by Dave Nance
January 2009

While listening to music in the comfort of my favorite chair I frequently relive a memorable sail vicariously; a close reach in weather thick and thin as described by the melody of Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture, a turbulent run in heavy seas in Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite or a moody cold and foggy passage as pictured in Sibelius's Finlandia Suite. These are several classical composers whose timbre and tonal color conjure these images in my head. Rimsky-Korsakov, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky and Grieg are my personal favorites that elicit these mind pictures. It is interesting that in descriptions of romantic classical music the words "ebb" and "flow", words that we think of in the nautical definition, are often used to describe the intensities and densities of sounds.


We departed the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal and entered Delaware Bay at slack tide and with calm air. In the early dawn light, the Salem nuclear power plant glided by as the ebb began to build, and soon the domes and giant cooling towers faded into the morning haze. . . . . the woodwinds began a slow introduction to the theme before being taken up by the strings and then developed by the entire orchestra leading to a violent peak in Rimsky-Korsakov's Russian Easter Festival Overture . . . . The ebb built to its maximum and we flew past the numerous lighthouses in a building southwesterly wind and a crescendo of puffy white cumulus clouds forming into cumulonimbus thunderheads in the west. Interesting names like Ship John Shoal, Mah Maull Shoal and Brandywine Shoal came and were quickly left astern as we were guided by GPS and autopilot into deep water outside the main channel, out of the way of the large ships and tows. We soon set a new course for the entrance to the Cape May canal.

The Russian Easter Festival overture paints a mind's picture of the development of a beautiful day beginning in the cool morning haze and building with its repeating theme to a strong exhilarating run for the safety of Cape May. It is not surprising that this overture fits sailing as Rimsky-Korsakov was a naval officer and amateur musician, resigning his commission to study music with Tchaikovsky.


The New Jersey coast is seldom on the top of anyone's list of favorite cruising spots. It is tedious, it will liven up the navigation skills, and the summer winds are usually benign. To musically paint a consistent picture of this changing coastline needs something from Ives. I am not a fan of his work but maybe Ives' music does do a good job in describing the overbuilt vacation houses punctuated with periods of barren beaches, gaudy casinos amidst decaying houses, and once grand vacation hotels now falling into abuse. As you sail north maybe you can imagine Bruce Springsteen singing about life around Asbury Park. While swatting flies that can inundate the boat as we sail about four miles off the coast I have thoughts of The Flight of the Bumblebee, from a Rimsky-Korsakov opera. These flies have attacked us each time we have sailed off this coast. My theory is that they breed in the brackish waters of the shallow bays of New Jersey and the eggs are washed through the inlets on an ebb tide and hatch at about four miles offshore. This is purely conjecture and will surely be challenged by someone, based on the premise that nothing can breed in that polluted water. Well, how about listening to The Sea and Sinbads Ship, suite 1 of Scheherazade to give a more appropriate view of New Jersey?


To enter New York harbor in a small boat evokes feelings of triumph, a connection to history, and pure amazement. It's the triumph of completing a voyage. It was the location of much of General Washington's campaigns during the Revolution. It is still the entrance to a new world and a new start for millions of people from all parts of the world. It is an awesome place, with the Hudson River widening before you as you enter through the Varazano Narrows and the city appearing ever closer on the starboard and the Statue of Liberty on the port. It's a reminder of how small and fragile we are amongst the numbers of ships, buildings, bridges, headlands and people.

Enter New York harbor to the triumphant strains of War March of the Priests from Mendelssohn's Athalie, Op.20. As you approach Lady Liberty and Ellis Island the sound of Amazing Grace will float through your mind. Did you know that Amazing Grace was written by John Newton after he left the sea as captain of his own slave trading ship? He turned to faith for comfort and guidance, became an ordained minister and a strong opponent of the slave trade. His testimony to Parliament about the atrocities of the slave trade led to the emancipation of slaves in England and to its colonies. The 1779 edition of "Olney Hymns" in which the hymn that came to be known as Amazing Grace can be found in the University of Texas library in Austin.

Random nautical daydreams:

Smetana's program notes for The Moldau reads: "the work depicts the course of the river Vltava, beginning from the two small sources, the joining of both streams into one, then the flow of the Vltava through forests and across meadows, through the countryside where festivals are being celebrated; by the light of the moon a dance of water nymphs; on the nearby cliffs proud castles and ruins rise up; the Vltava swirls in St. Johns rapids, flows in a broad stream and finally the river disappears in the distance as it flows majestically into the Elbe." Listen to it and see if it doesn't picture this description in your mind.

"Bright clear sunrise and bounding passage" is printed in the music notes for Mendelssohn's Midsummer Nights Dream. This music can describe a passage along the Maine coast, encountering morning fog, racing tides, afternoon sea breeze, and at the end of a day, entering a harbor surrounded by towering trees.

Enjoy your vicarious sailing. Lois had a more appropriate title now that I think about it. She thought the title should be: "A RANDOM STREAM OF CONCIOUNESS OF AN OLD MAN".