Sunday, December 6, 2009

the brush strokes of a life

I'm pretty pedestrian in my outlook on life and my views of certain things are straight forward. Art, for example, was a painting or sculpture, maybe even an performance. But as I get older I'm coming around in my mind as to what might be considered art. (In the words of Guy Clark "the more I learn, the less I seem to know".) I came home from a sail a couple of summers ago and told my wife about a man I saw on the shore at Town Point Park. He stood there gazing out over the river deep in thought. With his body english and the intensity in his eyes he looked exactly like a man studying a painting in a museum. And it occurred to me then that maybe that scene on the river was a kind of artwork. And maybe the bent wood and taut white sails of Spartina played a small part of that composition.

That afternoon was brought back to my mind when I came across the online journal of Webb Chiles, one of my all time favorite small boat sailors. He says quite clearly he doesn't consider himself a sailor - he thinks of himself as an artist.

His attempt at sailing around the world single-handed in an 18' open cockpit boat is what first caught my attention in the 1980's. I've read and reread his two books about that journey countless times - Open Boat: Across the Pacific and The Ocean Waits. Open Boat recounts his sail from (my hometown of) San Diego to somewhere between the Fiji Islands and the island nation of Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides) where he cut the lines to his swamped Drascombe Lugger Chidiock Tichborne and drifted off in an inflatable dinghy. The Ocean Waits resumes the journey from Port Vila west to Australia, the Indian Ocean and to the Red Sea where he was imprisoned (falsely) as a spy. Below is Chiles in his ocean crossing boat. I still can't get over the idea that he made across the Pacific Ocean in that boat.

The open boat journey is just one of many circumnavigations for Chiles, below is a chart showing some of his other journeys.

Why does he consider himself an artist? Go to his website and take a look at his poetry, fiction and photography. (He has a great eye for color and design. I had hoped to show some images here but they are locked up. But please go to his site and take a look. His photographs of islands are very nice, but my favorites are in "the mooring", "the condominium" and "other".). But beyond that he considers his life, his sailing a work of art. He says it best.....

"People who know of me at all probably do so as a sailor; but I have always thought of myself as an artist, and I believe that the artist’s defining responsibility is to go to the edge of human experience and send back reports."

His voyages, his writings, his photography and his life are his reports from the edge.

Sometimes in the mid-90's Webb Chiles did a series of speaking engagements for (I think) West Marine. My folks were in town and Dad and I went to hear him speak at a hotel on the downtown waterfront. It was a fascinating evening where he told stories, many very personal stories, about his life and journeys. I did not get to meet him in person, but from a distance he seemed modest, personable and very interesting (he comes across the same way in his journal). He concluded his talk by saying that later that evening he would raise a glass and say a toast to all the sailors in the room, hoping that they fulfill their dreams.

I sometimes think of Webb Chiles and that evening when I'm out on Spartina. And I thank him for making that toast.