A brief essay on what draws us to boats and to sailing

The boats I design have been described by one particular designer as  “useless”. Now that got me thinking!

Now that we no longer have the Tea Clippers, the East India Men or the Blackwall Frigates, what are sailing boats useful for and how do we define useless? There are more sailing boats now on the planet than ever before. They're not shipping tea or spices and it doesn’t look as though they’re going away any time soon.


The idea of sport sailing appeared firstly as far as we know, among Dutch merchants who started building small ships devoted to move as fast as possible with no economic applications. It is believed the the first sail boats designed and built specifically for racing date back to the 17th century in the Netherlands, however it is likely that sailing boats intended simply for pleasure use and with no other functional or economic purpose originated well before that time.

So why do we design and build "useless" objects?


As human creatures we strive initially in life for the essentials; food clothing and shelter. Once we have these we seek fulfillment in our lives through achievement. That achievement can be attained in many ways. It may be intellectual, physical, political, or cultural. 


The wonder of sailing craft is that they can be the medium for achievement in a wide range of crafts and disciplines that might include design, fluid dynamics, engineering and other sciences. It might include craftsmanship in wood, in composites, in metals. It might include skills in seamanship, in sail trimming, in navigation or tactics. It might also include, possibly even exclusively, the appreciation of the sheer beauty of the sailing craft, or an appreciation of its technology.


We may collect guns with no intention of shooting anyone or anything. We may wear expensive watches when the cell phone in our pocket performs quite well the function of telling the time, perhaps more proficiently than the watch. We follow fashion, decorate our houses and purchase all kinds of objects that contribute little to functionality in our lives.

In his book “What Technology Wants" Kevin Kelly writes:


"Technology does not want to remain utilitarian. It wants to become art. To be beautiful and useless. As technologies age they tend to become recreational. Witness sailboats, open convertible cars, fountain pens and fireplaces."


Our appreciation of boats is both personal and individual. The sight of a boat can bring us to pause for a moment. To take in the sight of a worker applying  lacquer to the freshly sanded rubbing strake on a particularly attractive boat. It can be the incentive to take a photo and chat briefly with the brush man. 


There have been many such moments in my life. Some of them captured on analogue film and now lost. Some of them captured on digital film probably to be lost when another form of photography takes over. 


 As for the memories? Some probably lost, some probably a little distorted or faded over time. The joy is that you never know when there is a new one just around the corner.

Useless? Maybe! But worthwhile for sure.