I Must Down to the Seas Again

Winslow Homer, "A Fair Wind"

Sports Saturday

I hope you’ll indulge me as I sing the praises of one of my student athletes.  Meredith Powlison, who wrote a senior project on Milan Kundera under my direction, helped the St. Mary’s College of Maryland sailing team qualify for the three major collegiate national championships—which is to say, women’s racing, co-ed racing, and team-racing. Talking about her accomplishments gives me an excuse for posting one of my favorite sailing poems.

The championships were held in late May and early June in Cascade Locks, Oregon . Although Meredith did not bring home any national championships (St. Mary leads all colleges with 15 such championships since 1993), she did very well.  As she describes it,

We were the only team to place in the top five at all three events, which is a major achievement. I sailed each of the nine days. I sailed the entire women’s event, which was in very light air with a ton of current. The conditions were really challenging, and we were in contention to win the event on the last day, which is something that we always want.

I sailed all but two of the team races. Again, we were close to making the final four on the last day. That event was a bit windier, but again with a ton of current.

For the last event, I sailed about two thirds of the races- the last two days got windy towards the end of the day so we stepped up to heavier crews.  It was a really long event for Megan and me—nine days—but I feel like we worked really hard even when the racing was frustrating. And, aside from our results, we both got named to the All-America team, and Megan was a finalist for female college sailor of the year (but unfortunately didn’t win that award). So, even while we didn’t come away with a championship win, we felt pretty good about what we pulled off in tough conditions.

Meredith entered the work world on Monday.  She will be web editor for Sailing World, Cruising World, and Yachting . Roger Williams University, incidentally, won the team race while University of Rhode Island won the women’s race and Boston College won the the co-ed race.

I loved John Masefield’s “Sea Fever” when I was a boy.  It’s not about competitive racing as it describes being alone with the wind and the waves early in the morning. Nevertheless, I can imagine Meredith liking it.  She knows what it’s like to give oneself over to “the gull’s way and the whale’s way”—much of competitive sailing involves reading the wind and the currents–and how the wind can feel like a whetted knife (the sailing team begins its spring semester practices in February).

Here’s the poem:

Sea Fever

by John Masefield

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
All I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the seagulls crying.

I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And a quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trip’s over.


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  1. Susan
    Posted June 11, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Oh!!! Another post where I learn the context of a familiar phrase. I could soak in this poem like a bubble bath. There’s something about water and freedom. And wind – energy of a giant, kiss of a baby, belligerent, soothing. Mmmmm.

    And a comment on the meter. It’s interesting the play of moving rhythm with the lengthened syllables. The first being tall, which takes two syllables worth of beat. It makes the poem light-hearted.

  2. Robin Bates
    Posted June 12, 2011 at 7:47 am | Permalink

    I like the image of soaking oneself in this poem, Susan. And yes, the metrics push the poem/ship forward like the wind and the waves. Interestingly, I have always been mistaken in the poem’s first line. Up until yesterday, I thought it went, “I must GO DOWN to the SEA again.” The poem is so magical for me that I’m having a really hard time making the adjustment. When I read the actual version, it feels as though some of the soap bubbles have popped.

  3. Susan
    Posted June 12, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    If you say -” I must DOWN (hold) to the SEA aGAIN” (hold the I and be lighter on the must) then DOWN is the first strongest syllable, it gives the feeling of reaching the crest of a wave, pausing and then slooshing down. The other way, the accent could be on the MUST, which is a strong word, but doesn’t start you on the roller coaster feeling of the waves. Try it and see if some bubbles come back!

  4. Robin Bates
    Posted June 12, 2011 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

    You’re right, Susan. Unlike what Borges asserts in his short story “Tlon Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” what we remember is not necessarily better than the actual quote. Thanks for reminding me what I teach in Intro to Lit.


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