The afternoon seabreeze propelled our small sailboat down Narragansett Bay toward the ocean. Our own voices were the only sounds of which we were aware, save the ripple of our wake and the occasional squeals of herring gulls as they slashed on baitfish. We passed rocks where cormorants were spread wide drying their wings. Cars and trucks on the high bridge and shore roads might have been images from a silent film.
Two days later I found myself a thousand miles away in a very different marine milieu, on a center console moving up a narrow, still tributary of a large river in the heartland. The outboard was off and up, and we were ghosting along under a dense canopy of cottonwoods and sycamores, pulled by the boat’s electric trolling motor. The forest floor was covered in primeval poison ivy with leaves the size of catcher’s mitts. Cicadas were issuing their chorus of shrill love calls with an urgency that comes after sleeping for 17 years and having one shot to tee up the next generation. Water snakes were leaving irregular wakes as we passed. A heron perched high on a bare, dead tree trunk let out a piercing shriek when he spotted us.
We live in a world infused with incessant, abrasive sound: dump trucks and flatulent motorcycles, leaf blowers and electric trimmers, jets in landing patterns and ringing, pinging phones. No wonder we seek peace and solace on the water. But sometimes it’s hard to observe, or even imagine, all that goes on in the ocean environment while we race along with diesels clattering or outboards whining. I love crashing through swells with spray on my face and the wind peeling back my hair, but I have to confess: Nothing chills me out like silent running or sitting at anchor.
It wasn’t until my early 20s that I began to appreciate pulse-moderating moments on the water: the instant of shutting down the engine and letting the sails do their work, at anchor in a deserted cove in Maine watching the ospreys dive, straining to hear anything other than the clinking of ice in our glasses in a miles-long, mountain-rimmed reach in the Hebrides, drifting on a large yacht in Alaska watching humpback whales breach and bubble-net feed near the boat. Once I was on a racing yacht becalmed in the Gulf Stream in the middle of a carpet of purple-bodied Portuguese man-o’-wars aglow like prisms in the setting sun. Magic.
The water is our playground, our sanctuary, our escape from the pressures of the workaday world. The more I season, the more I crave those quieter moments on the water—moments when wind or paddles provide the horsepower, or when the anchor’s down and the boat is still, or when I’m having lunch in the cockpit just drifting with the tide. Moving fast through the water is always a gas, but great rewards can be found in the sounds of silence.