“If over the years I had been given a dollar each time a small boat sailed into looming disaster by steering close under the flaring bow of a ship on which I was serving as pilot, I would be a wealthy man today. But alas, no one has ever given me a dollar and most likely never will.” So begins Captain John W. Trimmer’s deeply resonant allegorical book How to Avoid Huge Ships (Or I Never Met a Ship I Liked), a book ostensibly about avoiding huge ships but in actuality a book about so much more. Trimmer brilliantly weaves together anecdotes from his years captaining ships (mostly large ones) in order to teach profound life lessons. Trimmer’s elegy is powerful and understated, and it inspired me to think of my own rules – rules for life, rules for avoiding huge metaphorical ships, and rules for navigating this mad world.
Trimmer’s book is fast-paced, moving at such a high clip that you barely have the time to feel a pang in your heart at the fact that no one has ever given him a dollar before he moves on to the next harrowing lesson. There’s no record of Trimmer indicating that he had any substantive wealth, and it goes without saying that he likely made very little money on the sales from this book. Trimmer’s masterpiece did win an award – the Diagram Group and Bookseller magazine award “The Oddest Title of the Year.” That said, there’s no indication that I can find that any money changed hands (If you are wondering about any potential bribes: Diagram is known for playing it a bit fast and loose with its morals, but Bookseller Magazine maintains a stringent moral code). Trimmer lived his life in abject poverty, yet still took the time to edify his fellow captains of both sea and life.
“I continually marveled at the captain who could, with skill and daring, maneuver a swift-moving sailing vessel in a stiff wind, keeping the boat safe as it cut through the water under a huge spread of canvas.” Trimmer’s words fall about the reader like a warm, welcoming rain – an amalgamation of Shakespeare’s flourish with Hemingway’s clarity. I knew a man, we’ll call him Thomas to preserve his anonymity, who was like this captain. In life, which is quite similar to captaining a ship, Thomas held himself with an unceasing chutzpah that seemed to help him avoid even the most difficult of challenges (or stiff winds, as Trimmer might say). One might attribute Thomas’ success to dumb luck, but I always saw something else in him – a certain quantifiable magic that allowed him to escape even the most difficult of scenarios. Thomas’ life inspired me to make my first rule.
- Drive straight into the stiff wind
I quite think that Trimmer would agree with me when I say that challenges are meant to be faced head on with a clenched stomach and a dash of manic positivity.
Trimmer astutely observes that, although driving a boat is quite difficult and takes enormous skill, you don’t need a license to do so. In life, you don’t need a license to become an adult – it just happens whether you like it or not. If prospective boat drivers studied boats the way that every driver is forced to study cars, many of the issues that Trimmer addresses in his book would not be an issue. In fact, this would book would be required reading. And yet, because there’s no formal training, people tend to take boating less seriously (though it can be just as dangerous).
I think, on some level, Trimmer knows that huge ships aren’t always bad. They can be beautiful and life-affirming and breathtaking – they can make you marvel at their grandeur and grace. Trimmer’s cynicism toward these ships is my one great critique of the book. His negativity toward these ships, though warranted vis a vis his experience, casts a bitter light where an opportunity for growth exists.
Captain Trimmer points out that huge boats are difficult to put in reverse. This is one of my favorite of his little allegories: the boat that becomes so large that it is almost impossible to change its course when in motion. Like our human addictions and vices that we suppress and feed for years and years and years until they become towering steamboats that wreck our relationships or career. “Isn’t it interesting that, of all craft moving over the face of the earth, only the watercraft cannot be stopped quickly and efficiently.” This haunting passage made me put the book down and close my eyes in revery. I felt a strange sensation on my eyes- though I wasn’t crying – and when I opened them, I saw the color blue again. I hadn’t seen blue in ten years. I had nearly forgotten the color entirely and now here it was, beautiful and strong and vast. This leads me to my second rule.
2. Don’t expect huge ships to be nimble
“Here is the unfortunate fact,” Trimmer laments a few chapters later, “Visibility from many ships is not good!” Bulky cargo boxes almost entirely obstruct the view of the pilot. Trimmer recounts times in his career where he would spend the better part of a day walking from place to place on the ship in order to ensure proper observation of the surroundings. More than a few times, he would go from one place to a slightly shifted vantage point only to spot a small boat that was previously not visible.
Ships come at us from all angles, in all shapes and sizes. We must remain vigilant to ensure full observation, shifting focus from time to time even when it seems tedious. Our ship, the ship of our life, plows ever ahead. But we can clean the hull, we can avoid running into small ships and, most importantly, we can avoid huge ships.
“When I became a pilot I soon learned ships are subject to engine and equipment failures more often than I thought.” Close your eyes and think back to your childhood – adults seemed inhumanly large, towering ships to a child’s eyes. But now open them back up. Now, as big ships ourselves (if you are still a small ship, don’t take it for granted!), how we look at those old ships with so much more sympathy. Adults seemed infallible. Now that we are adults, adults seem like kids. The small ships have become the big ships only to discover that there was never any such thing as a big ship after all. Ships shut down sometimes. A hard time at work, a tough relationship, even for no reason at all. Ships will stall and the engines will burst and water will leak into cracks. For this, I made my next two rules.
3. Give your ship a break sometimes
4. When other ships break down, offer a helping hand
Trimmer discusses the plight of experiencing a fast ship travelling behind you in the same direction as you. As dangerous as it can be to see a ship head-on, you often have far less time and control when a fast ship bears down on you. “The first hint of danger will come when the ship is close aboard and towering over you like a mountain.” How often has that happened that an unexpected (but not entirely unfamiliar) burden snuck up on us and derailed our ships? The pain of loss or injury can impact our entire lives and we often won’t know about it until it towers over us like a mountain.
I want to discuss the elephant in the room: what about two ships in tandem? This is the one subject that Captain Trimmer doesn’t touch, whether by blind oversight or by long buried pain. I will attempt to supplement Trimmer’s otherwise nearly perfect book by adding my own, admittedly imperfect, advice. The people we love, friends and romantic partners and even sometimes particularly close colleagues, will want to travel through the choppy waters of life. So how do we account for that? It’s true, sailing becomes doubly hard at times as you must double your vigilance. But companion ships can be wonderful additions. You can toss needed supplies to the other boat. You can provide navigational consult. You can shout jokes and daily anecdotes to the neighbor boats, provided the winds aren’t too loud. Of course, you shouldn’t sail too close to your partner – allow for ten yards of space at all times, I would say. You also should consider a succinct set of hand signals that allow for timely communication. This all leads me to my next rule.
5. Travel with ships going your direction
I want to take a moment to zoom out and discuss the cultural impact of Trimmer’s self-published novel. Though I confided in the reader that I find the book to be a work of brilliance, not everyone feels this way. Publishers Weekly called this “The Worst Book Ever” and Jimmy Fallon put it on his “Do Not Read List.” It’s clear to me that the simple minds at Publishers Weekly didn’t understand the rich subtext of Trimmer’s book, which on the surface can be read as an earnest maritime operations handbook. You’ll find sarcastically effusive reviews on Amazon of people who scoff at literary masterworks (apparently).
I don’t know what the ships were in Trimmer’s mind – whether mistakes or heartbreaks or wonderful things, it’s clear that Trimmer lived a full life and I’m grateful that he was able to impart upon his ready readers. My copy of the book was autographed – in 1995 – and Trimmer says in his inscription, “I hope you get as much joy from reading this as I got from writing it.” It’s true, the inscription wasn’t written to me but, in a much truer sense, I believe that it was meant for me. As I attempt to piece together clues of Trimmer’s full life from the bits divulged in the text, this handwritten inscription appears to be my greatest clue – if only I could understand it fully. Trimmer enjoyed the process of writing this book, which seems odd to me since it’s so obviously personal. Maybe he means “joy” like catharsis, rather than as a happy feeling which is how I would normally understand joy to mean. ‘What is joy,’ Trimmer is asking me through the inscription and what is love and what is a ship at all? Trimmer’s existential questions ping through my mind on a loop as I go about my day, pondering the truth of all the times I just avoided a huge ship without even knowing it.
6. Learn the lessons of the ships
“A following current pushing the stern of a ship can be most dangerous and unhandy,” Captain Trimmer says. He goes on to explain that the current can make the ship get up to speeds that the engine doesn’t normally generate, thus putting undue stress on the engine. If the pilot has to reduce speed due to the current, that’s a bad beat as well – the ship will often sway from side to side precariously. Trimmer issues a word of warning to small boat owners – some scholars believe that this is the thesis of his great text. His warning was to get out of the way of big boats in high current situations, even if you believe you have the right of way. The big ship cannot slow down below eight or nine knots. (Helpful guide! A knot is a unit of speed that simply means ‘one nautical mile per hour.’) Trimmer recounts numerous times where he honked and honked at these smaller boats, only for their pilots to stubbornly maintain course due to their pride.
This is one of Trimmer’s less subtextual allegories. As you’ve no doubt guessed, the current is standing in here for peer pressure, a real thing that people in groups of friends can experience. Peer pressure can make us do things we normally wouldn’t do when left to our own devices. It can cause us to get in trouble, to make dumb choices in order to appease our friends. But a current can be useful too – good peer pressure can inspire us to step outside of our comfort zone and become better than ourselves. With the force of a good group of friends at our back, we can apply for that difficult job, ask that seemingly unattainable person out on a date, and just generally feel more confident in ourselves. The key difference – and one I believe Trimmer did not understand, because he seemingly was friendless/alone – is that (by and large) you can choose the currents of your life.
7. Choose your currents wisely
“When you drive your car at night, the best and most reliable form of protection you have against being hit by another moving chunk of steel is your car lights, front and back. This is just as true for your craft out on the water in the dark of night.” Trimmer’s trademark prose remains just as strong throughout the book. This passage – one of his more esoteric ones – is a startling reminder about the importance of good visibility. Learn all the techniques you want about avoiding big ships (and you will if you read this book) but forget to turn on your small boat’s lights and you will be dead in the water, quite literally.
We each have a north star in our life, a centered moral compass that informs our decisions and the way that we feel about our decisions. Our lights, should we turn them on for others to see, let people know of our limitations and our rules. They allow us to attract like minds and repel those whose values may contradict our own.
8. Turn your lights on
“Years ago I sailed as third officer under a captain whom I looked up to with love in my heart,” Trimmer says as he remembers his meteoric rise to power. This man was an inspiration to Trimmer and a great mentor who made an imprint on the pilot Trimmer would become. Unfortunately, unlike Trimmer, he didn’t write a book to impart his wisdom and thus it is lost to time or scrawled in the pages of other, more diligent philosophers’ writings. Anyway, this captain blew the boat’s whistle all the time and he asked Captain Trimmer (not yet a captain at this time) if he knew why he did it. “No, I don’t know,” Trimmer replied. “That means get the hell out of the way,” his teacher said with a laugh.
Trimmer is a much more empathetic man than his predecessor, but the point stands: if you are in a small boat and a big boat is behind you or in front of you or to the side of you, you should attempt to get out of the way. If you learn nothing else from this book and this quite unsolicited book report of this book, I hope you learn this important, potentially life-saving lesson. Though I’ve never been on a big boat (no one has ever taken me on one, unfortunately) I have been on my share of small boats but never as the captain. At the end of the day, though some people boat for recreation, boating is the highest stakes game in the world. The most important thing is the safety of your crew.
9. Avoid big ships
If you’re still reading this (and you should be because it is very good), I’d like to close with some thoughts about Trimmer and boats and the wide open sea. I have never been a real lover of boats, whether big or small. But people – and I believe that Trimmer’s poetry applies to people – I have loved. And though life and sailing can be difficult, I hope these rules have at least sparked some inspiration in you to steer your ship conscientiously and proudly, giving a wide berth to the big ships of life.
To all men, women and children who
Have been scared out of their wits by
A huge ship bearing down on their boat
-Captain John W. Trimmer