Helm as Home

Helm as Home


“Separately there was only wind, water, sail, and hull, but at my hand the four had been given purpose and direction.”

Lowell Thomas


Written & Photos  by Ally Nobles – Deckhand aboard Sea Dragon.

At sea for days, and the night air lightening with pending dawn. Wipe your nose on the backside of your glove, unclear if the fleece is moist from fog or your snot. Wind thick, in a cloud, racing up and down. Somewhere the smoke creeps in to irritate your nasal passages.

Shanley describes sailing through fog like gliding through a snow globe. You drift in thought of the earth as being shaken with the sky continually falling.

And maybe it’s been a few days since you’ve showered, but the smell feels more nostalgic, saltier, than before. No longer sweating in Caribbean spring, you’re bundled up, enveloped in the Pacific.

The wind is shifty, but you’ve learned to anticipate this. The wheel is an extension of you. A boat brain controlling the critical course.

The main shakes loose the dew. Sprinkles you in the small of your face not protected under hood or beanie, turtleneck, zipped-up, popped-up collar. Maybe you’re thinking of someone you love, maybe lost. Sometimes you need space as endless as the murky horizon to let those thoughts stretch out. Toss them to the ocean, and move on. The wind doesn’t forgive distraction, pulls you back in the moment. Back at sea. Hands mitigating spokes at the helm, miles off from nothing but the feeling like anything.

SD Mainsail.

I remember my formative early years aboard my parents’ boat Kalypso, a 27-foot schooner, at first a banana-bright-yellow eyesore and later molded and renewed in a beautiful navy blue. Sometimes they would let me take hold of the tiller, the only tiller I’ve ever known, the first way I learned to feel with my sailing vessel. The confusion of steering left to make Kalypso go right made it mighty hard when I started using wheels later in life, on other boats as well as in cars. Today though, I frequently forget the sensation of sinking in as if I were the rudder myself, dictating direction. Enough hours at the helm, though, and the feeling returns.

Arms tire turning spoke by spoke cruising up each swell and surfing down each crest. Sometimes up to 11 knots but averaging more around 8. Riding with the apparent wind, heading anywhere between 170 – 205 magnetic depending on its mood.

SD Helm

Feet plant firmly in wooden grate, balls and heels. Dolphins as horses, night riding bioluminescent trails. Wind picks up, falls. Trim sails, drop sails, sweat main sheet, furl yankee, unfurl yankee.

Hands take quarter turns. Thumbs press to leather wheel cover, rubbing the worn textures. Wrists pushing, intent heading. Visibility batters, but sky overcast always…

Fog or smoke? The latter sometimes suffocates from astern. Wind-slapped head on into eyes and burning. Rubbing, goggles, bandanas tied over face. Water bandits turned fire bandits at sea.

Between the cold wind and the smoke from the California wildfires, it can sometimes be hard to see and even breathe..

Back to dolphin surging, zig zag dancing in the water. Do they smell the fire too? 2, 3, 4, 7, 9, 12… sometimes it’s like they know when no one’s at the bow and instead pop up aft near the helm, saying hello as you steer through.


What guides you at sea? Do you feel the keel’s weight below? The swaying mast between each swell? Doing small diddies with your feet as you find equilibrium in balancing acts?

Shuffle your own weight ankle to ankle, angle to angle, upwind, downwind, all wind, none.

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