January 14, 2017

Thoughts from a Circumnavigation

Maia and I were asked to speak at the Women Who Sail meeting in La Cruz yesterday-which was a fantastic experience. Several of the women asked me if I’d post my speech—so here it is.

Cat asked me to talk a bit about what I’ve learned on this journey—and how my thoughts changed from the time I first set off to cross the Pacific to now. Well, that’s a biggie. And what I’ve learned has a lot to do with what’s happening around me. Right now I’m giddy—we’ve just completed our circumnavigation and not only that, it’s been months and months since anything broke on our boat. So right now I can tell you this life is way easier than you can imagine and everyone should go.


 But if you’d asked me the same question mid-passage between the Seychelles and Comoros, just after a wave washed away a portion of our slatted foredeck and Charlie the Cat and I were seasick and taking turns throwing up, I would have told you travelling by sailboat is really stupid and planes were invented for a reason. Sometimes this life is sublime and sometimes you should really get on that plane. 

But I’ll try to cover a few of my biggest lessons in between.

About me: I'm a sailor and mum, obviously—and I came to my love of sailing early: When I was a little girl my dad used to take us down to the docks in Comox harbour to look at boats. My sisters liked the colourful fish boats and my dad liked classic day sailors but one day I found a boat I liked even more: it was dark and sleek and had Hawaii as a hailing port, a place I’d only ever associated with holidays and pineapples. That’s when I learned it was possible for normal people to sail across oceans. 

My intrigue with sailing stuck—despite having no boat in the family, I spent my adolescence dinghy racing and taught sailing to little kids in the summers. My plan was to someday sail around the world. So after high school I went to sailing school to become a Coastal Cruising instructor. While there I met a cute boy who told me he also wanted to sail around the world. A few years later we decided we might as well make the trip together.

Evan and I’s first boat was a Fortune 30’, a heavy displacement cutter which was really 28’. Our budget was $500 a month. That trip lasted 3.5 years and we ended up as live aboards in Annapolis—where Evan worked as a yacht designer and I worked on boats and started forays into being a writer. A couple of years later, Maia joined our crew. Once she began toddling around we realized that between her and Travis the 30lb cat we’d grown out of the little boat. So we headed back to Vancouver—there we purchased our current boat and spent 5 years prepping her for sail.

There was a huge difference between prepping 20 years ago and then again ten years ago. Not only had the boat options and technology changed; but the first time round all the answers to our questions came from books, boat shows, sailing mags and a couple of seminars. Perhaps it was ignorance, or youth, or not being a mother yet—but it seemed like cruising was something that simply sorted itself out as we went. 

Because there was less information to sift through it was easier to trust ourselves—when Charlie’s Chart showed us where to anchor, there was no way to double check the way point against a satellite image and multiple blogs so we looked at the spot ourselves and followed our instincts. When we found another cruising boat—we befriended them. When deciding where to go next--it often came down to how we interpreted a daily weather fax and vague descriptions of places other people had been. 

Usually we didn’t have much of a plan at all.

This time round there were way more resources and at some point in our first year of this journey I was lucky enough to connect with Charlotte Kauffman, founder of WWS. A small group of us who all had kids and were in various stages of our cruising journeys all came together online. What Charlotte observed in our early conversations was were there were aspects of what we wanted to talk about that just didn’t fit on the male-oriented sailing boards. 

The questions we had for each other went beyond the mechanics of sailing (though many of us were interested in those too) but many of them were more subtle; how do we make a boat a home?  What would happen to our relationships when we were isolated from our families and friends? What if we’re afraid? How do we cope with burnout? What happens if one member of the family is unhappy?
For me—this was the first time I’d even articulated the questions. As our group exchanged ideas and experiences there was a sense of relief. 
After all, there’s simply no way can you tell a friend at home that you really need a break from sailing the world’s most beautiful tropical islands on your private yacht without getting a rude response, or worse. 

But when you’ve spent enough uncertain nights at anchor, wondering if you or your neighbour might drag. Or shopped in enough places where the only fresh food that’s familiar are eggs, green beans and withered onions (but oh, my goodness you would kill for spinach and don’t even talk to me about mushrooms…). Or you've once again bypassed a harbour you’ve been dreaming about for weeks because the weather was wrong. 

Sometimes you need an ear that gets it. 

That sounds like such a small thing.

But cruising is a life that’s often lived at the very edge of our comfort zones. And to cope, and to thrive… sometimes we need comfort.

Three days out of the Marquesas on our Pacific crossing we lost a rudder. Initially, after getting over the sense of disbelief and convincing Evan the loss of our rudder was real, and not an optical illusion: we did what was needed to balance the boat and alerted our SSB net and the authorities to the situation. Then, for me, the fear kicked in.

I’m not sure how the dynamic in your relationship goes, but in mine it’s a bit like this: I feel an emotion related to an event—often quite intensely. Evan, who usually experiences the same event a little differently, points out that my reaction might be an overreaction. In the case of our rudder loss he tried to give me information to combat my fear: we’re a cat so we had two rudders; our second rudder most likely wouldn’t break off too;  we were managing to do fine in current conditions; but if it all went to hell we’ll call for help. So I had nothing to worry about. 

Now I was terrified and annoyed.

Emailing friends at home didn’t help either. Even with Evan’s explanation—they were pretty sure the next place they’d be seeing us was on the evening news, after our rescue.

But other sailing women got it: One sent bad jokes and puns about being rudderless; one encouraged me to write out every worry I had, no matter how ridiculous; the sailing mums commiserated about the importance of keeping my fear in check so would Maia stay calm. One friend, who I met on our first voyage, reminded me of her own technique for managing fear.

She reminded me to take stock of our situation and look at exactly what was happening in that very moment that made me afraid. Not what could happen, not what had previously happened just what was occurring now? What was happening is we were fine—the boat was chugging along under reduced sail. The authorities were checking in with us regularly. We had our contingency plans in place.

Her reminder to stay in the moment is always a balm to my fears. And the advice and commiseration other women offered made me laugh and made being rudderless seem okay.

They gave the comfort I needed as we made our way in to Nuka Hiva. Then once we were safely in harbour they even understood the frustrations of being stuck in once place waiting for a new rudder, even though it was a really gorgeous place, when what I wanted to be doing was be out exploring different anchorages with our buddy boats. 

Evan pointed out I needed to get used to this uncertainty of cruising again and being frustrated wouldn’t help. My sister sailing women reminded me that even though the uncertainty would always exist—it would still sometimes suck.

The problem with that kind of comfort is it can be hard to let it go.

Hundreds of boats cross the Pacific each year and it can seem impossible to find a harbour of your own. But my cruising dreams were built on the classics—I read Slocum, and Smeeton, Roth and Pardey. I formed my ideas on their descriptions: I’d ghost into an unknown harbour at dawn, anchor off the beach, as the only boat in sight. Onshore I’d be greeted by children and they’d take me to the village elders.

Not long into our second journey I realized we’d given up this old-style of cruising for something more rally-like. Often 4-6 (or more) boats travelled in company and we’d arrive en mass in a little harbour. As a group we were enough to overwhelm a village. And in many ways we were self-contained. We’d shop together, hike together, snorkel together, have sundowners and potlucks together on the beach.

It was incredibly fun—but the places we were and locals we met had begun to feel a bit more like a backdrop to our journey—rather than the purpose of it.

Leaving the well-trodden path, especially with a child in tow, is more difficult. But we always found it was worth it. The moments when we struck out on our own, or with just one other boat, led us to some of the most compelling encounters of our journey. After a while the sundowners and potlucks blend together. But the time that we spent in places like Gunu village in Fiji is still crystalline.

Along with another kid boat we chose Gunu village in Fiji’s Yasawas because the bay wasn’t particularly pretty and it wasn’t written up in any of the blogs we’d found. Knowing nothing about the village we erred on the side of courtesy and assumed it might be a traditional sevu-sevu village. So we dressed in sulus, skirts and shirts that covered our shoulders and took our bundle of kava to shore.

Once there, we were greeted by children and then brought to the village elders. Sitting in a circle in their hut we spoke the Fijian words and asked permission to visit the village and swim and fish in their waters.

When you do the sevu-sevu ceremony in a traditional Fijian village you become family. And in Gunu we were quickly adopted. If we walked past a home—we were often brought in for a visit. If it was mealtime—the food was stretched to accommodate us. We tried to do our part in turn—bringing supplies for the school and then having what seemed like half the village kids aboard our boats for a breakfast of juice and muffins.

The highlight came when the village invited us to a lovo feast. We were encouraged to come to shore early to see the meal dug up from the earth where it had steamed all day. Then we were draped with flowers and brought into a home, which had been transformed into a feast hall.

As guests, we ate first—tucking into though rourou (taro leaves with coconut milk) pumpkin, chicken and fish. Then the men ate, then the children and finally the women who cooked for us. I felt like I had stepped into the pages of the cruising books I had read so long ago. 

And you know what? It was just as magical as I had imagined.

The dreams we’ve brought to this life are worth pursuing. They’re worth stepping out of our comfort zone and venturing off the well-known cruising path for. But my biggest lesson, the one that comes back over and over, is I can’t be too specific about my dreams. 

On our first journey we learned the value being adaptable. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrases that remind us we’re not in control: “Cruising plans are written in the sand at low tide; You can choose and port or a date, but not both; The most dangerous thing on a boat is a calendar; DHL will always lose the most important boat part”. But the same focus and drive that got us to the point where we’ve shrugged off land life and moved on a boat is often confronted by the requirement we chill out and just let life happen. Among a few other things, this conflict can be frustrating.

All these years in and I still get wistful when weather or scheduling forces us bypass a port I wanted to visit. Or when something breaks and all our friends set off without us. To be a cruiser you need to be a both a focused type-A and an easygoing romantic. And sometimes, especially in the first year—but honestly it never really goes away—that combination of constant uncertainty and desire for control can lead to burnout.

The tricky part is I’ve yet to meet a crew where everyone hits that sense of being frustrated and overwhelmed at exactly the same moment. On our boat we’ve learned to see the signs in each other. Evan—rather than being the eternal optimist who can fix anything begins to catastrophize about all the ways the boat could break. He won’t sleep well and he gets grumpy. Maia withdraws and there’s a lot less singing and far fewer wry comments around the boat. 

Apparently I become short tempered.

These are the moments when we’ve learned we need to look out for each other. It’s easy to make mistakes when you just want to be somewhere else. We’ll speed through a repair, or risk the weather or decide this whole effort just isn’t worth it. We know some people who permanently and prematurely burned out.

The solutions are individual—but they come back to comfort. Sometimes a week in the marina helped us. Other times we took an inland trip where we banned boat talk. Sometimes just immersing in the familiar is enough. 

When we reached Bali we hadn’t been with other cruisers or encountered spoken English for months. When we went out for dinner we had a choice of delicious looking and affordable Indonesian food, or burgers and rootbeer floats at an A&W. The A&W won. It was in a mall—so we wandered through looking at all the glossy shops, slurping our floats.

It only took 5 or 6 visits before we realized our energy and enthusiasm were back and we all wanted to get back underway. We wanted to see what was next. We didn’t mind the uncertainty.

So—I’ll leave you with this. This is a remarkable way to live but it’s not always easy. So take comfort in each other—but also give each other courage. And keep honouring the dreams that brought you this far.


Unknown said...

Beautiful and spot-on, Diane! Thanks for sharing.

The crew of "4-P.A.C.K." & "Cap'n Kidd" (which became "Mangoe")

jdeboersf said...

Hi Diane, well written, and recognizable even for a crew that has only sailed from CA to Mexico so far (but hopes to do more in the future!). Congratulations on the circumnavigation.

Bliss Crew

With Brio said...

This was so good -- thanks for sharing! I hope you'll post more reflections as they come to you. Post-cruising life is a nut we're still trying to crack ;) - Leah

Anonymous said...

Good post.

Susan and Richard said...

Super post. We just completed our own circumnavigation when we arrived at Union Island 3 days ago. Your talk gives us some direction for the talks we will have to give when we get back to the UK later in the year. Many congratulations.

Unknown said...

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