Sailing under the Verazzano Bridge and seeing the Manhattan skyline in the distance was a very welcome and happy sight after racing over 11,000 miles and half-way around the world. It was a grueling ocean race from China across the cold North Pacific Ocean to San Francisco, and then down the Central American coast, through the Panama Canal and finally up to New York. Granted, the last part of the race was not as grueling as clawing our way across the storm-tossed North Pacific, but it was nonetheless tiring. Sleeping only 2 1/2 hours at a time does wear the mind and body down.
The final part of the race from Colón on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal to my home in New York was marked by a series of great moments and frustrating disappointments. To sail through the Caribbean trade winds with consistent breezes day after day was a welcome relief after having no wind on our way down the Pacific side of Central America. The seas were abundant with dolphins and whales and it was with constant pleasure that I watched these creatures gracefully play and swim around us.
However, there were also days of little wind or finding ourselves becalmed. It was very frustrating winding our way through the islands of the Bahamas and bobbing like a cork in a lake as we waited for the wind to fill in. One of the most beautiful sights on the last part of the race that I witnessed was just before we crossed the finish line. As we were sailing off the New Jersey coast, we were treated to a pod of pilot whales leisurely passing within 30 feet of our boat. Such a beautiful sight!
My not-so-luxurious bunk
Now, after spending some time back on land, there are numerous thoughts that have gone through my head as I look back on my adventure, and it has taken some time to settle back into some degree of normalcy. Initially, settling into home with a comfortable bed and a full night of sleep felt strange after spending three months at sea on a bunk barely three feet wide while being lucky to find sleep for just a few hours at a time.
Gone is the pain and agony of spending a month battling up the Japanese coast and crossing the North Pacific Ocean. Now, it is replaced by a deep sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Even though injured (lower lumbar sprain) during that part of the race, it was an experience that I would contemplate repeating again. Albeit, next time I would make sure I am properly in shape with a strong focus on building the core and back muscles. I also learned that finger strength is very important in grabbing and pulling down the yankee (head sail) when it is wildly flogging in 25-40 knots of wind.
Learning to coexist with 18 other people in a ‘small’ cramped environment has taught me a lot about tolerance and putting things into perspective. Petty personal frictions (which were seldom) are not at all important when you are working together as a crew to safely race either in storm-tossed seas in the middle of an ink black night, or during windless days under the hot tropical sun. All of us had the same goal, if different perspectives. When I did feel myself becoming frustrated with crew members for what I perceived as their ‘short-comings’, it was a struggle to remind myself to be more compassionate. These were useful ‘teaching moments’ for me and a great exercise to try to show more wisdom and compassion, two qualities I’m trying harder to develop in myself.
One of the many highlights of the adventure was standing at the coffee grinder (a large pedestal winch) trimming sails while Sarah would read poetry or Chantal would recite sonnets from memory as the stars sparkled overhead. Each of the crew members had qualities that I admired, and I am grateful I had the opportunity to sail and develop relationships with all of them.
You also learn a lot about yourself when you think you are at the limit of your endurance. Your muscles burn from exhaustion, your mind is in a sleep-deprived fog and you just want to give up, curl up in a ball and sleep. But you cannot. There are only four of you on the wildly-pitching foredeck, the winds are building above 40 knots and the sail has to come down. There is simply no other option, so you reach down somewhere deep inside and find the will to power through. You learn to focus on the task immediately at hand, and just take it moment by moment. No thoughts for hands that are cramping up, for fingernails torn off, for arms that are past the point of burning up. No thoughts for the future, not even 15 minutes ahead. Just focus on the now, and the wildly flogging sail in front of you. Eventually, the sail comes down and you crawl slowly back to the cockpit, throwing up along the way.
Even through the exhaustion and fog, it takes extra effort to concentrate on just the simple tasks, and not doing so can be life-endangering. There were a couple times, when I found myself unclipping my safety tether from one jack line (safety line running down both sides of the boat) to clip onto another on the other side of the boat. Instead, I found that I had unclipped the safety tether from myself and had connected both to the same jack line. Those were sobering moments. If the boat were to unexpectedly roll, or a wave(s) were to wash down the deck, I would end up over the side of the boat. That taught me to – no matter how tired or exhausted – take the time to think through what you are doing, and ALWAYS keeping safety in the forefront.
Indeed, that stood me in good stead another time when I was moving across the deck and asked a crewmate to unclip me from the high side of the boat so I could clip onto the lower side. Just as he unclipped me, passed that end of the tether to me, and I was set to clip in, the boat rolled and I found myself summersaulting towards, then partially over the rail of the boat. What saved me from going overboard was the old adage, “one hand for the boat, one hand for yourself.” I had held onto the jack line with one hand, while I was unclipped from the boat during the brief moment of transition. It was that one hand holding on to the jack line while my body was tumbling, which kept me on the boat.
What do I not miss from the experience? The roar of the angry sea breaking unseen around the boat and the howl of the wind through the rigging during the middle of a fierce Pacific storm. Having waves washing me down the deck like a little puppet and being folded around winches along the way. Unable to find sleep as you’re constantly airborne and repeatedly slammed down into your bunk when the boat is beating (heading upwind) into heavy seas. Trying to sleep in the equatorial heat as the inside of the boat is turned into an oven. Some of the meals that were hopelessly boiled beyond recognition (having said that, people’s ‘right thoughts, right efforts’ were there, so you cannot fault them for that 😉 ).
I think the adventure also helped to remind me of what I find important in life. Although I do appreciate my career and the success I’ve had over the years, it is not what defines me. Without wanting to sound cliché, I’ve relearned how to live in – and appreciate – the moment. Just sitting there and watching a humpback whale rise majestically out of the water as it breaches, is a magical experience. No thoughts running through the mind, only capturing the beauty as it unfolds. Or, watching meteors streaking across the sky at night – and smiling inside. Or, the numerous other times in which I was glad to be experiencing life at that moment. Now, if I can just take those experiences and try to find satori in daily life back on land.
Like the race, life is truly a journey, and I look forward to enjoying and appreciating each day that it brings …