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There’s a perception of Tennis as The Band That Sails™, that they’re some chill folks gallivanting around in a boat, living a life of leisure and no cares. That perception is patently wrong: Sailing, at its heart, is terrifying. Think of it: you’re on a boat that is relying solely on a piece of fabric and ancient knowledge of water and wind patterns to get around. Tom Hanks couldn’t even get his shit together enough in Cast Away to make a proper sail boat, and he had years and a volleyball.
The point is is that sailing is gnarly--we’re not talking about dilettantes spending a week on a crewed boat in the Bahamas on a Spring Break Bacchanal-- and if you pause to consider the ramifications of leaving the convenience of land, electricity, powered vehicles, and a floor that isn’t constantly rocking, you realize Tennis are crazy as hell for sailing. I mean, Bon Iver gets points for retiring to a hunting cabin in woods not far from a city of 70,000 people, and Tennis are considered pinkies-out blue boods for boarding a tiny boat and sailing off into the great nothing to write an album? Seems unfair. Yes, their new album was written on a boat, but it wasn’t all fun writing time.
So we rang Tennis up to talk to them about the truth about sailing. Namely, how does one decide to start sailing in 2017, how dangerous it is, and why do it at all.
VMP: The only boats I have experience with in Wisconsin are the little 8 person, motor board jalopy type deal. What does sailing offer you, and not even just from a creative perspective: How does sailing make it different to travel?
Patrick Riley: The word “escapism” comes to mind. For us, it’s a very isolating experience. It’s a way to shut off the world, it’s a way to only be worrying about what’s in front of you.
Alaina Moore: The reason we like sailing in particular is that you have to work with the limitations of the boat and the world around you. You have to create a seamless interplay between the sails and the wind. It’s a constant refining; you’re watching the sails, your course, the wind. You get to this state of attunement with all these interconnected systems that normally you don’t live in tune with.
It takes you out of your mind, and plants you firmly into nature. It’s the most physically rooted thing; it’s like what yoga is to me: moving meditation. You’re very rooted in your body, and it’s contemplative and it’s engaging mentally.
VMP: How did you guys decide to start sailing? I feel like that’s not necessarily an easy thing to do in the 2000s, to just be like “I’m going to start sailing.” Especially since you guys were in school in Denver, not exactly a sailing hub.
Patrick: We both grew up in landlocked states, but one year my dad took us on a trip to San Diego, and we sailed out into the bay and turned around and came back in a sailboat. I was like 12, but from that day on, I was saving my money, and was like, “I want to live on a boat.” I saved all through high school, and worked at a gas station, and taught tennis. I didn’t waver for six years.
But we also met a lot of people out there on our first sailing trip that did it for a lot less money than we did.
Alaina: Because they hadn’t been saving since they were 12. [both laugh]
The real barrier for entry isn’t even money though; it’s learning how to sail.
Patrick: We read so many books about sailing. [Patrick then shows us his sailing shelf on their bookcase, which is filled with sailing books. Some books were so big they looked like foundation bricks]. I’ve probably read 30 sailing books cover-to-cover, and Alaina has probably read 10.
It’s weird because none of it is necessarily “new;” it’s all old knowledge. People have known how to sail around the world for hundreds of years.
Alaina: Yeah, that’s another thing I love about it; it’s in touch with this history. It was one of the first forms of transportation, and it has to me the same feeling of going into like a really old church.
VMP: So how did you decide specifically to do the southern part of California around the Baja Peninsula for this trip? Did you try to decide where the best sailing is? Best scenery, or what?
Patrick: We were thinking of selling our boat, because it was at the cheapest marina in the country, which is in North Carolina. And it’s really hard to get to, and we were keeping it there for years for like $50 a month.
Alaina: It was basically falling apart because we were never there and it was just sitting there, so we committed to moving it to the West Coast because Patrick’s parents live there. So once it was there, there isn’t really anywhere to sail except down to Catalina, or across the ocean. And we’re just not ready for that yet [laughs].
Patrick: I should mention that our boat is small enough to be trailered by a pickup truck. So we literally had a pickup drive it across the country.
VMP: So you didn’t sail through the Panama Canal or something. So I heard that you guys have to stay awake for sometimes something like 24 hours when you’re making a passage.
Alaina: We sleep in shifts, so we’re not both really awake.
Patrick: There was really bad weather on one of our sailing trips, and I had to stay awake for like 27 hours straight.
Alaina: You can lay down during that, but you’re too stressed out to sleep. As soon as our passage starts, we start doing two hours on, two hours off shifts. When you’re off, you just lay down and try really hard to get some rest. Even if you can’t sleep, you just need to rest. You have to force yourself to eat, and drink and rest during those times.
Patrick: I promise sailing is fun though [laughs].
VMP: I guess I want to know how dangerous sailing is, because it seems super dangerous. No motor, no electricity, etc. Do the books make it sound as dangerous as it seems?
Alaina: It is really dangerous. But I mean, you’re more likely to die in a climbing accident than sailing. Fewer people die from sailing every year than you’d think, I think.
Patrick: Well, maybe we should look at the numbers. I feel like it’s because more people climb than sail.
VMP: I suppose it’s way more dangerous to ride the coasts like you guys do than set out across the ocean.
Alaina: Yeah totally.
VMP: Were there moments on this last trip that you guys were super worried about? Anything that was scarier than you had experienced before?
Patrick: Coming around the Baja Peninsula, we picked what we thought was a weather window. Usually, when there are storms on one side of the Sea of Cortez they’re supposed to stay on one side of the mountain range. This one was big enough that it reached over.
Alaina: And it was cross the prevailing wind, so we ran into a giant wind storm that hit us with breaking waves that were really huge and really violent. That lasted for 18 hours.
At one point Pat had to steer through breaking waves until like midnight. We had to board up the boat, and board up the cockpit because it was filling with water, and wear a tether to tie ourselves to the boat in case we went overboard.
And there were whales surfacing all around us, and if you hit one, you can wreck your boat. So Pat was steering around breaking waves and surfacing whales.
Patrick: I was just cursing a lot and steering.
Alaina: That was the worst day ever, but it was only one day out of five months of days. It got to a point where we were like, “I don’t know how much longer I can take of this.” It was never like, “We’re going to die!” You can’t give up till you’re safe; you don’t have a choice to stop.
VMP: Maybe this is me being a Midwesterner hayseed but this is blowing my mind that you’d choose to do this.
Alaina: I’m really glad you’re asking this, because before I stopped reading our reviews, someone wrote, “Tennis and their cozy sailing excursion” and I wanted to punch them in the face. They didn’t even try or wonder for one second what it was actually like to sail. It’s not cozy; it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, psychologically, physically, and skill wise. Sailing is the achievement of my life, in my mind, and people don’t even try to know. They just imagine someone drinking a martini with a white glove.
Patrick: We have a joke that people think we’re way fancier than we are.
Alaina: People think we’re so posh and bougie, but we haven’t bathed in a month, and we’re wearing ragged and disgusting clothes, and haven’t eaten.
Patrick: We don’t look like our press photos when we’re sailing [Laughs].
VMP: Yeah, sailing seems really horrifying and super hard to me, and a lot of people when they’re writing about you and they say stuff like “Really calm music made while sailing,” and I’m like that does not seem congruous to the experience. I would be terrified the entire time.
Alaina: What sucks is that Luca--who photographed all our pics of the trip [and who shot the VMP Album Cover]--whenever he’d come out to visit, the weather would be the best it was the whole trip. No wind, no waves for seven days. We wouldn’t even be able to sail because there was no wind.
VMP: You guys are like, “This is really hard Luca, we’re dying out here.” And he’s like, “This is paradise!”
Alaina: [Laughs] He’d wake up and be like, “This was the best sleep I’ve ever had in my life on this boat,” and we’d have to say only because the weather is perfect.
VMP: With it being as difficult as it sounds, was there ever a moment where you were like, “Is this even worth it?” Even with its creative benefits.
Alaina: I never doubted it. The second we’d arrive at some ancient looking, uninhabited volcanic island with turquoise water and manta rays diving out of the water and the last time it was charted was in 1860, you’re just like, “Oh my god, this is totally worth it.” You get to be there not in a tent with a backpack, but your home, basically. It’s so amazing.
Andrew Winistorfer is Senior Director of Music and Editorial at Vinyl Me, Please, and a writer and editor of their books, 100 Albums You Need in Your Collection and The Best Record Stores in the United States. He’s written Listening Notes for more than 30 VMP releases, co-produced multiple VMP Anthologies, and executive produced the VMP Anthologies The Story of Vanguard, The Story of Willie Nelson, Miles Davis: The Electric Years and The Story of Waylon Jennings. He lives in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
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