The Gifts of Sailing Solo
Now crewing and exploring with her partner on a shared boat, a former singlehander reflects on what going it alone taught her. "Point of View" from our February 2012 issue.
The second-best thing that my partner, Ben Eriksen, has ever done for me was to refuse to sail with me. When he purchased Elizabeth, his Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter, I thought it was sensible that we sail together aboard her. Two hands make lighter work and better company.
But Ben had different goals. He’d long dreamed of sailing solo, and he wasn’t ready to abandon that dream.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The best thing Ben ever did was ask me, “Why not sail your own boat?” He did it so matter-of-factly that I also thought, why not? I already had my captain’s license from the U.S. Coast Guard. Four days later, I purchased the first boat I could. I was the proud owner of Daphne, a 27-foot Nor’Sea.
Ben and I lived aboard our pocket cruisers for several years, sailing solo yet together along the entire Eastern Seaboard, from Maine to Florida and the Bahamas. We dropped our anchors side-by-side in over 100 harbors and coves. We adjusted our sail plans to maintain the same speed and to stay within sight of one another; we helped each other with repairs, planning, and rough weather; and during long offshore passages, Ben and I were able to keep a three-hour watch-standing rotation, hailing and waking each other on the VHF and to warn of approaching vessels, course changes, and even waterspouts. Everything we did made sense to us, yet everywhere we went people questioned us. “Why two boats?” And “Are you two a couple?”
Now we’re sailing together on Elizabeth, partly for financial reasons. It’s helped me realize that sailing solo blessed me with three unique gifts.
Many couples viewed Ben and me as an oddity in the sailing community. With few exceptions, most cruisers are couples sailing together aboard one boat. “Don’t you get lonely?” they asked us. Ben and I seldom felt lonely. I could nearly always see the tanbark red of Ben’s sails in the daylight or the red and green glow burning atop his mast at night. And at any moment, I could hail his vessel on the VHF to converse about sail plans or anchorages or the like. No, I couldn’t always touch his hand or see his face or talk for hours, but VHF check-ins, even with their radio-communication formalities and brief public talks, were plenty to remind me that I wasn’t alone.
One of the strangest remarks on our manner of paired solo sailing came from the wife of a young newlywed couple who together had just purchased a boat. “We love each other too greatly to ever want to be apart that much,” she said. I didn’t reply. I knew the strength of Ben’s and my love, and I knew it was that strength that kept us devoted and affectionate, even from a distance. I didn’t equate togetherness with love. Instead, I enjoyed the solitude I had aboard Daphne.
Without many of the distractions that clutter life, I was able, even forced, to sit and think for long periods of time. During these stretches, the splash of the bow wave or the soaring flight of a gull no longer seemed familiar. I watched in amazement at every sunset; I stared long at the illusions on the horizon, and unexpected thoughts took flight within me. I found that the heart can best be cultivated through introspection and solitude.