The Downside of Circumnavigating
I'm shocked. Literally. No one warned me about the most dangerous part of circumnavigating, and I'm not prepared.
In fact, I feel like I'm alone and friendless in uncharted waters. Even
Carolyn, my wonderful wife, lover, and navigator of 35 years, can't
seem to reach me. I'm drowning.
But let's start at the beginning: A decade or so ago, I was racing
Lasers at the St. Thomas Yacht Club when it felt like an elephant
stepped on my chest. The pain was so intense that it jackknifed me off
the boat and into the water. One foot tangled in my hiking strap, I was
underwater, I couldn't breathe, and my eyes were open. Time floated.
Two thoughts danced slowly through my brain: One of them was "I'm
dying." The other was "Damn, there goes my boat speed!"
I forced myself to relax. I untangled my foot, surfaced, and crawled
back on the boat. I stayed facedown for a long, long time and shook
like a leaf. I was terrified. But in all my life, I've never failed to
finish a race. Finishing is important to me. I'm goal oriented. I
slowly sat up, sheeted in, and continued on.
Back at the yacht club, Henry Menin--who'll sit as a juror at the 2007
America's Cup in Spain--came up to me and asked, "Are you OK, Fatty?"
"Yeah. I had a little problem out there on the racecourse, but I think I'll be more competitive at the bar!"
Silly me. A few days later, I was evacuated by air to a cardiac unit in
Puerto Rico. As they wheeled me down the corridor, I thought, "This
can't be happening. I can't be dying. I haven't sailed around the world
yet, and I haven't written the big book!"
I'd never realized it before, but those were the two givens in my life:
I'd circumnavigate, and someday I'd write a book worth reading. (I've
written five books, but alas, I reckon only one, Chasing the Horizon, merits serious attention.)
Things looked bleak at that point. For the first time in my life, my
horizons were shrinking. But just before dawn is always the darkest
time. The test results were surprisingly good: I hadn't had a major
heart attack--just a severe cardiac wake-up call. I'd have to radically
change my lifestyle, but with proper diet, regular exercise, and the
right medication, I'd survive.
"How are you?" Carolyn asked nervously as I tied up my dinghy painter to Wild Card, our 38-foot S&S-designed Hughes 38.
"I'm OK. And I want to sail around the world ASAP."
Confession: I'm not a very good sailor. I'm not a very good ship's
husband. Hell, I'm not much of a shoreside wage-earner, either. But I
do have some small talents and abilities. Moving watercraft a couple of
hundred miles downwind is one of them.
We left in the spring of 2000. I didn't hedge my bets and pretend that
I wasn't sailing all the way around the world--I was up front and
"I'm sailing around the world," I told people. "We're off on the Big Fat Circle!"
I'd even presumptuously "taken" my weekly St. Thomas radio show
(broadcast on Radio One, WVWI-AM 1000) along with me and renamed it
"The Circumnavigator's Report." (It's currently in its 15th year, and
I've never missed a show or been a nanosecond late.)
The moment we set off, I felt truly good. I had a goal, and it was
clear, understandable, and unambiguous. True, it was very complicated,
but it was also achievable.
I'd keep the boat above the surface. I'd force enough money to dribble out of my pen to survive. And, occasionally, I'd pry Wild Card out of a harbor and drift downwind to a different locale.
"Check, check, check!" I laughed as I ticked them off my list.
Everything else faded, even the face of my mother. America dimmed. My
daughter's e-mails seemed, well, interesting but increasingly mundane.
I'd listen to the news on the BBC and think, "They're all insane!"
We, however, weren't insane. We were lit up. We were turned on, tuned
in, and had truly dropped out. We'd finally become what I'd always
hoped we'd be: sea gypsies. Citizens of the world. "Sailors sans
frontiers," as the French say.
It's difficult to explain how each ocean mile seemed to empower me. I
was finally in tune with Mother Nature (or, more properly, Mother
Ocean). My home, my art, my profession, my transportation, my hobby,
and my sport had all melded into one 38-foot watery sphere. My diet of
fish, rice, and beans agreed not only with me but also with my
The sky seemed so big, the ocean so blue, and Carolyn more beautiful
than ever. I saw God on the face of every ocean wave. My rig hummed a
celestial tune; its tattered halyards tattooed ancient, wind-borne
rhythms. I surged with raw passion and gladly kissed each new day full
on the lips.
The Panama Canal flashed by. A blue-footed booby landed on our bow
pulpit off the Galápagos. In the Marquesas, the waterfall on Fatu Hiva
was icy cold. A perfect pearl from the Tuamotus rolled aboard. I
crashed-tacked in Bora-Bora's inner lagoon, thinking the huge manta ray
gliding beneath me was a reef. The 400-pound Tongan princess who served
me kava was, after a few bowls, pretty cute. I asked a New Zealand
farmer if he'd ever cheated on his wife, and he looked sheepish. Off
Darwin, Australia, I altered course to avoid what I thought was a snarl
of black poly rope in the water--as the large yellow eye of a nearly
submerged saltwater croc winked at me.
Through it all I kept all the circumnavigation balls up in the air: The
boat still floated, its rig was up and the keel down, and our diesel
auxiliary still cranked. My radio station unexpectedly e-mailed me--not
to cancel my radio show but to give me a raise. I sold every story I
I could do no wrong.
Then came the Indian Ocean. I gulped it all in: the food of Thailand,
the stench of India, the pristine state of the Maldives. Then Chagos:
so empty of people and so full of life. It was everything I wanted--had
ever wanted, really--within a 50-mile radius of deep ocean. Everything
I wanted and yet, thankfully, nothing more.
There was the madness of moody Madagascar, the awful racism of South Africa, lovely St. Helena, and then home.
I honestly thought that crossing my wake and finally becoming a
full-fledged, honest-to-God circumnavigator would be orgasmically cool.
But it wasn't. It was just the beginning of a strange sort of emptiness.
There seemed to be a hole in my soul.
For four years there'd been a sort of radar screen in my brain that
constantly monitored the progress of the circumnavigation. I'd glance
at it many times a day, often many times a minute. The challenge of
circumnavigating, especially on a modest production boat with little
money, was immense. I had to accomplish it in tiny bites, with a large
series of cautious baby steps. It took a lot of planning, a lot of
monitoring, and many incremental, intermediate waypoints. And each mile
traveled, each dollar earned, and every boat-maintenance project
completed brought us closer to our goal.
Now the radar screen was blank, just an irritating screech of white
noise where recently my life goal had glowed so magnificently. We'd
just experienced the world's best vacation--and now I was suddenly and
unexpectedly experiencing the world's worst case of post-vacation blues.
I could write a book about every place we stopped: how friendly the
Polynesians are, how sweet the gentle Balinese, how gracious the
smiling people of Thailand. How could I have ever been so foolish as to
leave the Land of Smiles? How long would it take to sail back to Borneo
and its orangutan-inhabited rain forests? To Madagascar and its leaping
lemurs? To Africa and its naked, smiling drummers?
I'd felt so alive! As if life itself were a sensuous, delicious
electricity caressing my body, as if my tiller weren't merely a stick
but a magic wand connecting me directly to Mother Ocean. How can I
explain what surfing atop the breaking crest of a 30-foot ocean wave
feels like or watching a barometer finally tick upward as a major gale
passes overhead? Or how it feels to be snatched off your foredeck by a
flailing genoa sheet?
Even the worst moments of our circumnavigation were riveting: the
pursuit by pirates in the Strait of Malacca, hitting Australia's Great
Barrier Reef, being surrounded--at night on the dinghy dock--by violent
thugs in Southeast Asia. I remember crying when we left India.
In many ways I hated India, but some of the people we met there were so
wonderful, pure, and spiritual that it was like saying good-bye to
But now, with a jolt, it was back to reality. I'm an American, for
better or for worse, and here I was back on U.S. soil and surrounded by
dirt dwellers, shore drones, bean counters, and the dreaded suits in
the executive suite.
I tuned in a local radio station. The national news came on, and I
thought the lead story was a clever-but-crude parody of someone
attempting to inflame anti-Islamic sentiment. I'd just spent two years
being treated with dignity and respect in Islamic countries, and I was
horrified by some of the things I heard in "Fortress America" upon my
But it wasn't merely politics that turned me off. Consumerism seemed to
have run amok while I was gone. All my friends were making massive
amounts of money but living impoverished lives on every level that
mattered to me. There was noise everywhere. Video screens flicked from
every doorway. Cars swooshed. Trucks roared. Everything seemed to be
vibrating, as if a large unseen generator running underground was about
to blow a piston through its cylinder block. A Jimmy Buffett lyric ran
crazily through my mind: "Where you gonna be when the volcano blows?" I
felt like a modern Flying Dutchman, doomed forever to sail without
touching the shores of the land of my previous culture.
I went to a bar and bought a cold beer. Snatches of conversation washed
over me: "John's new SUV has a DVD player in the back for the kids."
"So I told him, 'I can't live on $35 an hour,' and he said, 'Well, if
you factor in our health insurance--.'" "Don't the ragheads realize you
can't rule the world without learning how to use toilet paper?"
I went back to Wild Card and
sat in the cockpit. Carolyn could tell at a glance I was upset. I was
thinking, "I'm forever changed. These last 50,000 ocean miles have
Carolyn sat next to me and didn't say anything. I felt confused, childlike, and angry. Finally, I blurted, "I want to go."
"Go where?" she said.
And with that, the crew of Wild Card went--to transit the Panama Canal for the second time.