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Thoughts on a photograph of a Spitfire: The quiet beauty of operating small craft and working with the environment

  I suspect there is something about piloting an airplane that is 30 feet long or less that is magic. I’ve never flown a small plane, but I’ve kayaked rapids in a 12 foot boat, paddled the Maine coast in an 18 foot sea kayak and sailed the coast alone in a 20 foot sloop, ...

Wikipedia/user Arpingstone
Wikipedia/user Arpingstone

 

I suspect there is something about piloting an airplane that is 30 feet long or less that is magic. I’ve never flown a small plane, but I’ve kayaked rapids in a 12 foot boat, paddled the Maine coast in an 18 foot sea kayak and sailed the coast alone in a 20 foot sloop, and felt something thrilling and even mystical.

The commonality to all those crafts is that they are relatively small. In things of these size, you don’t so much sit in them as wear them. In kayaks, your hips are grabbed y the boat. Your legs are fast moving weights. The boat responds to your slightest shift.

Listen to a Spitfire pilot: “Once you got used to the Spitfire, of course, you loved it. It became part of you. It was like pulling on a tight pair of jeans. It was a delight to fly. I used to smoke a cigar sometimes . . . but if I dropped my cigar lighter, instead of groping around on the floor, I’d move the stick a fraction of an inch, the Spit would roll over and I’d catch the cigar lighter as it came down from the floor.”

I remember doing something similar in river rapids on hot days. Instead of splashing water on my face, I’d just roll the boat over, then roll back up. Simpler and more refreshing.  

The extraordinary responsiveness of these craft also heighten one’s perceptions. I noticed that river rapids smell different from flats. So does ocean water when it wells up against an underwater bank, lifting plankton and the fish feeding on them. On a sailboat or sea kayak, you feel cool spray on your arms. You listen to the wind, and feel it on your ears and arms. What happens, how you react to the environment, is entirely up to you and your relationship with the craft. 

In bigger craft, I suspect, machines and instruments begin to play a much larger role. Late last spring I helped a friend move his 37-foot boat up to Maine from Salem, Massachusetts. Sitting on watch felt a bit like being work-check the GPS, check the motor readings, scan the horizon, repeat.

In that big boat, I longed for a small cockpit and the embrace of the natural world.  In the small craft, you know you are not mastering the environment. Rather, you are honing your ability to understand and work with it.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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