Structure is Freedom, On Land and On Sea - Next Action Associates

I’ve been sailing and loving it since I was about 10. There’s magic in a sailboat. When you’ve left last night’s port, the wind hits the sails, and the boat gently leans into the breeze as it picks up speed, it’s easy to have the sense that all is right with the world.

I took some time off this last week to complete a seminar on sailing theory. It was a week of concepts and exercises, of taking the core ideas around tides, wind, compasses, buoys and lights, and applying them practically to various scenarios.

One of my favourite exercises involved passage planning. Ultimately passage planning is about figuring out how I can get from A to B with the least drama.

Sounds easy, right? And it would be, too, if I were on the road. The road doesn’t move underneath you. On the road there are lanes that determine who drives on which side, and you’re not dependent on the vagaries of the weather to get you where you’re going.

When I’m sailing there are a lot of variables that affect how I might get from where I am now to that little restaurant in the next bay I’ve heard people raving about. The tides will be ebbing and flowing, creating currents that might help or hinder. The wind might be in my favour, or it might be blowing straight at me from the direction I want to go. Depths will vary, so I need to keep an eye on those to avoid running aground. As there are no lanes or road signs, I’ll need to use landmarks and navigational buoys to help me figure out where I am as I travel. And I might be affected by deviation (this has to do with the compass, and is a lot less interesting than it sounds).

Passage planning takes all of these elements and gives us a framework for dealing with them. It provides a structure for thinking through the variables and producing a plan.

Not every sailor does passage plans. Some just cast off and hope for the best. They don’t want to bother with all that structure, they’ll say, they want freedom.

But doing the thinking involved in creating the passage plan up front means that I’ll have a lot less to think about later. I can take in the view, chat with my guests, enjoy the moment.

Also, things go wrong in sailing. Winds shift, electronic aids stop working, ferries cross your path. Someone once said that sailing is hours of pleasure peppered with moments of panic, and that’s not far off the truth.

If I’ve created a passage plan before I pull up the anchor, then when the stuff hits the fan I’ll be able to focus on it completely, without mental residue. I’ve then reduced the number of variables I need to think about, so that I can turn my full attention to solving the problem at hand, without distractions.

There’s a quote I’ve seen attributed to Churchill that’s helpful here. “When I was a boy, I needed structure. When I was a young man, I craved freedom. I now realize that structure is freedom.”

Structure is freedom. Have enough structure in your life to allow yourself to live with the freedom you want.

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