While out on the water with visitors in December, my friends and I argued about the perfect music for an afternoon sail. One friend wanted reggae, another suggested sing-alongs, while I sought something deeper—a soundtrack that reflected the beauty of our surroundings but still had a dark undercurrent, mimetic of the often overlooked dangers of the sea. Since we couldn’t agree, our captain took charge and tuned the dial to ZROD which stayed on all the way back to Soper’s Hole.

Determined to find what I was looking for, I checked the internet to see if any sailing playlists already existed. Instead, I came across a Wikipedia entry for “yacht rock.” The term, allegedly coined in 1990 by music critic Dave Larsen in reference to a Jimmy Buffett concert, describes soft rock music from the late seventies to early eighties, with most artists hailing from Southern California.

When I read the list of artists included in the genre—The Eagles, Steely Dan, Christopher Cross, and Toto—I was transported not to the open seas but to the vinyl bench seat of my mother’s brown Chevy Caprice station wagon.


I always sat in the middle, between my mom and my big sister, eye-level with the AM/FM radio dial—a black strip with broken and unbroken white lines, similar to the highways near our suburban home. We spent a lot of time in the car, commuting to and from school, and I still know all the words to practically every yacht rock song.

I mean to say, I know the words now. Then, I often misheard the lyrics of those easy listening hits. I guess they weren’t so “easy” to listen to if you were a five-year old kid unfamiliar with the logic of late-seventies love affairs. To my inexperienced ears, the chorus of Ambrosia’s “How Much I Feel” sounded like “Momma Chucky” and Player’s “Baby Come Back” had the lyric, “I was robbed, and I just can’t live without you” instead of “I was wrong, and I just can’t live without you.” I sang these incorrect lyrics loudly, with passion. I guess my mom just didn’t have the heart to correct me.

At the same time that I was cruising around in the wood-decaled wagon mishearing song lyrics, adults in Southern California were, according to Wikipedia, cruising around in yachts listening to the same tunes but probably finding deeper meaning in the correct lyrics. Thus the genre is called “yacht rock” and not “station wagon rock.”

Now living in the BVI, I still appreciate those overpolished gems from my childhood, but they’re not quite what I’m seeking to accompany my voyages at sea. In addition to the dark undercurrent, I think I’d also like to recapture the innocence of my youth by finding compelling lyrics that I could possibly mishear—songs that I can listen to over and over again and be struck by something new each time.


When I visited the States in February, I once again found myself cruising around in my mom’s car. This time, instead of riding center in the wagon listening to soft rock hits, I’d upgraded to shotgun in a sedan listening to the local college station, WTMD.

While Mom maneuvered around less snow-savvy cars on the interstate, I turned up the volume on a Fleet Foxes song that sounded like Simon & Garfunkel meets the Beach Boys meets the Polyphonic Spree. The lyric “red as strawberries in the summertime” transported me to childhood summers picking strawberries on the coast of Delaware.

After downloading the track, “Winter Weather Hymnal,” from iTunes and listening a few more times, I realized the lovely, harmony-laden tune was not as bright and cheerful as I’d first thought. The full lyric is, “Michael you will fall and turn the white snow red as strawberries in the summertime.” Exactly what my sailing soundtrack needed—a little reminder of mortality among the swirling splendor. With that in mind, I constructed my contemporary sailing-day playlist, full of pretty, poppy tunes with often disturbing or confounding lyrics. Try it out for your next leisurely sail.

  1. “Winter Weather Hymnal” by the Fleet Foxes. See above.
  2. “Baby Britain” by Elliot Smith. Full of heraldic melodies and rush-to-the-surface builds. Lyric: “Sees the ocean fall and rise/ Counts the waves that somehow didn’t hit her.”
  3. “Poor Little Fish” by The Jayhawks.
  4. “Lull” by Andrew Bird. Violins, harmonies, mentions Jacques Cousteau.
  5. “Sail Away” by David Gray.
  6. “I Can’t Stay” by The Killers. Steeldrums. In a rock song. Somehow it works.
  7. “Rowing Song” by Patty Griffin. Reminiscent of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Lyric: “The further I go, more letters from home never arrive.”
  8. “War on War” by Wilco. Lyric: “You have to learn how to die, if you wanna wanna be alive.”
  9. “Do You Realize?” by The Flaming Lips. The refrain sounds like an angelic choir. Lyric: “Do you realize that you have the most beautiful face…that we’re floating in space…that everyone you know someday will die.”
  10. “O Sailor” by Fiona Apple.
  11. “Coconut Skins” by Damien Rice. Nice acoustic, bonfire-side rock.
  12. “Sea Legs” by The Shins. Lyric: “Come away from an emptier boat.”


After all this, I considered one last option for a sailing soundtrack: listening to composer John Cage’s “4’33”” on repeat. It’s a song with no sound at all. Cage composed it in order to encourage people to regard their surrounding noise as music. And considering that tracks of “Tropical Ocean Surf” and “Waves and Sea Birds” are available on iTunes, maybe I should just tune in to the sounds of a sail.