I am 90 years old, dwindling in mind and body and fear living too long. Twenty years have passed since I last weighed anchor. Still, when a Carolina blue sky is polka-dotted with billowing cumulus clouds and the wind blows fair, I sorely miss raising sail and setting forth. I remember more than any other part of my life the adventures of sailing a small boat down “The Waterway” and across The Gulf Stream to the Bahamas. I remember so clearly because the events of those years were more than a dream come true. They were life-changing. For this to happen as it did, the essentials had to be in place and properly aligned, and by the end of summer of 1990, ours were.
To start, you must have a mate who shares your wanderlust, who wants to sail beyond the confines of rivers and sounds and who is willing to accept new challenges—from our home port at the head of Albemarle Sound to the Bahamas would work. My wife was enthusiastic, but had one caveat. Unless it was an absolute necessity, she would not sail at night. It was a compromise well worth making.
Our stout, New England-made 30ft cutter, Kluane, (an Athabaska Indian name meaning “big fish”) had a sailplan we could easily handle in a blow, a hull three-quarters of an inch thick and a full keel with a shallow draft well-suited for exploring the skinny Bahamian banks. The reliable 13hp Volvo diesel sipped rather than guzzled fuel. Kluane’s amenities bordered on the Spartan (a mere 25 gallons of water, kerosene stove, no refrigeration, showers from plastic bags warmed on deck), but we had all we needed for comfort and never went to bed cold, hungry or overly wet. When things are simple, there is less to go wrong.
In my other life before retirement, I was a physician with a rigid work schedule. Having unassigned time, time to squander, is essential, and with retirement I had it. Our sailing schedule was dictated by whim and weather. Bridge openings were about the only things that caused us to hurry. In our new sailing grounds, we found that the mariners most prone to missteps were those who rushed. The journey was best enjoyed when there were no worries about how long it took to get from one anchorage to the next, so long as it could be managed before sundown. Stress levels plummeted.
That said, taking a small boat so far from home and living aboard for months at a time is not for the faint of heart. Nonetheless, after considerable thought, we decided we could handle the trip as planned, and so we did what so many sailors dream of and for myriad reasons never do—we took the first step, slipped lines and on a crisp September morning began our trip to the Bahamas.
In no time, our lives began to change, not quickly, but steadily. More and more decisions, both major and minor, were made only after a period of discussion: which way to take a mark; do we go or not go with an iffy weather forecast; could we safely make a 60-mile passage across a 12,000ft-deep gap in the Bahamas bank by dead-reckoning? (We decided we could and had one of the best sailing days ever!)
The mundane things—shopping, laundry, cooking and boat maintenance—were still chores, but less so because we enjoyed doing them with together. The inevitable sparks of irritation were not allowed to flare into prolonged anger. Three days weather-bound in a desolate creek in the marshes of Georgia taught us that patience is both a virtue and a necessity. When a foul-up occurred, as it inevitably did, we set things right as best we could and avoided assigning blame. (Except for when I lost the bitter end of the rode setting a second anchor with a storm brewing—that was inexcusable, and deservedly, I will never hear the end of it!)
Explaining the dynamics of the process is difficult, but the gender roles that held sway earlier in our relationship gave way to a partnership in almost all things. In those four or five winters aboard, a relationship that has happily persisted now for near three-quarters of a century became even better.
In a world that seems to relish hearing about bad people doing bad things, we were overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of total strangers who helped us docking, offered us the use of their cars and even invited us into their homes for a shower and a meal. In Florida, a young woman detailing a boat tied up behind us appeared one morning with a bar of scented soap for my mate. “You need something special after such a long trip in such a small boat,” she said. Such kindness can’t help but restore faith, elevate the spirit and increase the joys of the journey.
The things that hold a true partnership together are sharing and compromise. One allows the other, and it is rare that one survives without the other as well. With total independence, the solo sailor may not need to compromise, but he sacrifices the joys of sharing those many things that are not the same when experienced alone—sunrises and sunsets, a secluded anchorage in an uninhabited island in the Abacos, an unexpectedly beautiful tidal marsh in Georgia, the list goes on and on. So, plan with your mate and take that first step.