Warning: Side Effects May Include …
I don’t want to discourage anyone from making cruising dreams come true. If anything, I can give you — prospective cruiser — a window to see just how life-changing your passage can become. But there’s a side you don’t know about yet. It’s a darker, less discussed side that could be compared to the warning labels found on most medications.
Somewhere the fine print reads “side effects may include,” a phrase that applies not only to prescriptions, but to cruising as well.
My wife, Judy, and I left Half Moon Bay in the San Francisco Bay area on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7, 2001, on our Alajuela 38 Desire to begin our odyssey. Traveling down the California coast in the winter has a number of interesting consequences. On our first day out, we experienced some of the highest swells we would see in our first two years. Off Monterey we were introduced to 25- to 30-foot swells, which landed us in Monterey harbor after midnight.
“Can I really do this?” Judy asked early the next morning. I told her I couldn’t help her with this decision, but I was certain that it would at some point get much worse, and if she decided this wasn’t her cup of tea, I’d totally understand. On the third morning, while still in Monterey, I awoke to find her hovering over the chart table looking at our route south.
Desire, an Alajuela 38, lies at anchor in a quiet cove in Moorea, French Polynesia.
She made no further mention of not continuing over the next five years. Lesson One revolved around a basic question: What are you capable of? This redefined the boundaries of both our vessel and ourselves. We celebrated a beautiful Christmas and New Year’s on Catalina Island as a reward to ourselves for a fairly uncomfortable trip down to Point Conception. I’ve sailed these waters many times, but never with the pride of knowing that this time I wasn’t turning around. After all the years of dreaming, planning and working on the boat, we had pulled it off somehow. You realize it is possible and your feeling of accomplishment soars. This is where your very soul begins to morph.
Defining moments are different for all of us. We had often seen pictures of our friend’s boat. The shot was taken while he, his wife, and friends were on shore, looking at the boat in an anchorage while having a taco and a beer. As simple as this was, it would for that moment be similar to our own bucket list. We had so many amazing experiences our first year, it all seemed surreal. My wife’s birthday at Agua Verde bay, Baja California, Mexico, was a prime example.
Over two weeks, the entire anchorage was involved in planning an elaborate surprise party. A separate VHF channel dubbed the Q channel was established to allow our underhanded dealings to go undetected.
We had decided to make her Queen for a Day, complete with a fresh water bath in our cockpit; every boat donated what they could. The crew from Vagabond Blues made breakfast of French toast and fresh fruit. She got a complete body massage, lunch in a hanging chair over the water, followed by an onboard puppet show (don’t ask) and spaghetti dinner with two sauces.
Queen props were solicited from boats having Halloween supplies. The royal scepter was carefully crafted from a toilet plunger topped with a Nerf football wrapped in aluminum foil and adorned with costume jewelry. The tiny store in the village donated a small white chair with red velvet lining that we adorned with palm leaves and proudly called Her Majesty’s Throne.
We lined the beach from water’s edge to the throne with purple and red towels, creating a royal walkway from our dinghy to the throne. All of her majesty’s subjects were, of course, waiting along the edges of the walkway on both sides in hopes of catching a glimpse of Her Highness. We were all 9 years old again! I began to understand there was much more to this business of cruising than just sailing over the horizon.
Jim Welch (at left) and crews from the boats Cosmos and Just Dessert show off their crab catch in the Tuamotus.
We left Baja for the South Pacific Ocean, thinking we had seen it all; again, life would never be the same. We arrived in Nuku Hiva, in the Marquesas islands, after three weeks — our longest passage at that point. Judy’s job was to plot our position each hour while she was on watch. As this was a small-scale chart, she began to realize the magnitude of our commitment. Every day was a menu of blue in every direction, with no bearings other than the sun and a planetarium-like cockpit at night. It gave both of us a new perspective. We were there by the grace of God as we know him, not by our own cleverness.
As the years went on, more fantastic experiences would grace our lives. Island people with a childlike trust in total strangers coupled with unmatched generosity renewed our faith in humanity. We were alive again, at a level we’d never realized we were missing. Over the years the boat crept west, visiting the Marquesas, Tuamotus, Society Islands, Cooks, Niue, Tonga, New Zealand and then stopping in Brisbane, Australia, where we sold the boat.
We were both comfortable with the decision but failed to realize what was about to happen to the two of us. On the flight back to the U.S., the discomforting side effects began settling in. A distance that took us years to cover was now closed in 12 hours by jet. The immensity and solitude of the ocean were now reduced to a miniature seascape that was viewed from thousands of feet in the air. The journey was shared with hundreds of people in an overloaded roaring aluminum bullet. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, which dwarfed our boat years ago as we sailed under it in amazement, now took on the scale of a child’s toy.
Upon arriving back in the States, we could hardly contain our need to share our experience with all of our friends and relatives. We had videos, and numerous pictures that would rival the most exotic seen in any publication.
What we found was a polite interest in our endeavor but in no way the level of enthusiasm we thought was due a trip of such magnitude. Most people would actually have been more interested if we had made the trip on a cruise ship; they were more concerned with the shopping and the ship’s buffet menu. We found after a year or so that we had become an island unto ourselves. We clung to each other desperately as we realized that no one “gets it.”
Not long after returning, we decided to visit family. I toured a large aquarium with my daughter and grandson and discovered that this once enjoyable experience was also no longer a part of my new reality.
There was no sense of discovery or adventure, no adrenaline rush wondering if a reef shark might take a nibble while I’m cleaning the bottom of the boat.
It was boring, and in a sense, shocking. A sadness followed by emotional numbness took control. Bat rays on cue, bring in the sharks! We had been guests in these creatures’ homes and now we were their captors. People stared through Lexan with a hot dog in one hand and a camera around their necks as we stood in line single file to pick up a starfish from a concrete holding cell. Look over there — palm trees are painted on a wall, alongside a fake beach. Don’t forget to stop by the gift shop and pick up a stuffed clownfish.
For years our companions had been like-minded cruisers, and the lifestyle seemed everyday to us while in their company. As cruisers we helped each other no matter the cost, often putting ourselves in harm’s way to do so.
Her Majesty, who in real life is first mate Judy Meek, was pampered by a courtful of admirers for her birthday at Baja’s Agua Verde Bay.
We laughed and shared their companionship on the beaches of some of the most spectacular landscapes this planet has to offer. We shared in the raising of their children, whom I suspect will suffer these effects even more so. We were different in almost every way. We were stronger, more independent, more confident, self-sufficient individuals. We no longer feared parallel parking. Our lives had been driven by high- and low-pressure systems, tides, phases of the moon and a need to go where we will.
Our present conversations no longer concern those things, and now revolve around television programs and yardwork. We often find ourselves watching some form of sailing in a movie or on television and it nearly brings us both to tears.
It pulls at the heart knowing what cruising is really like. We see images of where we’ve been and we find ourselves staring intently into the scene as if we can feel the warm, transparent water again on our feet, smell the tropical air and hear live island music drifting across the evening skies.
It’s just as it was the day we were there. Sometimes it feels like we are back to the dreaming-about-it stage, almost like we never went. Each day, this reality tries in vain to gently pry our memories from our hearts. We live in two worlds now, finding it difficult to make peace with this one.
Prospective cruiser, you must know that you’ll be forever changed. If you should find yourself walking down a dock years later, the feelings will run over you like a cement truck. The smell of the boatyard is the same. You see people wearing Tyvek suits covered in fiberglass resin and varnish waving hello as you walk by while someone’s radio blasts a Jimmy Buffett song. Lofty dreams drift through the boatyard like an airborne virus. Your voyage will remain faithfully at your side for the rest of your days, much like your favorite dog. You are glad to see it and it is glad to see you.
So, I strongly suggest you take Lesson Two. Ask yourself: “Are you capable of living with what you’ve become and what you left behind should you decide to return?”
The captain and the Queen have officially tied the knot and have built a home in East Tennessee.