Monday, March 2, 2015

My Thoughts on Being a Sailor

Ten years ago, if you would have told me that I'd be married, preparing to move aboard a sailboat and transitioning to a life as a cruiser, I would have politely laughed and sent you on your way.

At the time, I was fully embracing city life in Washington, DC, an executive making a name for myself in my chosen industry, and completely engrossed in my single life with no plans of ever settling down. But on some level I was unfulfilled, quietly yearning for something greater than the "ordinary" life that I was leading.

Bill and I met on a work trip more than 2,000 miles away from our respective homes and from Phoenix. I had never sailed before, but it seemed like a great hobby or way to spend a vacation. The notion of sailing full-time was completely foreign to me and something that wasn't really fathomable.

Not that I had an aversion to the water; quite the contrary. Since I was a very young girl, I had always been drawn to the water and felt most at home and at peace while in or on the water. I began swimming at age 2, was swimming competitively by age 6, and naturally gravitated to all water sports, whether white water rafting, SCUBA diving, or racing the 100m or 200m backstroke. Yet I had never aspired to be a sailor.

Everything changed the first time we went sailing. After raising the sails, turning off the motor and feeling the wind fill and lift the sails as we were sailing close hauled, I finally understood the allure of sailing and what it really is.

Sailing, and more specifically cruising, is not the simple act of going out on a boat, searching for puffs of wind to fill your sails and propel you in a specific direction. Sailing is an opportunity, a perspective on life, and an escape from the lull of an "ordinary" existence. Sailing is and isn't many things, but here are a few of the things that stand out for me.

Sailing is independence and self-reliance: Once onboard, especially while passage making, the crew is on its own. We are the cook, the mechanic, the medic, the navigators, the plumbers, the electricians, the housekeepers, etc. We are off the grid, so to speak, responsible for our own safety, and completely reliant on ourselves and our abilities to keep the boat going and the crew alive. The trust and faith we must have in each other and in ourselves is empowering and invigorating, and truly key to our success as cruisers.

Sailing is freedom and adventure: Though it sounds cliche, with the wind in our sails there are few places that we can't go (given the right wind, tide, depth, weather, etc.). Gone are the restraints of carpool lanes, 5-day a week jobs, conference calls, etc. In their place is the freedom to set our own course, plot our destinations and experience the world and its cultural diversity in a meaningful way.

Sailing requires teamwork: Bill and I quit our respective jobs, started a consulting business, and immersed ourselves completely in rebuilding Phoenix and preparing for the adventures and challenges that we'll face as full-time cruisers. There have been challenges and frustrations along the way, and undoubtedly there will be more, but by working together as a team, I believe that we'll be able to tackle each obstacle head on.

Sailing is an extreme sport: Sails are heavy, especially when the wind is blowing and it can be a real workout to raise and trim the sails. Given the size of our headsail, even with over-sized primary winches, in 20 knots of wind winching in the genoa sheets is equivalent to lifting 30 pounds of weights. You may be doing 20-30 reps before the sail is properly trimmed. Basic activities such as cooking can be a workout if you're trying to balance yourself and your food while standing at a 20 degree angle. Even sleep can be a challenge at 15-20 degrees or with waves crashing against the hull. Athleticism, balance, strength, and endurance are all vital for living aboard a sailboat.

Sailing isn't just for "rich" people: Many people mistakenly believe that you have to have a lot of money to cruise. Boats can be expensive, but it is possible to cruise on a budget, and for far less than it costs to live in the States. Most cruising couples can live quite comfortably and spend approximately $20,000 to $30,000 USD ($30,000 to $40,000 for a family of 4) annually. Everyone's budget is different, but if you're willing to do the work yourself, you can purchase a boat and cruise on it for much less than the cost of a house in mainstream USA.

Sailing isn't always a 24- hour activity, nor is it all work: When you're on a passage getting from point A to B, you could be sailing 24 hours a day. As I mentioned above it does take some work to raise and trim the sails. But once the sails are set, unless you're tacking, the heavy lifting is done. And, cruisers spend almost 90% of their time at anchor. This leaves plenty of time for boat work, exploring, socializing, leisure, and just plain living!

Sailing requires patience and resourcefulness: Inevitably, shit happens. When it happens on land, it's easy to head to the store or order something from Amazon Prime and get things fixed quickly. On a boat or in a foreign port, it's not that simple. Hopefully you've had the foresight to stow the right spare parts, material to make sail repairs, etc. If not, you either have to make something, jury rig something, do without, or order something and wait (sometimes weeks or months) for it to be delivered.

Since Phoenix is a custom boat, nearly all of our rebuild has been "custom," meaning we've had to design, fabricate/build something for every project. Most of what we've needed/wanted for each project either didn't exist or wouldn't fit our intended purpose, so we set out and devised a way to make something that fit our needs. Research, critical thinking, problem solving, and acquiring new skill sets are common daily activities, and inevitably each project takes much longer than you expected.

Ten years ago sewing, splicing, fiberglass repair, physics, diesel, electrical, woodwork, water systems, etc. would not have been part of my daily vocabulary. Today, they're not only common topics, but daily chores that require one or both of our attention when we're working on the boat.

Years ago, I wrote my thesis on colonial history and the psychological transition that takes place as one begins to identify with and relate to their new culture and experiences. These experiences not only shape a person's perspective but redefines how they view themselves and the world around them.

Like the colonists I studied, it's taken me several years to really identify myself as a sailor. I've come a long way from that first sail and from my first solo sail. In all honesty I know that I have much to learn and master, but that's part of the excitement of sailing.

After all, isn't embracing life's lessons and growing with each experience really what life -- sailing or otherwise -- is all about?