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Seize the Day, Said the Old Salt, Seize the Day

October 22, 1989|JOHN BALZAR | Balzar is a Times political writer

A roustabout once explained to me why he was forever heading off on some unfathomable new quest to tax the body, mind and spirit.

Unlike him, he said, people who seek the safe way of urban routines spend far too much of their lives looking over their shoulders, worrying about what they've done, what is already past. When they're not looking back, he continued, they're worrying about what awaits them tonight, tomorrow or next week.

Too bad, he said. These people hardly have time for the present.

By contrast, my adventurer friend dedicated himself to that other existence, hanging his weather-beaten hide out there on the edge, where there is no distraction from the past or the future, where life at the moment upwells with urgency for no other reason than that it is placed intentionally at risk.

This passion to live in the present seems to me superior to the old wheeze "Because it's there" as an answer to the question "Why climb mountains?" Or, for today's purposes, to the question, "Why get in a small boat and set sail across the ocean?"

Capt. Joshua Slocum was the first man to sail around the world alone. Not only was he a seafarer and a hero to seafarers for his deeds, he was a pretty good storyteller, too. It is a legacy for which we of less adventuresome disposition have been thankful for almost 100 years.

His book, "Sailing Alone Around the World," published first in magazine installments at the turn of the century and still in print today, is the classic of a long-lasting genre of small-boat sailing adventures--books that whether written of Slocum's voyage in 1895-98 or a trip that ended a week ago Tuesday are filled with the same thing: the vital, throbbing single-mindedness of the present.

Slocum was a clipper-ship captain rendered obsolete by the arrival of the steamship--"cast up from the ocean," he wrote, and plopped just like that onto the hard, frozen ground of Boston.

He was not a fretter, though, and when someone offered him a rotting 37-foot sloop, he did the natural thing: He fixed it up and went sailing.

My deadpan is intentional. That is how Slocum regarded adventure--he just did it.

Working with hand tools, he rebuilt the boat, Spray, from scratch. He provisioned it and set sail, at age 51, without engine, without radio, without weather forecasts, without a Panama Canal, without a whimper of doubt, and completely by himself. Forty-six thousand miles later, he had outrun pirates, survived storms, outwitted wild Indians, taken measure of the great beauty of the planet and returned home. And rarely does he raise his writer's voice, never growing breathless or smearing the pages with flamboyant adjectives.

He reminds us of the resourcefulness that people can find in themselves when backed alone against the wall in an inescapable moment that is the present.

Impoverished natives of Tierra del Fuego stalked Slocum relentlessly across the straits of South America. He responded with carpet tacks he kept aboard. After anchoring, he spread tacks across his deck and went below to sleep.

"Now, it is well known that one cannot step on a tack without saying something about it," he writes. "A pretty good Christian will whistle when he steps on the 'commercial end' of a carpet tack; a savage will howl and claw the air, and that was just what happened that night about twelve o'clock, while I was asleep in the cabin, where the savages thought they had me, sloop and all, but changed their minds when they stepped on deck, for then they thought that I or somebody else had them."

Another lasting but wholly different sailing yarn was spun nearly three generations later by renegade Hollywood actor Sterling Hayden in his autobiography "Wanderer." On the wharfs and marina docks across America, sailors today treasure their copies of this elegant, enlightening and richly spellbinding 1963 book that was re-issued in 1977.

Hayden lived from 1916 to 1986, but greater than the span of years was the cultural gulf that his life bridged. As a strapping and hungry young hand, he worked the fishing schooners off the banks of New England through gale-tossed winters; as a celebrity, he harvested the success and torment of a Los Angeles he found befouled by smog and lawyers and venal ambition.

Buffeted by the extravagant extremes of his life, Hayden sought peace intermittently at sea. He may be remembered chiefly for his character roles in movies like "Dr. Strangelove," but Hayden considered himself a fraud behind the camera. He was in his heart a sailor, and, as it turned out, a writer, too.

"Wanderer" begins with the 1959 event that titillated Hollywood--a leap for freedom so brassy as to be incomprehensible. Who would give up rich film offers to trundle his children off to Tahiti in a leaky old schooner named Wanderer crewed by people picked from a newspaper want ad? Who indeed, asked a Los Angeles judge, in issuing an injunction against taking the children on any such voyage. The judge acted in response to a petition by Hayden's ex-wife.

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