A Fitting Passage
When in early January 2015 I suddenly found myself faced with the prospect of sailing 250 nautical miles alone, my initial impulse was disbelief. How could this happen? After all had been said and done, I thought I was fully-prepared. Then I discovered I wasn't prepared at all for the change. Feeling most confident, i suddenly became uncertain. Little did I know that life had other plans in store for me. I could almost taste the irony as events unfolded.
During the preceding months, I had spent countless hours finding, interviewing and arranging crew, as well as making numerous boat preparations for a voyage to the Bahamas. Within 24 hours of weighing anchor, I could almost smell the anticipation of our departure. However while fully-prepared, I suddenly needed to accept another scenario. Feeling most confident, i suddenly became uncertain. The irony could not have been any more evident.
A day before disembarking Key Biscayne's NoName Harbor, my crew couple received some distressing news from back home in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The news meant they had to return immediately. Obviously, making their accompanying me on Mystique impossible.
Of course, their news affected my plans. But I quickly realized their disappearance wasn't my next challenge; I saw that overcoming my limited perspective was my work. Their urgent news was a blow to my expectations so I had to change my view from disappointment to acceptance. I soon realized sailing's greatest lesson - “assess and modify”. When I began to see the situtaion as an incredible opportunity, my view, attitude and energy suddenly changed.
Miami, Florida to George Town, Great Exuma, Bahamas is neither a casual day sail across Florida's Biscayne Bay nor an extremely difficult voyage. The distance was far enough to pose some challenges, but the main issue. And the duration was not a problem either. Depending on weather and sea conditions, the sail was only 2-3 days at most. Certainly crossing the Gulf Stream current wasn’t a major hurdle. - that being more an issue of timing. Vessel issues and navigational skills were of little concern. I was not worried about myy safety. Of course, being alone can be less safe, though more crew doesn’t mean less probability for mishap. In fact, it actually increases the likelihood. Any reassurance with competent crew onboard is false and misleading.
I realized my main concern was facing the situation differently from what I had planned and expected. I wasn’t worried that I had never sailed to the Bahamas from the U.S. The numerous shallow coral reefs off the Florida coast did not scare me and the scarcity of navigational marks and buoys all through-out over 400 Bahamian islands was not daunting. I had sailed through much more challenging conditions during my lifetime. Then almost as quickly as my plans changed, my attachment to my previous expectations vanished. My practical side had simply come to the rescue. When I recognized it was only my anticipation misleading me to unrealistic expectations, I concluded this was a fantasy cruise. I had fallen victim to envisioning this Exuma a certain way. I had became so attached to scenario that I was almost blind to other possibilities. Yet at least I knew my problem resided somewhere in my fear of sailing solo. Stay, delay, wait or just go....it alone. These were my choices.
Part of my preparation for three months had been focused on two competent crew members joining me. Somehow along the way, I had grasped onto the idea that I needed them. I thought their assistance would make the voyage easier, safer and more fun. This isn't always true. Added crew cast more responsibility on the skipper. More injuries are also possible. What sometimes looks like help can sometimes become harmful. My initial plans had appeared more prudent until they weren't.
I knew I could sail alone if I had to. I knew solo wasn't something I had to prove. And I knew I could have changed my plans and waited by finding other crew, but that alternative never seemed feasible. I knew NOW was an opportunity - a gift of sorts. And as I was becoming more open to the Universe's messages, I guess it was also time for a reminder about what and who is really in charge. The Universe often has shown me it has its own intentions. Sometimes the reminder and the surrender that I am just along for the ride, makes life more educational as interesting.
While I know planning is necessary. It often sets a sense of purpose and direction, a semblance of organization, preparedness and readiness as well a modicum of control. Yet I know the best plans of mice and men are but straw in the wind. Years ago when I taught English, American history and sailing, lesson planning seemed to help at first. However, then I discovered something more intriguing about plans. Making plans frequently became too restrictive and too limiting.
Often the more prepared I was, the less effective I became and the less productive the class time. The best classes almost always seemed to be ones where student energy, interest and involvement determined the direction of discussions. "Going with the current" or "sailing with flow" always made lessons and learning more organic. In sailing, not holding onto the tiller too tightly...not taking one tack to reach a destination because it seemed easiest as taking a so-called "flyer" to reach a windward mark or a finish line didn't always pan out well. So scrapping my plans to single-handle wasn't my challenge. Single-mindedness was what I needed to toss overboard.
With all my sailing experience, I should certainly have anticipated the unforeseen and unintended. I need reminders all the time. They usually appear right when least expected, but when most needed. Like a magical puff of wind on a halcyon day drifter...or like a sudden wind shift on the race course...or like a invisible tidal current boosting hull speed...or an unexpected line squall. Life and Nature are full of surprises. While I intuitively knew to expect the unexpected, I rarely anticipate miracles and their messages.
Isn't life always about adapting and adjusting to circumstances? Life certainly isn't about attempting to control events or defy Nature - Nothing good happens when sailing against the winds or tides of change. Moving against the strongest currents frequently means going nowhere. The difference seems always in one's direction..in one's course! And so, one's choices often come down to deciding to struggle, modify or accept. It is really up to each of us to stay stalwart without getting too stuck or stubborn in our own thoughts. Otherwise, one can not grow or evolve. It's up to us whether we beat ourselves up or to go with the flow. The choice is always within us. Whatever our stage in life, we benefit when we are fearless enough to adapt to the winds of change and the sea of uncertainty.
So I chose to take off alone on an adventure. Of course, I met numerous challenges before I even left Florida waters. While the weather could not have been more pleasant, the winds were light, the sea conditions were comfortable while the shallow waters kept me vigilant.
I knew my challenges weren't about boat-handling, sailing ability or seamanship skills; I was going into unfamiliar places so that gave me some anxiety. Because I was sailing solo, I had no one else to commiserate with to discuss situations....no one to confirm my sightings. No one to be lookout. Though alone, the sea always helps me see myself more clearly. Nothing much better than some clarity to think and enjoy Nature by taking to my boat.
Alas, when I ran aground aground around midnight, I realized I had once again got it in my head to sail nonstop to George Town. It was again my impulsivity and impatience that lead me to push the "proverbial envelope". I was in no rush; I could easily have anchored and resumed the next morning, but NO, I had to venture forward with only my GPS. The sky was clouded and moonless so visibility was pretty limited. The narrow channel and shallow water caused me caution, but with the wind favorable, I misjudged the distances between the pilings and could not see the unlit stakes on the reef. Again I had a lesson to learn and when Mystique was stuck around in the pitch dark, I could only wait for the tide to change. That meant waiting close to 10-12 hours as I had run aground at almost the highest tide.
The next morning I called the Coast Guard only to be told, they don't do anything but take statistics. They referred me to TowboatUS. I called them around 9:00 am to alert them to my situation. I requested their help as their was a chance I would not float off with the high tide. within minutes they appeared and they pulled me off in short order. I was soon on my way towards the Northwest Channel.
Somehow my imagination always reawakens with water, waves and wind imagery. Somehow I dream more vividly, more genuinely, more colorfully when I am surrounded by them. They float my boat. Everything seems more real to me at sea. The sea is free from pretense and artificiality. Free from rules and restrictions. The sea accepts all unconditionally. It doesn't discriminate, judge, carry any grudges.
When the wind returned, it came forcefully and unexpectedly from Mystique's stern port quarter. Northwest squalls soon had me sailing 8 knots to the Exumas and Compass Cay. Then another 60 more miles along the Exumas' eastern ocean side with a northerly wind. The wind was too good to be true as the prevailing breezes are usually from the opposite direction. It was a sleigh ride to George Town where I arrived on my third day out from Florida.
Nature always and all ways is authentic. Her sun's risings and settings awaken and punctuate each day with exclamation marks and periods. She even poses an occasional question about what she will do next. She speaks her truth and mankind can trust her to reveal herself in one or many forms each day. Not always bright and cheery, she can be seemingly fickle and then forceful. She can be calm and serene, even contemplative. But she always shows up genuine and you know she isn't putting on any airs, she is airing it out. Full of blow and bluster, she is free to be. Like love, nature rules, accepts but she never controls. All of these qualities are what I love about her. She makes me feel alive...at 65!
I eventually realized I once again had been seduced by land. It had been almost 8 months since my last solo. But that one along the ICW germinated the false notion that land was security and home. Actually my home is on water. Ever since I was teenager, I would sneak out of the house scurry on down to the water's edge to sail, windsurf, crab, row daydream on our dock , to my mother's consternation. When I first began to read Mark Twain's classic tales, I gradually recognized I possessed some Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer traits as growing up.
My gift was my discovery. I had misplaced my attention. And not surprisingly, what I actually thought would be more difficult actually proved less so. In fact, I realized what I needed was so much more than what I thought I wanted. It was obviously a different experience sailing alone, but it gave me some much needed time to think, to dream, to imagine, to reflect, to contemplate, to feel alive and reinvigorated I am sure I wouldn't have had if others were on board. How many 65-year olds can say they received that combination of gifts all in one package? In fact, I soon realized my 4-day solo gave me the clarity, confidence and perspective I could only have received from such an adventure. Next year single-handed around the world? Just kidding!
But it does make me wonder how many opportunities are left. I guess the universe will help me decide one year at a time. Not something I need worry about. Everything will happen all in good time. Nature will take care of that.
My journey like most 65 year olds has been full of many rites of passage. So this short sailing passage was but another one. What made it so such a fitting pre-birthday gift was happened just the other day, and I celebrated it with Nature present.