<i>Osprey</i>'s Flight: Myth Busters

Reality in the cruising life sometimes makes mincemeat out of expectations."Off Watch" from our November 2009 issue

Wendy and Johnny 368

Johnny and Wendy believe the cruising experience is worth it despite momentary uncertainties.Marianne Lee

My oldest brother says everyone has this thing called a personal myth. He says it's what you wish you could be. His personal myth is that he should be a bluewater sailor who roams from port to port and is fearless, confident, adventurous, and handsome. But then, when he sets sail, his reality conflicts terribly with his myth. He finds that he's not any of those things.

When he's confronted with this conflict, the result is depression, anxiety, self-doubt, and all kinds of other awful stuff. So, you say, why mess with this thing? It's just an idea, a notion, right? But the problem with the personal myth is that it's very powerful. And if you don't acknowledge it, you may well end up despondent and full of self-loathing anyway, because you've never truly been what you believe-or at least wish-you could be.

I bring this up because I suspect that many of us out here are operating according to our own versions of personal myths, and the commonality they share is this sailing life, this yearning for freedom and something out of the ordinary. The more I talk with cruising sailors, the more I see that many of us are struggling, at least to some extent, with how the decision is working out. Most of us believe that the lifestyle is more than worth it, but there are still times when we're anything but fearless or confident; on those occasions, we're a mess. Sometimes these moments are blessedly brief, like when you jam the keel into the bottom and are well and truly stuck, and oh, by the way, the tide is still falling. You add "capable" and "intelligent" to the list of things you aren't, but eventually you get out of the jam and have a good story to tell.

Other times, though, these aren't merely moments but rather long periods of deep uncertainty. I met a woman at a sundowner who was wrestling with one of these. She was an artist, and she told me that she was baffled by the fact that she was surrounded by such indescribable beauty all day, every day, yet she couldn't paint any of it. She'd thought that cruising full-time would positively stoke her creative fires. But instead, the day-to-day business of running the boat consumed her time and attention to the point that the artist in her was overwhelmed. As Coleridge's Ancient Mariner put it, water was everywhere, but there wasn't a drop to drink.

Another cruising friend of mine had been an occupational therapist whose primary job, as she put it, was "helping people not kill themselves." She and her husband had been living aboard for about six months when she found herself in much the same quandary as the artist. She'd wanted to volunteer her considerable skills in the Bahamas, but she quickly realized that to contribute on the level that she intended would require staying in a place for a few months, not just a few days or weeks. The way that they'd planned their travels wasn't conducive to that kind of commitment. The part of her that needed to help people questioned her worthiness in this new life, and she wondered how she would continue in the long-term.

Men also suffer from the busting of their sailing myths, often even more than women. Maybe they've worked for years to have the ability to retire and go cruising, driving their Type-A selves to the limit every day to succeed. Then they get out here and are bored out of their trees or simply can't stand the weightlessness that comes of not having control over a business, employees, or anything else, for that matter.

To the uninitiated, we're all on vacation out here, so everything must be perfect. The hardest decision we face is whether to stick a yellow or a pink umbrella into our rum drinks. But the truth is that this is an intensely immediate life, full of things consuming our attention and energy and of experiences that routinely teach us the necessity of humility and fear. We live at the whim of the sea and the weather and various other elements over which we can never hope to have control. Our myths slam into reality with great frequency.

Yet for all of that, many of us work to make the two coexist because as it turns out, it's more than worth it. We'd all like to think, like my brother, that we're fearless, confident, adventurous, and handsome, but probably the best we can hope for is one or two of these, now and then. And maybe that'll do.

After an engine refit for Osprey in the fall of 2009, the Clarkes are heading south again from the Chesapeake.