Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Yachting Winds

by Ian Harris          Otago Daily Times           Oct. 11, 2013

The slow-drawn agony of the battle for the America’s Cup last month got me thinking about that quixotic ingredient central to the spectacle: the wind.  It blew wherever (and whenever) it pleased. Some days there was too much of it, some days too little, or it blew from the wrong quarter. Throw in the vagaries of time, tide and the Hundred Commandments governing this billionaire-driven spectacle, and you have the perfect recipe for frustration and disappointment – not only for crews, but also for countless Kiwi enthusiasts repeatedly thwarted in their desire to see a triumphant New Zealand team notch its ninth win over Team USA on Oracle and bring the Auld Mug home.

Early on we (that is the men on the water and myriad Kiwis following them on television half a world away) were in the ascendant, awaiting only the coup de grace. The decisive win loomed, we were close to ecstatic – and the race was ruled out because light airs prevented Aotearoa from finishing the race within the time limit.
That quirk of the wind allowed Oracle to surge back, suddenly superior in technology, speed and tactics, and swamp the luckless Kiwis. We were all gutted. Such is Kiwi solidarity, and long may it last.

But that uncontrollable wind is worth a second look. It figures prominently in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, pointing to something even more profound in human experience than the America’s Cup.  In the Hebrew Bible wind is ruach, a word meaning air in motion, something felt, something unseen, coming now from this quarter, now from that, sometimes fierce, sometimes gentle, always unpindownable – as on San Francisco Bay.

That made ruach the perfect symbol for a presence which people felt but could never master. They discerned it variously as a presence in nature, or in the close company of others, or in times of solitary reflection. Whichever, they had a sense that they were tapping into something much bigger than themselves, but also something real and ultimate.

A yachtie’s wind is part of nature, and in some contexts ruach means that and no more. But as an invisible, moving force, it was open to metaphorical expansion. So the biblical writers extended ruach imaginatively to mean the breath that gives life – even the breath that brought forth Earth and life upon it.  Accordingly, the Bible is only two verses old when in the mythic story of creation ruach comes into play as “the wind of God” sending ripples over a watery chaos. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber enlarges this with the image of a mother bird hovering over her nest, “spreading her wings to shelter the totality of the things that are to be”. Not science, of course, rather a poetic symbol of presence and brooding love.

In the story of the Israelites breaking out of slavery in Egypt, it was ruach holding back the Red Sea that made it possible for Moses and his followers to cross safely. When the wind dropped, the sea flooded back and inundated the pharaoh’s army pursuing them. Naturally, the Israelites attributed their deliverance to their God.
Unfortunately, no such wind blew to favour Team N Z on San Francisco Bay. It smiled on Oracle instead.

When former America’s Cup contender Dennis Conner had a similar let-off against Australia II 30 years ago, he commented: “God must be an American.” In San Francisco a New Zealand fan hoped for a judicious puff from “the Man Upstairs”. Bad theology both ways – that’s not what God-talk is all about. Ruach features prominently in another striking word-picture in Israel’s story, that of the valley of dry bones. The prophet Ezekiel drew it to give hope to a dispirited nation. He likens Israel to a valley full of human bones, which at God’s bidding come rattling together and are fleshed out, though still lifeless.

Then ruach breathes life into them, “and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude”. Unseen wind, the breath of life, the animating spirit (another key meaning for ruach) intertwine to invigorate and inspire.  It’s all over for Team New Zealand this year. But hope springs eternal. Next time, assuming millions of dollars in sponsorship and another generous handout courtesy of currently deflated taxpayers . . . maybe, just maybe.

Or perhaps ruach will blow from a different quarter, breathing into government circles a new spirit where overcoming poverty and its crippling effects on children takes priority over pumping money into another multimillion-dollar yachting extravaganza. Dreams are free . . .

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