BBC History magazine produces an excellent free weekly podcast entitled History Extra. It covers a wide range of subjects, and one I have listened to recently explored the history of the navy, in particular in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
It’s not a subject I know a lot about, but it was fascinating to hear about some of the successes of that period, as well as some of the less august events in naval history. I’d never given much thought to naval battles of the period before, but I was intrigued to hear about the skill which went into controlling a ship.
For example, in a sea battle it would often be necessary to hold a ship in a position whilst fighting with the enemy. With only wind power, this meant a complex trimming of the sails to capture wind in two directions at once, effectively holding the ship still; and of course, with the wind being changeable and different water currents coming into play, the arrangement of the sails would need constant readjustment. It’s hard to conceive of the skill needed to do this in normal conditions, never mind in the thick of battle with guns pounding and smoke everywhere.
The currents themselves were used to good effect too in controlling a ship – and the speaker, Sam Willis, spoke of the “art of drifting”. No doubt this required an intimate knowledge of and sensitivity to the changing currents of the water, allowing the ship to be positioned using whatever forces nature offered.
The art of drifting struck me as a rather good concept to contemplate in a broader context than naval history. In our modern and mechanised world, we often expect to be able to control, overpower and dominate the forces of nature whenever we need to.
Whether we are really able to dominate like that in any long-term sense is a subject for another posting. But for now, I’ll simply pose the question as to whether sometimes we might be better flowing with the direction of travel rather than fighting it, working with what the world offers us rather than trying to overturn it. I fear that sometimes we are so busy trying to get the world just how we want it, and expending huge effort doing that; and we miss the fact that maybe it’s just how it needs to be already, and we would be better just flowing along with that.
Perhaps the art of drifting is something we could all try to rediscover in our 21st century lives.