When I was a kid, I devoured Choose Your Own Adventure books. “If you think Marty should open the spooky door, turn to page 16. If you think Marty should run away from the haunted house, turn to page 23.” I always read my way through all of the possible outcomes, cheering for characters who escaped the monsters with treasures in hand, and shaking my head at those who stuck to safe choices, too afraid to take a chance at the spooky door.
Now that I live in my own Cruise Your Own Adventure, I have mastered the agony of choice in the real world as well; although, in the end there is really only one fundamental decision in cruising: If you want to stay home, turn to page 48; if you want to move onto a boat, turn to page 11. I still remember how immense that choice felt when my husband, Erik, and I were first kicking the idea around. As soon as we turned to page 11, though, we realized that we’d just jumped off a skyscraper only to land on a ledge three feet down. We were safe. We had signed on for a frustrating, exhausting and rewarding life, only to find that every page we turned to was a good one. The hard part wouldn’t be escaping the monsters—it would be having to let so many good choices go.
This past season, for example, we made grand plans to sail north from New Zealand through New Caledonia, Vanuatu, the Solomons and Papua New Guinea before stopping for cyclone season. Not only were we excited to see the Mount Yasur volcano, go snorkeling over healthy reefs and explore some more of the world, but Erik and I had recently had a long talk about “The Future” and reluctantly concluded we only have two more years left at sea. This would bring our trip up to a final five-year mark, just right for the first go-around. And although our annual plans alter as often as we put out the jib, slapping an expiration date on our proverbial yogurt made it clear that we simply don’t have enough time to go everywhere. I saw choices being ripped out of my book.
It didn’t help that we were delayed leaving New Zealand. Papillon is an aluminum boat from the late ‘60s, and she has needs. As the rain pounded down, we welded fuel tanks, patched the hull and replaced the rigging. Our daughters, Martha and Audrey, built forts on the outskirts of the boatyard and explored the mangroves. Soggy, tired and longing for the tropics, the four of us laughed together in the glow of the diesel heater every evening.
A mere four months behind schedule, we finally sailed for New Caledonia. Soon afterward, as we negotiated the pass into Baie de L’Orphelinat under a clear blue sky, a dolphin swam alongside us, delighting the girls. I smiled. Adventure, ho!
We were about to drop anchor when disaster struck. A coupling blew on our propeller shaft, tearing it into a tortured scrap of metal more closely resembling modern art than a boat part. A visit from the local engine specialist didn’t encourage us. He and Erik discussed the problem in rapid French, and I caught enough to understand that a replacement part wouldn’t cut it—the whole assembly was poorly designed and needed to be replaced.
You might think this was my cue to have a meltdown. We had only planned to stay in New Caledonia long enough to ease a tan back onto our pasty skins and acquire industrial quantities of brie. Now, instead of visiting volcanoes, I would be staring at Erik’s posterior poking out of the aft bilge as his muffled voice ordered, “vise grips!” This wasn’t the adventure I chose at all.
But real cruisers don’t have meltdowns. Anyone who can’t recognize the privilege inherent in being “stranded” on a beautiful, well-serviced Pacific island should hand in their dinghy permit and marlin spike and retire to the air-conditioned comfort of page 48. This isn’t a case of making lemons into lemonade, it’s about recognizing that it is all lemonade to begin with. You learn to say, “We’re staying? Fantastic!” and then, you make it fantastic.
So we have written new pages for this season’s adventure: Boogie boarding on Ile des Pins, cooking on the beach on Ilot Mato while sea snakes slither past our feet, swimming in rust-streaked waterfall pools in Baie du Prony, snorkeling with seas turtles and giant cuttlefish near Ilot Maitre, endless friendly exchanges with the locals in Noumea, eating the national supply of pain au chocolat.
Every good story has unexpected twists. Losing that coupling wrecked our plans. But instead of moping, we explored New Caledonia. It was the right choice.
Although I still don’t look forward to helping Erik in the aft bilge.