Trade Offs

Last week we transitioned from the Basic Keelboat practical lessons to the Basic Coastal cruising lessons.  So we’ve moved on from, how does a boat work to, if your sailing here’s some more advanced techniques you need to be aware of to operate a boat safely.  It was an interesting transition.  We know the points of sail, we know the basic parts of the part.  In fact when we got there, it was just the three of us and the instructor, and the instructor said, “You guys get the boat ready.”  We got there, it took us a minute, but we all knew here’s how you connect the foresail and the mainsail to the halyards and sheets, we knew where to check to make sure there wasn’t too much water in the bilge, there were a couple of things that we needed to be reminded of, but we got it ready.  It felt good once it was done, but it was a challenge.

When we started, out the wind was good.  I thought, great, it’s going to be an awesome day of sailing…10 minutes after we hit the water, the wind was gone.  So, any movement on the water was with the aid of the engine.  Which happens in sailing.  Everyone talks about either motorsailing, or just running their engines at some point to keep moving in a passage.  It’s louder, it stinks, but it gets you where you need to be.

It turns out that for us, that was more of a blessing than we knew.  We did two new things last week.  First was anchoring.  Second was a man overboard drill.

Watching the sailing YouTubers, Gone with the Wynns routinely (it seems) includes a scene about anchoring.  They make it seem pretty easy, drop the anchor, run the engine in reverse, yep the anchor caught, shut off the engine, have a cocktail. Part of the ease is practice, they’ve been doing it for five years now.  Part of it is the boat, they have an electric windlass to raise and lower the anchor. There’s a reason they make it seem easy.

So try to picture this.  It’s 88 degrees, no wind, so it’s hot and a little uncomfortable.  We motor over to a shoreline near the dam on the reservoir so we have a good place to practice anchoring.  Killing the engine does not stop the boat because you just drift at that point, so we kept the engine running.  Matthew pulls the anchor out of the cabin.  We carry the anchor, the chain, and the rope to the bow.  Remember, there’s no wind, so the headsail is lying on the bow.  It covers everything.  The instructor is telling me to tie the rope for the anchor to the bow cleat.  I can’t find it under the headsail, we are drifting toward shore, Sandy recognizes this and backs up a bit, then runs us in some lazy circles, until I do find the bow cleat.  I finally have the anchor ready to go, but then Sandy has to reposition the boat so that when we back up, we aren’t backing in the dam.  Finally, the anchor is thrown overboard and Sandy gets it set.  It was a little stressful.  Everything having to happen quickly so that we can be safe.  I do think there was an advantage to no wind, but it was still pretty stressful in the moment. 

I really can only imagine what it would be like moving into an anchorage with heavy winds around you and the boat is rolling while you are trying to make sure that you are set and not dragging the anchor.  The amenities of a larger boat will ease some stressors, but then create additional stressors.  Nothing is really “easy” even in the best of conditions.

Even the man overboard scenario was a bit stressful.  There’s minimal wind, so we had to try and get the boat to a beam reach (the wind at 90 degrees to the bow) and try to tack to start a Figure 8 so that we could position ourselves properly to get the flotation device out of the water.  It’s hard when there’s not a lot of wind, and even though it was just a flotation device that was in the water, you want to get it back as quickly as possible.  The upside to the whole scenario is that there weren’t even waves, except for a wake from the other boats, so keeping an eye on the man overboard was pretty easy.  Matthew was begging to jump over for this…I think he just wanted to cool off!

Even though things seem like they should be easy, easy is relative.  The first time is always a challenge because you don’t know what you are doing.  So, you’re getting stressed. Which then adds to the difficulty.  Things aren’t ever quite as easy as they seem, even when you think they should be.  Some of the challenges, like finding a bow-cleat to tie the anchor off on won’t be an issue on a larger boat, but then again, on the 22’ boat, you don’t really have to adjust the boom vang or worry about a top lift as much.  There’s going to be trade offs on boats…just like in life.

Adjustments in the back-country

Squaretop…our initial goal

The Wind River mountains are amazing.  The ruggedness of the peaks as you drive up highway 191 toward Pinedale, WY is astounding.  I love to drive up there just to see the peaks from the highway.  They are both inviting and unforgiving.  If you make a mistake in that wilderness, it could be your last, but at the same time what you get to see is awe inspiring.  The pristine lakes, the wide-open mountain meadows, moose, deer, elk, if your lucky a bear.  It’s a beauty that’s pretty hard to put into words.

Earlier this summer we went into the Winds, at the Green River Lakes.  Our initial plan was to hike to the backside of Squaretop Mountain, which is exactly as it’s name implies, it’s a big flat top.  The backside has a boulder field that once you cross it, you can hike up to the peak.  There are technical climbs that you can do to get the top, but we had no intention of going up that way.  Our goal was to make it to the boulder field and see if the dogs could make it, if not, we’d turn back.

A lot of how far we were going to go was dependent on the dogs.  If they were struggling, we would scale back.  From the trailhead to Squaretop is about 12 miles and our dogs are older, so we really didn’t want to kill them to get there.  Next was us, would we be able to make it.  Our packs weren’t too heavy since it was just us and the dogs, but it had been a while since we’d been backpacking.

The initial part of the trail takes you along the lower Green River Lake, which then feeds the Green River, that eventually flows into the Colorado River.  The trail is well maintained, but it’s a hiking trail.  You aren’t hiking on a sidewalk, there’s rocks, springs, cows, obstacles of all kinds.  There were quite a few more people than we expected, and we had to sidestep frequently to let others by.  At one point, we had to move out of the way as a family with younger children and dog went by.  There was an incline on both sides of the trail, and as I watched Sandy step down, I watched her knee bend in a direction that I didn’t think was possible.  The loose soil and rocks just slid right out from under her, and she down on the trail. 

We were probably still several miles from where we would be able to set up camp initially, so it was it was key to determine if Sandy could still hike or not.  She carefully got up with help as I lifted her backpack.  Her knee was tender, but still walkable.  At that point, we decided to shorten the days hike so that we would go about 2 more miles and set up camp in a meadow. Adjustment number 1.

 The wind was picking up, which helped with the heat, so as we crested a ridge and saw a meadow where we’d be able to find some shelter for the tent, that was near a stream, our pace picked up to a spot that we thought we’d be able to set up camp. 

We found a pretty good spot, with a large boulder that would act as a wind break and set up camp.  I woke up just before daybreak and sat and watched the light slowly creep over the mountains, gradually the meadow lit up.  It was an amazing experience and even though I thought it would be a great picture, I never took one, knowing it just wouldn’t do the daybreak justice. 

Sandy got up as I was brewing coffee for the morning.  Her knee was good, but we decided stressing it with a 40lb backpack probably wasn’t the wisest thing to do.  Adjustment number 2.  Change the goal to suit the current conditions.  Squaretop was out completely, next best thing was Slide Lake.  I didn’t even look at the map, just figured we’d follow the trail and make our way.  Sandy figured it was about 3 and half maybe four miles from camp. 

Slide Lake

Making our way to Slide Lake meant climbing switchbacks for about 1000 feet of elevation over the course of the 4 miles.  It was a challenging a hike and many times I was thinking that we should turn around.  I reminded myself that the best views took the most work to get to and this was a destination that we chose, so we pushed on.  We ran into some other hikers who were on their way down, “Oh yeah, maybe a quarter mile left…” about a mile later, one of the calmest lakes greeted us.  Sitting on the rocks looking up at rock formations all around, the hike was worth it.  These views were truly amazing.  The best part was that for a good 45 minutes to an hour, no one else was there.  The only sound was that of the water leaving the lake for the waterfall and any talking we did…which wasn’t much.

Afternoons in the mountains can bring unexpected thunderstorms, so we packed up after about an hour and headed down.  Going down was a bit easier, because we knew where the end of the trail was.  We knew where we were going. It was also slower because the dogs needed more time to rest.  They’d walk and then one would lay down.  His muscles were tired, he was tired.  All of us worked pretty hard that day, and for a while I even carried him to give him a break and keep us moving. 

At the bottom of the trail was a great little stream that came from the lake.  We stopped there for a good 45 minutes and let the dogs lay in the water and rest.  We were close to camp, but it wasn’t worth pushing too hard to get there right away.  There was no rush.  No reason to get back to camp right away. So let’s rest.  Let’s get muscles relaxed some and move on from there.

Everyone was rested…for the most part so we finished the journey back to camp, made dinner, played cards and just rested.  Everyone got back in the water to recover some more and before we knew it, we were all asleep.

The next morning, Sandy woke up first, and she started to shake me to wake me.  “Jon, Jon, get up”  I groggily roused, “Look!”, about two hundred yards from our tent was a cow moose and her calf lumbering through the willows that lined the stream near camp.  It was one of those moments that make backpacking worth it.  The moose just lumbered on by not paying us any attention, as watched them.

Everyone was moving slowly getting out of the tent and as we watched the dogs, we decided we did not want to sit around camp and wait for the bugs to find us, but we knew another strenuous hike was out of the question.  So, do we walk down to the Upper Green River Lake?  Do we go to the Lower Green River Lake and sit on the beach?  Do we leave and take our time?  Adjustment number three.  Let’s cut the trip short a day, even though we’re all pretty sore, the dogs can rest more easily in the car on the way home and recover better at home.  Even though the new Thermarests were comfortable…our bed would be better.  So, we headed out.  We took our time, watched the mileage back to the car and let the dogs rest whenever they needed it.  It wasn’t to be a death march back to the car, but just an easy stroll…with 35 lbs on our back.

After we reached the car and made our way through Pinedale, we looked for the best place to get some food.  We found this great little hamburger stand on the side of the road and the lady running the place saw we had dogs, and asked if they would like a completely unseasoned hamburger patty.  I knew they would, she then through in some “doggie” size ice cream cups too, the dogs devoured both, put their heads down and went to sleep as we hit the highway and headed home.

We had wind!

Full sails with a reef in the main!

We’ve had a few sailing lessons now, the first one did not have any wind, so it was more of an exercise in learning the parts of the boat, running the motor, when there was wind, trying to figure out where it was coming from.  The next two lessons had wind!  So, we could sail!  The boat we are learning on is a J22, it’s made by Jboats.  It’s nice little boat to learn the basic mechanics of sailing.  You learn how to gybe, tack, reef the mainsail (reduce the sail area), use the winches, etc.  We also learned about the importance of having the proper position of the mainsail relative to the boat, and the wind.  Aspects of it are challenging because the J22 uses a tiller, not a steering wheel, so you have to push the tiller the opposite direction you want to go…which is difficult when aren’t doing it daily. 

It’s been an interesting experience for a variety of reasons.  First, sailing is romanticized, on TV, movies, YouTube, books, etc.  It’s portrayed as this peace, put the sails up and let the wind carry you…there’s a lot more too it.  You have to watch the wind, watch the water, watch your sails.  When you are in the vicinity of other boats, you need to keep your eye out for other boats.  Is your point of sail the best for the wind and the direction you are going, if you’re approaching another boat, do you need to tack or gybe to avoid it?  There are, just like driving, dozens if not hundreds of questions that you are asking yourself at a given moment to avoid hurting yourself or others.

I recognize that these lessons are designed to teach you the mechanics of sailing, not necessarily the joy of sailing, though, I at least, did find some moments, when I was manning the jib sheet, that I was able to just relax a bit and enjoy the feel of the wind and knowing that the wind is what is driving you across the water.  There really were some peaceful moments then, but they were short lived because you had to snap to and watch what was going on.

The J22 we are using for sailing lessons.

There’s also some excitement, and fear involved too.  Trimming the sail is adjusting the position of the sail relative to the centerline of the boat.  If the sail isn’t trimmed properly, you either a) won’t go anywhere because your sail will be flapping in the wind or b) the wind will drive the boat toward the water, this is called heeling.  A little bit of heeling is normal and probably pretty good if you are trying to get some speed.  However, you can heel too much.  I was on the mainsheet, which means I was responsible for trimming the mainsail.  We were in the midst of a tack (running the bow through the wind) and I when I changed which side of the boat I was sitting on, I didn’t release mainsail right away.  Which meant that the trim was tight for our point of sail.  This then caused the boat to heel pretty dramatically, and we did have some water splashing over the rails.  The instructor was yelling for me to release the mainsail, I was trying to remember how to do it, everyone else was hanging on hoping not to have a man overboard event!

As soon as I released the mainsail and loosened the trim on the sail, we popped upright.  We hit that normal sailing position that is desirable, and things went right back to normal.  Several YouTubers that we watch have said, “Sailing is 90% boredom punctuated by 10% terror”.  Maybe that’s an exaggeration, maybe not, but the 1% of terror that we experienced was a good lesson.  It’s not just the romantic throw of the sails and call it good.  There’s a lot to pay attention to.  It’s hard to put this event into words.  The feeling of gravity pulling you toward the water, the wind pushing you over, knowing that you need to do something right now.  I don’t know that words ever do the experience justice.

 I imagine that it’s a bit different on the open ocean in a much larger boat, where you don’t have to worry as much about the boom hitting you because it’s more than 7’ above the deck.  You have a destination in mind and once you set your sails, you aren’t changing much about the sails, unless you have a major shift in the wind.

We are learning a lot.  Each time we’ve been on the open water, it’s been good learning.  The mechanics are slowly coming along, but I recognize that until we are really on the open water in a boat day in and day out, those mechanics aren’t going to come naturally.  You need to live it to really know what you are doing.  But at least now, we won’t be in a position where we won’t know a sheet from a halyard and running from standing rigging when we get our own boat.  That’s really the goal of these lessons.  I want to know how to trim a sail properly.  How do you know when a gust of wind is coming before you feel it?  These things that we are learning, which really will put us in a good spot when we throw off the lines for the first time!

First Scuba Experience

Definitely not us that day, but one day soon!

It wasn’t the tropics, it wasn’t a beautiful reef with all kinds of colorful coral and fish, or sharks.  It was just a swimming pool that was only four feet deep.  But it was our first scuba experience.  It was pretty cool.  Sandy and Kenneth has done Snuba before, but no one had ever done scuba before.  We all stayed underwater for about 45 minutes and used all of the equipment that you use when you are in the ocean.  The whole point of the experience was to see if you liked scuba diving, give you an introduction to it and be able to decide about whether or not you want to pursue your open water certification.

My brother and his family were kind enough to give us a gift certificate to the Colorado Scuba Diving Academy, based in Fort Collins. The first 30 minutes were an orientation to scuba.  How to avoid the risks of scuba diving (some of which can still happen in 4 feet of water).  What happens to your body when scuba diving?  Pretty much, here’s what you need to know to be able to do this safely today.  There are inherent risks with scuba diving, so they obviously wanted us to be able to avoid those risks even in a pool.  Most of it, I’ll admit is hazy to me right now, but the point was to ensure that you could scuba safely that day.  Once we move forward with our open water certification, I’m sure the instruction will be much more in depth because it’s geared toward a lifetime of the activity.

After the safety orientation, we were suited up with all of our gear for the next 45 minutes.  Swim fins, boots to protect your heels from the fins, a vest that your tank would be mounted to, the tank, breathing regulator, and a mask.  Headed over to the pool, where the instructor and his assistant set up the tanks, and then we donned the rest of the gear.  Once we jumped in, he showed us how to clear the breathing regulator and pretty much turned us loose. 

Even in the pool there was a sense of freedom that came with being able to swim underwater for 45 minutes without ever coming to the surface.  You went from one end of the pool to the next and side to side.  I think at one point I let myself lay on the bottom of the pool for five minutes.  I never did move, just lay there and breathed…underwater!  It’s kind of funny that kid who grew up in Florida has to go to Colorado to learn to scuba!  Once the session was over, I looked over at Matthew and he had the biggest grin on his face.  He just looked at me, and said, “When can I do this for the rest of my life?”  I imagine once he’s old enough…in about six short weeks, we’ll start to have some conversations about getting our open water certification and then the advanced open water (which allows you to dive on your own) certifications.  I guess first we’ll see about getting him his driver’s license!

Several people told me when they first tried scuba, they felt claustrophobic.  I can see where that might be the case, but at least in the discover scuba, I didn’t feel it.  I wonder if once I am 30 feet down and the water is a little darker if that might happen.  I won’t really know I guess until we reach that point and start the open water certifications. 

Sandy and Kenneth, when we went to Hawaii, did a SNUBA experience.  SNUBA is where you are tethered to a compressor that is at the surface, you can swim around underwater for thirty minutes or so.  They were both impressed with experience, but it does have some limitations, like depth and distance, that scuba takes away.  I see the pictures or videos of people diving on reefs with all the wildlife and I know that this opens the door just a bit to being able to do that too.  

Green River Lakes…Photos

A little different post this week. Some pictures from the Green River Lakes in the Wind River Mountains. Truly an amazing place! These were taken with my new camera on this trip. We spent three days out there. I’ve got a written piece about this that needs some editing, but I wanted to share this with you. You might see some of these on our Instagram account too @the.greatwander

Squaretop mountain from the Lower Green Lake at the start of the trail.
This was the view from our campsite for a few days…One would think that there wouldn’t be a lot of people around, but we had two other groups of backpackers within a half mile…Yeah, that’s a lot for us!
What appeared to be a natural waterslide…
…That ended in this!
Getting a well deserved snack after a long hike up to Slide Lake.
Slide Lake
Lower Green River Lake from the hike to Slide Lake
Indian Paintbrush near camp

Sailing is fun…when there’s wind!

Grandad said, “When I tell you, push the tiller until the bow is pointed at that point, I’ll trim the mainsail from there.  We can’t sail into the wind, so this is called tacking.”

I said, “Yeah, if we pointed the bow directly into the wind, we’d go backwards, right?”

Grandad, “No, we can’t sail into the wind.”

Me, “I know, the wind would just push us backwards…”

There was a look of frustration on my grandfather’s face at the point and he just dropped it.  I didn’t understand that sails operate like the wings of airplanes.  The sails use lift to pull a boat, it doesn’t push the boat the way I thought it did.

Fast forward 40 years, Skipper, “Prepare to jibe!”

I’m thinking, wait, there’s wind?  But I respond, “Ready to jibe!” 

Skipper, “Jibing”

Me, “Umm, how did you know that we were jibing and not tacking… I couldn’t tell that there was that much wind.”

Our instructor, John, looked up at the telltales on the sails and said, “well, there wasn’t that much wind, but the tell tales were moving just a little bit from the aft.” 

His answer made sense, but really, we couldn’t see or feel much wind at all on us.  In reality, I think the current was moving more than the wind was moving us.  Our first sailing lesson was ok, there wasn’t much wind, so there wasn’t much sailing.  When I described it to my brother, he said it made him think of the movie Tommy Boy, being in the middle of a lake with no wind.

But it was still a good experience.  Transferring the knowledge of looking at a 2D diagram of sailboat and applying it to an actual boat lifted the veil of confusion!  It was much easier to figure out where the clew was, what the battens are, as well as just being able to walk on a deck.  The boat was about half the size of anything we are considering buying, but it’s where the sailing school starts you.  Our first six practical lessons will be on the J22, a nice little 22-foot J/Boats monohull. 

It was also great to see what the instructor was talking about with the figure eight knots being zip tied.  Seeing that made things a little more real.  There’s still a lot to learn, but it was a good start.  One thing we did learn as well, though this wasn’t a lesson from the instructor, is the importance of weather planning when sailing.  The wind that day might have been 5 knots, with a few gusts up to 10 knots, but before we schedule our next lesson, I’m using the app Windy to determine the best day to schedule the lesson so that we can have a good day of wind.

I know that as we progress through our lessons we’ll get a lot more out of it, but even now, I feel like the look of frustration on my grandfather’s face would transform to a smile of satisfaction knowing that I now understand why you can’t sail into the wind.

Knots…and a little more

The past few weeks have been a series of first steps in our sailing journey.  Step 1: Know Your Knots!  Step 2: Our first practical sailing lesson. Step 3: Our first introduction to scuba diving.  Step 4: Booking a trip to Florida to look at boats.  Sometimes the newness and excitement of it all is overwhelming!  But the journey is underway.

We took the “Know Your Knots” course from Victoria Sailing School in Denver in early June.  Excitement, butterflies, nerves… all emotions were coursing through me as we drove down to Denver that Friday night.

When I was in Boy Scouts, even when I was in college, any rope I tied knot in became known as a “Jon Knot”, because it was impossible to untie.  No matter what you did, you couldn’t get my knots untied.  It might have started out as a square knot (reef knot), but it turned into a mess that even Alexander the Great couldn’t have sliced with his sword.  My scout leaders, parents, friends, all tried to help, but beyond tying my shoes… forget it!  I couldn’t seem to learn to tie a knot.

Back in November, when we were quarantined and began conversations to move up our timetable on our adventure, I started to find websites that could teach knots.  I got a section of rope and started working on the basic knots that I could.  Then Santa left a knot tying book and deck rope in my stocking, and slowly I reached a point with several knots that I could tie them proficiently.  As spring rolled around and we did more outside, I stopped practicing, so I was a little nervous going into class.

The knots I had learned over quarantine went well, a few others went so-so, and there was one that just kicked my butt.  But eventually, I reached a place where I could tie the knots that were expected of us.  This was the first requirement before setting foot on one of the boats for the practical lessons.

So, why does it matter what kind of knot you use?  So what if I just tie of bunch of overhand knots to use as a stopping knot for my halyards?  Who cares if I don’t use a knot at all?  Does it really matter if I wrap my line around the cleat a whole lot at the dock?  Given my experience with knots, I will admit that these questions ran through my mind.  I stayed optimistic, and as we learned, IT MATTERS!  The wrong knot and your halyard can slip up through the mast requiring extensive time to rework the rigging.  Another wrong knot, and your boat can slip off the cleat on the dock wreaking havoc in the marina.  Knots matter.

During our knots class, I came to realize that there’s a bit of parallel to life here.  We might not always understand why things have to be a certain way, but there’s usually a rationale for it.  You use a figure eight knot to stop the halyards from going up the mast, but you also use it because it can be undone when you need to remove that portion of the running rigging. 

I understand after going through that class why the school requires you to learn those knots before you set foot on a boat.  The owner of the school told us that on the smaller boats used for the initial courses, they put zip ties in the figure eight knots to keep them from being untied accidentally. It didn’t make a lot of sense until I saw, but when it did, it all just clicked. It felt good to take this class and take the first step toward learning to sail. 

Step 2: On the wet!  Sailing is amazing… when there is wind!  But that is a tale for another day.

In addition to these first baby steps to the ocean, this summer we’ve also enjoyed a trip to Temple, TX to help Sandy’s niece, camping with amazing friends in the Snowies, and a backpacking trip into the Winds.  Life is indeed, good.

The Beginning

When I was 11 or 12, my grandfather took my brother and I out to his sailboat to spend the night.  His boat was moored in Connecticut.  I don’t remember how big his boat was, but I can’t imagine it was more than 26 feet long.  I remember there was a cabin in the front, and the ‘dining room’ table came out to make bunk beds, which was really cool!  That’s where my brother and I slept that night.  We cozied in and swayed with the waves.  The next morning my grandfather woke us up very early and we got up and ate cheerios on the deck.  I know my memories may not be completely accurate, and may have blurred over time, but those memories are idyllic for me, and that time with my grandfather deeply cherished.

The reason Grandad got us up so early is that across the way from his mooring was the Electric Boat Company, today owned by General Dynamics.  They make submarines.  We got up early and ate our cheerios on the deck so we could watch the submarines come into the river.  It was amazing and memorable, to say the least.

At the time we lived in Florida.  Since we lived less than a quarter of a mile from the ocean, my brother and I spent a lot of time on the water.  As kids we would spend a lot of time at the beach.  We fished, swam, and went out with friends on their boats.  I developed a deep appreciation of the ocean, and the allure of her mystery began to grow in me. 

The ocean is amazing.  She sustains life with gifts of food.  Her currents help transport our goods across the world.  Her waters temper the climate and drive our weather.  And, she can also take life in the blink of an eye.  I remember a babysitter we had as children that drown in pretty shallow water, I think he got caught in a rip tide.  The ocean demands your respect and will remind you of her power in every wave and tide.  Whether you survive that reminder depends on you, the situation you are in, and ultimately, powers greater than us. 

As we were on the boat that night with my grandfather there wasn’t much rocking, although I remember loving that gentle sway.  We were tied up at slip at a marina, well protected from the elements.  I vividly remember the sounds of the waves hitting the boat.  The intoxicating smell of the salt air as we ate our cheerios.  Watching those submarines cut silently through the water.  It was in that moment that I became enamored with the ocean.

It was around that time too that my grandparents gave me a copy of the book, “The Boy Who Sailed Around the World Alone”.  The book recounted the story of Robin Lee Graham, a 16-year-old from California, and his five-year circumnavigation of the world.  While there’s not a lot of specifics that I remember about the book, I remember thinking I wanted to take on that challenge.  Without a doubt, that story shaped my dreams and started a fire in me.

Not long after that we moved to Germany, where, as a middle schooler, I would sketch out sailboats with living quarters.  I was trying to figure out the best layout for a boat.  I’m pretty sure now that if any of those ideas were ever found by a boat architect, they’d laugh themselves silly!  But, as a young teenager, it was a lot of fun.  It kept me connected to the ocean and that fire in my belly to sail the world continued to grow.  I remember someone looking at one drawing and asking what I was doing.  When I told him I was designing a boat to sail around the world in, he didn’t laugh at me!  But he did jump to all of the dangers of sailing.

Life then did what life does.  I graduated high school in North Dakota and went on to become a teacher.  I fell in love, got married, and had a two amazing kids.  I bought a house and joined the great American middleclass life.  This life has afforded us some amazing opportunities.  Living in Wyoming, there are things that I’ve seen and done that I would’ve never had the chance to do anyplace else.  The Tetons are truly spectacular and having had the opportunity to go elk hunting will always be a highlight in my life.  But, that fire still burns and the ocean still calls.

As we’ve talked about the live aboard life, I’ve felt something awaken in me that I haven’t felt in a long time.  There’s an excitement, and a fear.  Not the kind of fear a child has of monsters under the bed, but fear nonetheless.  It’s the fear of the unknown.  Of all the things that could go wrong.  I remind myself, there’s always a path to get through the unknown.  And, there’s tremendous excitement!  Of knowing we can conquer the unknown and live in harmony with the ocean.  The excitement of living out a childhood dream that I long ago dismissed as fantasy. 

I’m not at all sure what our sailing adventures will bring.  I long to fulfill that dream of a circumnavigation, but I’m not sure if we will complete that or not.  I’m not even sure if we will love or hate the live aboard life!  We might miss life on land, or, we may sail away and never look back.  What I am sure of is the excitement, and sense of peace, and feeling of being alive that pursing this dream brings. 

Challenges

This is me coming up from the Dunk Wall at a Spartan Race. Spartans are all about challenges

Challenges and change are intertwined.  This past week I’ve been thinking a lot about challenges.  If something in life is a challenge, when you are through it, you will be forever changed on the other side.  The degree of change may vary, but the change is inevitable.

Probably the most obvious place you see this is in the fitness world.  If you are into lifting weights, then you know that when you start it’s small.  You choose a weight that is doable for you, but still pushes you.  Once that weight becomes less challenging you add more weight that stretches you to your new limit, but you accomplish it.  As you move forward you become stronger.  Pretty soon you’re adding more weight than you once thought possible.  Running is similar.  You set a baseline for a distance you want to run.  Then you get into a training program.  Soon shorter distances become longer, and slower paces become faster.  And, before you know it, you are accomplishing more than you thought possible!

In the movie “The Matrix”, Agent Smith explains how the first version of the matrix didn’t have any struggles or difficulties, and the people in the matrix couldn’t accept it.  There were no challenges, life was easy, and everything was ‘perfect’.  What the first version of the matrix missed is that it’s the challenges that help us grow and become better human beings.  People can accept, and even welcome challenges, because at some level we recognize the challenge will bring growth and new insights.  Sometimes we aren’t sure how to get through the challenge, or we might wish the challenge was just a little bit easier, but ultimately we welcome the change the challenge will bring.

I believe challenges give us purpose.  Challenge’s change who we are and prompts us to become better versions of ourselves.  Moving on to a boat doesn’t magically change who we are.  The challenges that come with a live aboard life will change us though.  This past week we had a nasty hailstorm.  It damaged our newly planted garden and left it’s mark on our son’s car.  We were in my wife’s massage studio when it started.  She heard the pounding and insisted we leave.  We only had to endure the pelts for 12 feet from the door to the car, we were well protected.  When severe weather hits in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, you must know how to handle it!  You must be prepared to survive and endure a challenge that might end your life.  This will change you.

As a family we experienced this when COVID hit our home last fall.  Without a doubt, being forced to leave my wife at the door of the Emergency Room made me question what’s really important in life.  I was told point blank, “You are not allowed to come in with her”.  I left her in tears, clinging to me, in the care of a stranger.  This challenge changed my perspective on things.  I began to reflect on the fact that for 8 to 12 hours a day I’m away from those that I care about most.  Is there a degree of personal satisfaction that comes from doing a good job at work and finding answers to problems?  Absolutely!  Without a doubt.  But, can I find that elsewhere, while still being with people that I really care about?  I think the answer to that is yes.  It requires me to look at life a bit differently. 

When this is your home, you bet there’s going to be challenges. From personal space to storms that can capsize your boat, you are going to face challenges.

The Sailing Family recognized this when their children were young.  They decided to do something a bit different and sail the world with their kids.  Are they going to do this forever?  Who knows, but for now their kids are learning two things that can’t be learned in school.  First, mom and dad gave up successful careers to be with us.  Without a doubt, video editing is still work, and the mom still has a business.  But their kids are growing up with mom and dad, not at daycare.  Second, there’s a great big world out there and you can do things differently.  You can follow an unconventional path.  I’m sure their life is challenging.  They live on a 51’ catamaran with 5 people!  Those challenges change them.  And those challenges change them to be a better people.  I suspect you must reach new level of understanding and patience in that kind of a living situation.

Life is about challenges.  Challenges change us.  We can’t always decide what kind of challenges we are going to face.  The question is how do face the challenges that come our way.   Do we crawl under a bed and hope the storm will pass and nothing will happen?  Or do we face it head on, dig deep within ourselves, and recognize that with the storm we will come out the other side having grown as a person. 

Some might say that our desire to buy a boat and sail the world is running away from the challenges of the modern world.  There might be some truth to that.  Another perspective is that we are setting ourselves up for a different kind of challenge.  Not being able to call a plumber when there’s a leak forces a new level of self-sufficiency.  This adventure is not just about swimming with whales, cliff diving, and eating fresh tuna.  It is about the challenges that will change us.

What will tomorrow bring?

I don’t know who said it, but I have heard the phrase “Change is the only constant in life.”  Although it’s a bit of an oxymoron, it’s still true.  Life always brings change, sometimes we even yearn for the change.  Like a senior in high school who is chomping at the bit to graduate and move on to college, ready to change the world.  Or in the summer, we long for the winds of winter to arrive and bring the wonderful white glory, complete with snowshoeing, skiing, and the cold. 

Other times we don’t want change to come.  We dread it.  We want things to be the same because we are comfortable.  Comfort brings consistency and predictability, a familiarity that feels safe.  We know that when we get up in the morning, we are going to go to work.  We generally know the challenges that we will face, and equally important, we know how to approach them.

Change brings a host of emotions.  It can elicit fear, excitement, anticipation, dread, joy.  It’s amazing how facing a change can bring so much excitement and fear in the same breath.  Back to a graduating senior.  Excited to finally be out of mom and dad’s house, and yet also afraid of giving up the safety net mom and dad provide.  Once you’re out on your own it’s a bit difficult to curl up in your parent’s basement and wait out whatever is going on.  They aren’t necessarily there to bail you out.  It’s all you.  This type of change can leave your feeling like you’re walking a tightrope without a net.

Other times the change we face bring little positive emotion.  It is scary and confusing, and can bring out resistance, stubbornness, and anxiety.  Often, we don’t want to do things differently at work.  We have the mindset, ‘This is the way things are… it’s the way they work… there’s no need to do things differently.  Leave well enough alone!’  People take refuge in the security of the known, the routines.  It is predictable.  B follows A, and it works.  It’s difficult to find value in change, because our minds are closed to new possibilities. Because of this we might throw up roadblocks and work to maintain the status quo.  The change provokes anger and resentment.

We’ve been experiencing change, after change, after change, this spring.  Our oldest graduated from high school.  My wife retired after 35 years in the education profession and is starting a massage business.  Our youngest is rapidly becoming an adult (with occasional jumps back to the toddler years!).  It’s been a season of significant life changes of us.  And as we face each change and come to terms with our new normal, I must ask myself how I will respond.  How will I approach this?  How will I react when our youngest asserts his independence?  How will I support my wife in her ventures in life?  How do I adjust to meet the new life that awaits us with only three in the house?  What mindset and outlook will I adopt?

Change is indeed inevitable, and as life changes, it’s important for us to change with it.  If we fail to adapt to our new circumstances, bitterness and nostalgia await.  We begin talking about the ‘good ‘ol days’, when things were better.  We romanticize about the past and idolize the way things were.  I believe longing for the the good ‘ol days happens because we are unwilling to acknowledge a new reality and move into it.  We remain stuck in the past and are unable or unwilling to embrace our new future.  Yes, with change things are going to be different.  But isn’t that part of what makes this life journey so rich?  We grow with change. 

Another funny thing about change is the speed at which it occurs.  Sometimes it is almost imperceptible.  It feels like a time warp, and we aren’t really aware of it until it’s over.  That kind of change can make you do a double take and say, what?  When did that happen?  My son is 19 now?  Our kids grow up and become independent over the better part of two decades… or was it in the blink of an eye?  Other times, change is immediate.  It challenges, pushes, and stretches you to your limits. The loss of a loved one, for example.  Whether fast or slow, easy or hard, we still must adapt and survive. 

Radically changing one’s location, like selling your house and moving aboard a boat, doesn’t magically, or fundamentally change you.  But, leaving behind the comforts of a traditional life, leaving behind our safety net, and letting go of our routines will most definitely change us.  Our perceptions and view of the world, our beliefs, and our passions will be forever changed!