A Sailor-pilot Ruminates on His Twin Passions

Of wind and wings.

sam weigel
One of the things Sam Weigel has noticed this cruising season is just how many sailors are also pilots, both professional and recreational.Sam Weigel

For a supposed airline pilot and aviation writer, I’ve spent a scandalous amount of time at sea level over the past year. In late October, my wife, Dawn, and I cast off the lines from our summer dock in the Chesapeake and pointed our 42-foot sailboat, Windbird, southward to the Caribbean. From the eye-popping waterscapes of the Bahamas to the lush jungle of the Dominican Republic to the glittering, serrated archipelago of the Virgin Islands, it’s been the adventure of a lifetime.

Over the same period, I’ve worked a grand total of 14 days, two of those in the simulator, thanks to the happy circumstance that my airline’s Boeing 757/767 fleet is usually overstaffed in the winter. Now, I hasten to note that Dawn and I are far from independently wealthy — it’s just that with no kids and no debt, we don’t need much money to live on while we’re out on the boat. All I require is a nice patch of sand to anchor in, a cold beer from the icebox and a tasty lobster or fat hogfish to harvest from the reef under my keel. About the time you read this, we’ll be leaving Windbird high and dry in a Puerto Rican boatyard for hurricane season, and then over the summer you’ll find me in the air more often than not.

One of the things I’ve noticed this cruising season is just how many sailors out here are also pilots, both professional and recreational. Perhaps I should have expected it, considering the number of captains I fly with who sail. Historically, a lot of well-known pilots have also had a passion for sailing; one of my personal idols, Ernest K. Gann, is a notable example. There’s too strong of a correlation for it to be a coincidence; I like to think that the two pursuits capture the imagination of exactly the same sort of person. In my experience, both pilots and sailors tend to be romantics with a practical bent, those with the soul of a poet and mind of an engineer.

From a technical standpoint, there is a great deal of commonality between flying and sailing. Aerodynamically, a sail is but a wing turned sideways, at least with the wind coming from anywhere ahead of the boat. Put them both in a wind tunnel, and our mutual friend Bernoulli will happily avow them to be alike. The difference is that where the vertical component of lift allows an airplane to fly, it is the forward component that propels the vessel. In either case, the wing will only produce lift within a fairly narrow range of angles of attack; in sailing, a good deal of effort is spent attempting to keep as much sail as possible at its optimal angle. Too low an angle of attack, and the sail flogs dramatically — this is why a sailboat cannot sail directly upwind but must zigzag to and fro. A high angle of attack, on the other hand, is much subtler than its aviation counterpoint: The outer telltales will flutter about just like yarn tufts on a test wing, and the boat slows, but otherwise everything seems normal. A lazy sailor might be happy to slough along with stalled wings, but those of us who fly airplanes cannot abide such a condition — at least until it’s time to go downwind. Then we ease the sheets and turn our well-trimmed sails into baggy parachutes.

The aerodynamic similarities continue: The forward sail on a sloop rig, the jib, functions much like a slat on a jet’s wing, directing a current of high-energy air over the outer surface of the mainsail. Both sails have lines that help control twist or washout, not unlike the wing warping design of early aircraft. Below the waterline, the keel is another wing that generates sideways lift to counteract the wind’s push to leeward. The hydrodynamic curves of the hull would be completely at home in a sleek aircraft design. Structurally, sailboat masts are technically known as spars and serve the same purpose as their airborne counterpart, and the standing rigging that supports them is quite familiar to anyone who has spent much time around old biplanes.

sam weigel
For a supposed airline pilot and aviation writer, Sam Weigel admits he has spent a scandalous amount of time at sea level over the past year.Sam Weigel

From a practical standpoint, flying and sailing share quite a few skills that transfer well. Navigation is virtually the same, with highly detailed nautical charts of various scales usually oriented to true north. The use of GPS is just as prevalent on the water as in the air — and marine chart plotters owe a great deal to their aviation predecessors — but the savvy mariner, like the savvy pilot, retains knowledge of the old ways and uses those skills to supplement the new technology. The process of route planning and dead reckoning is exactly alike, with crosscurrents to be accounted for in place of crosswinds. Where the aviator might try to avoid high bits of land, towers, congested airspace and TFRs, the sailor plots his course clear of shallows, reefs, jutting headlands and the occasional buoy. In both cases, “What do I do if the engine quits?” is always a consideration (there are situations where a sailboat wouldn’t be able to merely sail out of trouble). One surprising difference: Outside of the United States, government-issued nautical charts are notoriously inaccurate, in many cases being based off century-plus-old British Admiralty surveys.

A working knowledge of weather is another thing that proficient pilots share with sailors. It’s hard to over­emphasize just how critical weather is to safe seamanship — not just the sailing itself, but also route planning, the go/no-go decision, anchorage selection and how one prepares the boat before getting underway. Sailing is roughly as weather-dependent as going cross-country in the winter with a J-3 Cub. On the water, you’re more concerned with wind and waves than with clouds, visibility and precipitation, but being able to understand the big picture and how it will affect local conditions is immensely helpful in each case.

For Dawn and me, our twin passions have resulted in a complete upending and reordering of our lifestyle, and likely will again at some point in the future.

In both flying and sailing, as a renter I paid too little attention to maintenance (kick the tires, light the fires …), but as an owner I gained new appreciation for the proper care and feeding of my machines. Timely maintenance is especially critical on a seagoing vessel because the saltwater environment is incredibly and continuously destructive. As the past owner of a classic airplane, and now as the skipper of a well-seasoned sailboat, I’m always thinking, What can I do to make her better? There’s no question that my experience owning the Piper Pacer helped prepare me to take good care of Windbird.

From an aesthetic standpoint, I consider flying and sailing to be two sides of the same coin. The things that have called men to sea over the ages are the same ones that made them so envy the birds: the freedom to roam near and far, the ability to leave terrestrial cares behind, the power to become the notional master of one’s own fate. Sailors and pilots have the unique privilege of witnessing a thousand hidden moments of wild beauty that dirt dwellers can scarcely imagine. We derive immense satisfaction from using a lifetime of accumulated skill and knowledge to survive and thrive in an intrinsically hostile environment. When Windbird is leaning hard on an upwind beat and I spy a clue in the telltales and give a sheet a tweak and the boat digs in and surges ahead with renewed vigor, spray flying over the bow and wake gurgling happily behind, the pleasure I derive from that moment is hard to explain to a nonsailor. A pilot, however, would easily recognize the feeling — for it is much the same as when a slight caress of the yoke expertly guides the ship onto the ILS, or when you dip a wing over a sun-dappled field and spy your shadow flitting among the corn rows, or the moment your upwind main tire kisses the pavement and stays planted in a feisty crosswind.

After experiencing life aloft and afloat, land living seems terribly drab; it turns out that a taste for adventure once developed is not so easily sated. Catch a flash of wing overhead and your heart leaps anew; spy a sail over the horizon and it calls you seaward. Flying and sailing can both easily morph into all-consuming obsessions, with nearly endless avenues for expanding one’s interest. Mere mortals can scratch and claw their way toward modest goals through compromise and sacrifice, while those more fortunate can squander a sizable fortune with surprising ease.

For Dawn and me, our twin passions have resulted in a complete upending and reordering of our lifestyle, and likely will again at some point in the future. The discomfort of the upheaval is temporary, while the rewards are lasting. If there’s one thing I’ve decided thus far in my time on this planet it is that life is too precious and fleeting to be lived any other way than to the fullest.