fixed on the compass, gliding a slow but sure path from our beloved Dana Point toward Avalon. It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t comfortable, but he was a man on a mission.
More recently, my family and I spent a long weekend at Kentucky Lake. One glorious afternoon, we were on a pontoon boat with a motor that was probably too small for the seven of us. But zipping around the lake getting sunburned was worth it. All the kids got a chance at the helm. No hijinks ensued, and we all survived.
There’s a certain amount of freedom on the water that is refreshing compared to the strictures built by necessity into roadway driving. In that freedom, one can truly live and find peace. Our family did, during those glorious days in western Kentucky.
Buckley, ever the extrovert, also reflected on the camaraderie that develops on the water: “When you are in the harbor, four congenial people around the table, eating and drinking and conversing, listening to music and smoking cigars, the wind and the hail and the chill outside faced up to and faced down, in your secure little anchorage—here is a compound of life’s social pleasures in the womb of nature.” On this, I doubt Belloc and Guardini would disagree. How wonderful it would be to sail with the three of them, admiring the glory of the wind and the sea together, toward the horizon—and even the possible dangers that lurk ahead and make life worth living.
K. E. Colombini writes from St. Louis, Missouri.
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Image by Picryl licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.