Of Wind and Waves

Of Wind and Waves

March 17, 2017

Recently, I had the privilege of visiting the ISF Sailing Team during their spirited participation in the 2017 Boase Cohen & Collins Inter-School Sailing Festival held at the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club at Middle Island. Our team achieved highly creditable results, finishing in the gold medal competition round in the upper half of our division (Pico Class); this was our school‘s first showing in this type of team competition. The student-led ISF team, with strong parent support, demonstrated a remarkable intensity and sense of purpose, particularly given the relative youth of the mostly middle school team.

As I watched young sailors representing 22 schools from Hong Kong and Macau navigate the Middle Island course in fairly tricky wind conditions, I reflected on the powerful educational dimension of the experience for the participants, in both its literal and metaphorical sense. On the water, sailors pit their wits against the elements and their opponents. Each has to achieve mastery of the boat, the prevailing weather conditions, and competitive sailing tactics, as they seek to out-sail and outwit their opponents. Those who manage to achieve an optimal balance of these elements emerge as the victors.

On another level, I found myself reflecting on a fundamental truth: in a sailing contest conducted at close quarters, each boat on the water was striving to sail faster than the others, ostensibly carried by the same gust of wind. Yet, some competitors made slightly better use of these apparently equal conditions to achieve greater boat speed and thus reach the finish line before their opponents. Similarly, in life we might find ourselves pitting our wits against circumstances and competitors, on an apparently 'level playing field'. Yet, with similar opportunities, circumstances, energy, and motivation, some will make slightly better use of the prevailing conditions to outmaneuver and outperform others.

Seemingly, there is much that we can learn from sailing.

In our spoken languages, the wisdom of the sea is plainly evident. In both the English and Chinese languages, we can discover a rich store of vocabulary related to seafaring that reflects a shared maritime history. In calm and tranquil conditions, we might speak of 'peaceful winds and calm waves' (風平浪靜); in English we might speak of 'plain sailing'. When farewelling friends embarking on a journey, we wish them 'a full sail with a tail wind' (一帆風順); on return we might wish for a speedy return with 'a wet sail'. As novices, we have to 'learn the ropes'. When facing difficulties, we may find ourselves 'all at sea'. We might 'sail close to the wind' when taking risks. In a storm or a crisis, we need 'all hands on deck' to 'batten down the hatches' and keep our ships afloat.

The legacy of seafaring is even evident in the language of those for whom the Star Ferry crossing of Hong Kong harbor is a notable novelty.

At one point at the weekend, with boats, becalmed on a windless, glassy sea, a disruptive element was sorely needed to get things moving. Smooth, tranquil conditions are not always ideal for travel or progress. Without the dynamic power of the elements, we risk stagnation in the doldrums, a phenomenon named after a strangely calm patch of equatorial ocean, where the lack of wind and current posed a mortal danger to mariners. In contrast, too much energy can be just as challenging. The raw, untamed energy of howling gales and surging tides also poses dangers that can only be mastered with experience, skill, and courage; we must 'ride the winds and break the waves' (乘風破浪) to succeed. Given a choice, which would you choose: tranquil stagnation or raging flood?

On a quiet Sunday afternoon, I found there was much to be learned from our youngest mariners.

Dr. Malcolm Pritchard
Head of School

Quick Menu