Backstory to “Why Being Rudderless in Life Brings You to a Stop”

Life expects you to use your rudder now and then. (free public domain:

Riviersonderend is a strange place to learn how to sail. Riviersonderend is a place and a river in South Africa. Riviersonderend-the-place is more village than town. Riviersonderend-the-river needs some explaining. Very few South African rivers deserve the name “river.” Stream, yes. And creek, brook, rivulet, and even rill (Look it up. It exists.) Aspiring river, often. But real river? Seldom.

(After seeing the Rivers (yes, capital R) in the USA, I define a river as a stretch of water on which you can pilot bigger craft than rafts and tubes.)

Riviersonderend is an Afrikaans name. A direct translation would be Riverwithoutend. Riviersonderend-the-river has no end. Riviersonderend-the-place ends before you notice that it had begun. Well, almost. So where could I sail to on a river that has no end from a place that ends too quickly? Before you say, “One could sail forever on a river without end!” let me explain. Normal rivers end at their mouth. (Go figure. We humans view our mouth as the start of our internal river.) Let me reword that. Normal rivers end at, and into, the sea. So a river without end never makes it to the sea. It disappears into the soil as if some imp had pulled the plug on it.

Now, in understanding what Riviersonderend means, that’s what one would expect from a river called Riviersonderend. But no, this wanna-be-river-without-end does not live up to its name. It meanders. And as it meanders, it morphs from almost-river to stream to creek to brook to rivulet and back again. And again, randomly. I don’t think it ever rills. Except at its end when we would expect a Riverwithoutend to seep down the drain. Which it doesn’t. (Oh, all right, I’ll explain. A rill is a long narrow valley on the moon. No! I mean, yes. It is. But not in the context I am using it. Here on earth a rill is a shallow channel, not more than a groove in the ground.)

The Riviersonderend near Riviersonderend, where I learned to sail, isn’t very wide. This lack of width made sailing on the Riviersonderend tiringly tricky. Unless me and my dinghy managed to meander all the way to where the Riviersonderend finally meandered into the Breerivier. Did I explain that the Riviersonderend does not in fact rill into nothingness? (I love how Americans turn nouns into verbs. And now I do it.) It creeks into the Breerivier. (Another noun-verb!)

Reaching the Breerivier would not have helped my sailing much, because the Breerivier is a misnomer. Maybe not in South Africa, but in any country with decent, fully grown rivers, the Breerivier would be a misnomer. Breerivier means Wideriver. Which it isn’t. Except at its mouth. Which is wide. And good for sailing. Except for the strong coastal tide.

But the primary reason I did not meander to the Breerivier is that I did not know how to captain a sailing dinghy. Nor did I know how to crew one. And so I stayed within shore-reach of the campsite of Riviersonderend-the-place. (This was easy, because, as I explained, Riviersonderend-the-river is no Breerivier.)

With all that said, why on earth did I decide that this was the right time and place for me to teach myself to sail?

My parents had chosen the campground of Riviersonderend-the-place as being ideal for us to enjoy a brief vacation because it is on the bank of Riviersonderend-the-river. Ideal? I was a newly minted teenager and a place that ends before you notice that it had begun was hardly ideal. And then there were my siblings. I, who had never shown an interest in joining the family sailing hobby, considered the dinghy and the patch of water. The appeal of self-isolating on the dinghy was strong. (Many years later, the appeal of self-isolating on a mega-yacht was even stronger.)

Did I mention my siblings? So the catch to seizing the craft was that I had to fake a desire to learn how to sail. Well, who knew? There is some fact to “fake it ’til you make it” because the more I faked it, the more the dinghy appeared to sail. And the more I sailed without crashing into banks or overhanging branches, the more my teenage spirit soared.

How did I steer clear of the overhanging trees and the too-close-for-sailing riverbanks? The secret is in the word “steer.” I steered. I used the rudder. Boy, did I use that rudder! And the rapid rudder changes demanded constant adjustments to the mainsail and to the jib. Did I mention this dinghy had two sails demanding my single-handed attention?

Actually, it wasn’t as hectic as I make it appear. Because of the trees, very little wind made it into the narrow waterway. I had to find the wind. (Have you seen the wind? Of course you haven’t. Wind is invisible. To find the wind, one must look for evidence of its passing.) Because the wind I could see in passing was a mere zephyr, I had to lean the dinghy on its side, by sitting on the wrong side, to get the mainsail to fill with the slightest cat’s paw.

Let’s now review the cause and effect that taught me the Rule of the Rudder. Because Riviersonderend-the-place was boring, I had the teenage blues. Because the blues made me want to self-isolate from my siblings, I seized the sailing craft. Because I had never expressed an interest in sailing, I had to fake it. Because Riviersonderend-the-river was not the Breerivier, I had to get from faking to making very quickly — I had to learn to tack like a pro. Because I needed to tack so often and so expertly, I learned the many roles of the rudder.

As I zigged and zagged, I became The Rudder.


Here’s the blog entry:

Why Being Rudderless in Life Brings You to a Stop

(The trick to smooth sailing in life is to use your purpose as a rudder.)

Falling overboard is quite easy to do when the wind is strong, the waves big and the boat small. (free public domain:

In my much younger days I sailed dinghies. The thing about solo sailing is that you don’t want the dinghy to sail away if you fall overboard. Trust me, falling overboard is quite easy to do when the wind is strong, the waves big and the boat small.

How did we prevent the dinghy from sailing away once the sails were set? By angling the mast in a manner that made the dinghy want to turn into the wind at all times. Letting go of the rudder meant that the sails would spill and the dinghy would stop.

So the first purpose of the rudder is to keep the dinghy turned away from the wind so that the sails can fill. Only then is it used to steer somewhere specific.

Being rudderless in life will also bring you to a stop. The trick to smooth sailing in life is to know how much rudder to use and when.

Welcome to my side of the nonsense divide.

Insights to boost your career prospects and job satisfaction while dealing with the nonsense of pleasing a boss, playing nice with colleagues, and making subordinates productive.

This backstory was originally published on Patreon.




Born in RSA winelands. Earned 3 degrees drinking red wine. Chased by lioness, ran with elephants, got bored, moved to USA seeking adventure. Ex-CEO now coach.

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James McIntosh

James McIntosh

Born in RSA winelands. Earned 3 degrees drinking red wine. Chased by lioness, ran with elephants, got bored, moved to USA seeking adventure. Ex-CEO now coach.

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