It was a fine bright day in the North Atlantic. Winds blew steady from the southeast. I set a full mainsail, staysail, and lapper. Then I checked the self-steering mechanism, and satisfied all was well, went below to brew some coffee. I was making about five knots an hour in my tough little cutter. Dead reckoning showed me I was about 300 miles out of the Azores in route to my destination, Galway Bay, Ireland.
In my dreams.
I have never sailed a sailboat of any length anywhere. Thirty-two years ago, at the age of 29, I crashed on a motorcycle and broke my back. The resulting compression fracture of my spinal cord caused paralysis, changing my life forever. My solo sailing career ended before I ever knew I wanted to start it.
Over the past 32 years as a paraplegic and wheelchair user, I have had many fantasies about things I’d like to, but can’t do, from my wheelchair. Through it all, I have learned to live successfully by concentrating on what I could do, not what I couldn’t do. I raised a fine son to manhood within a durable and loving 37-year marriage. I’ve had a great career in organizational communication management, travelling the world as a successful consultant working with many top companies. But I still longed to do things I could not do as a paraplegic.
In 1996, I became attracted to sailing. I read everything I could about solo circumnavigation, which I found particularly compelling. The idea of sailing a small sailboat alone around the world, as many have now done, was totally intriguing to me. I threw myself into the study of sailing as if I were leaving for a solo circumnavigation at a set date.
I figured I had all the necessary characteristics to make a good solo circumnavigator:
- I am comfortable being alone, used to the social isolation that comes with disability.
- I am used to being confined to small places.
- I am independent and resourceful, using common sense to deal with day-to-day problems brought on by my motion impairment.
- I don’t eat much.
- I like mechanical things, having a do-it-yourself spirit.
- I love geography and maps, and navigation seemed attractive from an intellectual standpoint.
- Heck, I even have great upper body strength from 30-plus years of pushing a wheelchair, useful for rowing my dingy to/from shore.
Now, all I needed was a spontaneous remission of paralysis that would allow me to walk again, a sailboat, and the open ocean.
Once it took hold of me, my desire to sail large oceans solo in a small sailboat grew and grew. I became obsessed with every detail of proper boat design for an ocean cruiser. I got to the point that I could literally feel the right design — full-length integral keel, heavy displacement, skeg-protected rudder, cutter rig, and adequate fuel/water tankage. I studied yacht brokerages for the best buys on the right boats. I lay awake night after night planning the food I would take, the spare parts, the route, the necessary paperwork for port entry, and the day-to-day routine aboard ship of keeping proper watch, resting, and maintenance.
Like a Beethoven symphony building in intensity, these thoughts of solo sailing grew to crescendo. Suddenly, I found myself severely depressed thinking of this impossible fantasy. Why I was torturing myself with this? I tried to justify it as a mental exercise. Solo circumnavigation certainly captivated me, but my passion for it began to trouble me. What was the purpose of this? Why do I have this obsession with solo circumnavigation?
I have learned to trust God for answers. Ask and it shall be answered. Seek, and you shall find. I knew the answer would come. Gradually, that still, small voice within began to be heard. I began to see my sailing obsession as a learning device. Even if I must stay on dry land, I had learned these four things:
1. You hoist the sails, and God will fill them. I do not remember when or where I first heard this saying, but it stuck with me over the years. One day it came back to me, and I realized the tie-in. To me, the saying means that a person has to act, to take control of his or her life, and then God will help. In communication/PR, we call it being “proactive.” You can’t put all of your problems off while you do nothing. You have to be responsible — you have to own the problem — then take positive action to correct it.
2. Go small, go simple, go now. The first couple of ocean cruising, Lin and Larry Pardey, have probably done more than anyone to popularize the joys of sailing small and simple boats to the world’s exotic places. First in Seraffyn, a 22-footer, then in Taleisin, a 28-footer, both home-built, engineless, wooden cutters, the Pardey’s sailed the world in simple elegance for three decades. Through their books and articles, they advised the world of wannabe adventurers to “go small, go simple, go now.” Their sound advice is to eschew the big, complicated yachts with all the power and comfort accessories, for they are costly, troublesome to maintain, and have too much unnecessary equipment. Instead, pick a small, simple, and seaworthy boat, one you can easily handle and maintain by yourself. Then, go.
In an afternoon mediation, this phrase came to me: “Live simply…simply live.” In recent years, I have done much to simplify my life and cut the clutter of possessions, activities, and attachments. The Pardey’s advice is solid for landlubbers on the spiritual journey as well as blue water passage makers — keep it simple and get going. What are you waiting for? Keep your life simple, easily managed (especially in storms), and start being what you wish to be right now.
3. I have what I have. I know what I know, and what I know is sufficient. During my years of sailing research, I found a gem of a philosopher/sailor in Reese Palley. Palley is the curmudgeon in residence of the sailing community, a lovable old salt who gives sound and simple, if at times provocative, advice to all who will listen. Palley explains his own transition to sailor in his book, There Be No Dragons: “When I crossed the line I was already over 50, overweight, and over-dedicated to comfort. I was overdrawn, over-mortgaged, over-lawyered, and overburdened by the loving cares of family.” That description was decades ago, and Palley has had many thousands of exciting ocean miles under his hull. He wrote “Dragons” to dispel the myths that keep would-be sailors tied up on shore. He explains that the would-be sailor will study, plan, and generally obsess to the point that he will never cast off. Palley says you must realize at some point that what you have in both knowledge and equipment is sufficient, so get going.
I realized that all the preparation for leading a successful life has to stop at some point. You must stop preparing and start living it here and now. It comes time to cast off, that is, to simply live the life you know you should be living. You cannot postpone living until you attain some perfect circumstance, attend one more self-help class, or read one more book about living right. The task is to live here and now, with what you have and what you know. This revelation was like lifting a heavy weight off me. My spirit soared, and my life, sedentary as it may be, began to come into greater balance and harmony.
4. The prime survival principle at sea is accommodation. Palley says that your mastery over the sea depends on your obedience, then you may go where and when you freely choose. Obedience to God is the message here. Enough said.
I may never sail solo around the world, but I know how to sail successfully through my life on land. For this reason, I am thankful for these lessons from the sea.