Monday 6 December 2010

By And Large

There are two ways that a sailing ship can sail. It can sail large, with the wind behind it and the sails bulging, bellying, billowing and ballooning. As Shakespeare put it:

...we have laughed to see the sails conceive
And grow big bellied with the wanton wind.

Sailing large is, of course, the best way to sail. You shoot along fast and free, like an escaped man who is at large. Sailors would love to be large all the time, but they cannot. The exigencies of geography and meteorology occasionally force them to sail into the wind.

Well, not straight into the wind. You can't do that. No amount of nautical bluff and saltiness can defeat firm physics. But you can, with skillful sails, sail very close to the wind. Within about 45 degrees of it. Sailors call this sailing by the wind. (If they sail straight into the wind then the ship comes to a sudden and shuddering stop. Sailors call this being taken aback.)

So all the sailing ships upon the face and belly of the ocean are sailing either by or large. So the long and the short of it is that whichever way you look at it, considered from all points of view, by and large means considered from all points of view or whichever way you look at it.

Well, it used to. It is in the nature of words for certainty that they lose their assurance with overuse. Man is a certain creature in an dubious world. So though by and large once meant under all circumstances it now means mostly. Just as probably once meant provably and soon meant now.

The Inky Fool beats the tube strike

Now, if you have the time, I suggest you click on read more for the best passage about sailing ever written.

Today's reading is taken from Three Men in a Boat, Chapter 12, beginning towards the end:

A stiffish breeze had sprung up — in our favour, for a wonder; for, as a rule on the river, the wind is always dead against you whatever way you go. It is against you in the morning, when you start for a day's trip, and you pull a long distance, thinking how easy it will be to come back with the sail. Then, after tea, the wind veers round, and you have to pull hard in its teeth all the way home.

When you forget to take the sail at all, then the wind is consistently in your favour both ways. But there! this world is only a probation, and man was born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.

This evening, however, they had evidently made a mistake, and had put the wind round at our back instead of in our face. We kept very quiet about it, and got the sail up quickly before they found it out, and then we spread ourselves about the boat in thoughtful attitudes, and the sail bellied out, and strained, and grumbled at the mast, and the boat flew.

I steered.

There is no more thrilling sensation I know of than sailing. It comes as near to flying as man has got to yet — except in dreams. The wings of the rushing wind seem to be bearing you onward, you know not where. You are no longer the slow, plodding, puny thing of clay, creeping tortuously upon the ground; you are a part of Nature! Your heart is throbbing against hers! Her glorious arms are round you, raising you up against her heart! Your spirit is at one with hers; your limbs grow light! The voices of the air are singing to you. The earth seems far away and little; and the clouds, so close above your head, are brothers, and you stretch your arms to them.

We had the river to ourselves, except that, far in the distance, we could see a fishing-punt, moored in mid-stream, on which three fishermen sat; and we skimmed over the water, and passed the wooded banks, and no one spoke.

I was steering.

As we drew nearer, we could see that the three men fishing seemed old and solemn-looking men. They sat on three chairs in the punt, and watched intently their lines. And the red sunset threw a mystic light upon the waters, and tinged with fire the towering woods, and made a golden glory of the piled-up clouds. It was an hour of deep enchantment, of ecstatic hope and longing. The little sail stood out against the purple sky, the gloaming lay around us, wrapping the world in rainbow shadows; and, behind us, crept the night.

We seemed like knights of some old legend, sailing across some mystic lake into the unknown realm of twilight, unto the great land of the sunset.

We did not go into the realm of twilight; we went slap into that punt, where those three old men were fishing. We did not know what had happened at first, because the sail shut out the view, but from the nature of the language that rose up upon the evening air, we gathered that we had come into the neighbourhood of human beings, and that they were vexed and discontented.

Harris let the sail down, and then we saw what had happened. We had knocked those three old gentlemen off their chairs into a general heap at the bottom of the boat, and they were now slowly and painfully sorting themselves out from each other, and picking fish off themselves; and as they worked, they cursed us — not with a common cursory curse, but with long, carefully-thought-out, comprehensive curses, that embraced the whole of our career, and went away into the distant future, and included all our relations, and covered everything connected with us — good, substantial curses.

Harris told them they ought to be grateful for a little excitement, sitting there fishing all day, and he also said that he was shocked and grieved to hear men their age give way to temper so.

But it did not do any good.

George said he would steer, after that. He said a mind like mine ought not to be expected to give itself away in steering boats — better let a mere commonplace human being see after that boat, before we jolly well all got drowned; and he took the lines, and brought us up to Marlow.


  1. With more modern craft you have various points of sail. The fastest point of sail or course is a beam reach. If you head up and become close hauled you will be well below 45* to the wind or you should get a better boat. If you then ease the sheets and fall off just a little you will be full and by or fetched. Fetch is a wonderful word on the water. In addition to being on a point of sail you can fetch a mark or worry about the fetch of the waves.

    By the way, where I sail winding up dead into the wind is called in irons. (I would have used single quotes around some of these terms but I dasn't do that.)

    Dasn't will give away my upper mid-west origins which was originally invaded by the French (ah, it is always the French). Judging by your Nov 26th column I assume you have never heard the locals pronounce Des Moines, Mille Lacs Lake or Sault Ste Marie. Peter would never come out pay-teh. It think the fart in the hand is still in the running.

    By the way, when did you start posting under your name. I was going to be formal and start the reply to Mr. Fool, but he doesn't seem to live here anymore.

  2. Not being a nautical cove myself, I was relying on this youtube video, which is so dull as to be convincing.

    I had always assumed that Des Moines was named by Frenchmen and mispronounced by others, like Cairo GA.

    I have slipped from Dogberry to Mark Forsyth, because I was tired of people asking me which posts I wrote. Why hide your bushel under a light?