The Voyage: What I Learned, How I Grew

“What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.”
—Henry David Thoreau

I discovered this quote when reading Diana Nyad’s inspiring autobiography Find a Way. She achieved her goal as the first person to swim the 111 miles between Havana, Cuba and Key West, Florida, and she achieved it on her fifth attempt and at the age of 64.

The other night, I was talking to a friend who follows this blog. She asked, “So, when you write your next post about what you learned and how you grew, what are you going to write about?” I’m not the quickest with extemporaneous words but still, found myself surprisingly speechless. I told her that I had a collection of somewhat random notes jotted down and really needed quiet time to sit and pull the story out of them. Although arduous, the process reminds me of Michelangelo’s words:

“The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.”

One overall thing that I’ve struggled with a bit since I arriving home on Mother’s Day, is that life feels a little flat. While it’s absolutely thrilling to take a hot shower whenever I want, or to have a bit of ice cream after a good dinner, or to sleep soundly knowing that your bed isn’t on a floating object that has the distinct possibility of breaking-loose and drifting away during the night—life also feels a little plain, a little normal, a little flat.

While I’m back at home I’m focusing on a major refit of Hazel James to prepare her for our next voyage. However, in that process, I feel the gravitational pull of returning back to a normal land-based life. I think about the physicist’s “escape velocity”, defined as the minimum speed needed for a non-propelled object to escape from the gravitational influence of a massive body (for the earth, it’s about 11,000 miles per second, rockets don’t need to reach that speed since they are internally propelled). Speaking conceptually and metaphorically, and not as a physicist, I wonder if I’ve reached escape velocity from land-based life or if I was ever-so-close but have now fallen back to earth permanently. I suppose that’s one of my future challenges.

Anyway, let’s get back to the point of this post, what I learned and how I grew:

Lesson #1: For God’s Sake, Secure the Bitter-End of All Halyards – Every working line on a boat has two ends, the running-end that leads to the sails, pulleys, etc. (i.e., whatever the line is meant to secure or control), and the bitter-end (i.e., the other end of the line). A “halyard” is a line that runs to the top of the mast and back down again and is used to haul a sail up the mast.

The term comes from traditionally rigged boats with four-corner sails. The wooden boom at the top of the four-cornered sail is the “yard” and the line used to haul the yard up the mast began to be called the “haulyard” which was then shortened to “halyard”.

Hazel James carries four halyards: one for the mainsail, two for the two headsails and one for the spinnaker. On the afternoon of my first day of sailing home on this most recent passage, I attempted to hoist the spinnaker in 15 knots of wind—the maximum sensible wind for this sail. I neglected to secure the bitter-end of the spinnaker halyard and lost it in my tussle with the recalcitrant half-inflated spinnaker.

In retrospect, it was kind of funny to lose control of the bitter-end of the line and watch it snake up the mast. Then, look down dejectedly at the deck of Hazel and, a few seconds later, the entire halyard lands on the deck with a plop. As I had said in my pre-passage blog posts, I was looking forward to flying the spinnaker a lot on my passage home and my first thought was that I would need to make do without it given I now had no suitable halyard at the top of the mast from which to fly the spinnaker. However, less than 24 hours later, I found myself in very light winds when I really could use the spinnaker. It was at that point that I decided to climb the mast with the halyard to get it back through the block (pulley) at the top of the mast.

Now Hazel, as a well-found cruising yacht, has fold-out steps on the mast. I also have a bosun’s chair—think of it like a rock climber’s harness—to help hold me to the mast. I’ve climbed up her mast many times in protected water but had never done so in the open ocean. Her mast height is about 47 feet and, as you might imagine, minor rocking of the boat in the ocean at the deck level is magnified many times 40-some feet off the water. Bottom-line, I successfully climbed the mast and got the halyard re-set. I then successfully hoisted the spinnaker and was on my way with significantly improved boat speed!

Lesson #2: For God’s Sake, Keep Your Halyards in Good Shape and Replace them Before They Break – At this point, you’re probably thinking, “Uh-oh…I know where this is going”, and yes, you are right. A couple days after I climbed the mast to re-set the halyard, I found myself up there yet again after the halyard broke. The good news about both incidents is that I have people to blame. In the first case of losing the halyard up the mast, I squarely blame the sail-handler aboard Hazel. In this second incident, the broken halyard, I lay the blame squarely at the captain’s feet for inadequate maintenance of critical running-rigging. Not only do the halyards take a bit of stress when sailing, particularly the spinnaker halyard, the rest of their lives is spent baking in the sun. The deterioration from the ultraviolet light is significant.

The funny thing is that I knew the halyard wasn’t in great shape and I was planning to replace it (and all the other halyards) during this summer’s re-fit. As I was climbing up the mast the day before with the halyard, I said to it, “You get me through the rest of this passage and I will retire you with full honors.” When it broke, we were bubbling along in 10 knots of wind, just perfect for the spinnaker. It was a sunny midday and I was below decks doing the dishes in the galley with the stereo cranking a song by The Clash. In the midst of that perfect moment, I hear a BANG and I knew what was going to happen next before it happened: I looked out the galley porthole and saw the spinnaker fall into the water next to the boat. While the good news is that there were people to blame for these mistakes, the bad news is that I’m a singlehanded sailor and serve as sail-handler, captain and other positions (cook, navigator, etc.). Long story short, I rigged our spare halyard and climbed the mast with it.

For those of you good at math, by now you’ve probably calculated that I’d been up the mast twice during the passage. I’m happy to report that there was no third time. I will say though that while 47 feet doesn’t sound like a long way, when it’s straight up on a 31 foot boat in the middle of the ocean by yourself—it seems like forever. While the sea-state was benign when I went up the mast, invariably a larger-than-average set of waves would pass us when I was up high. I found the best strategy was to just bear-hug the mast and wait for them to clear and for Hazel to resettle before continuing with my work.

Hazel’s spinnaker and original spinnaker halyard (green arrow points to where the halyard broke)
The broken halyard

Lesson #3: The Sea is Indescribably Immense – Most every junior-high student knows that the earth’s circumference is 25,000 miles and is 2/3rds water. However, those are just numbers. Until I sailed away from land by myself and watched terra firma disappear off my stern and was by myself for days on end with no land visible did I really appreciate the shear size and scale of the earth and the earth’s oceans. A corollary to this lesson is that to think that we, the human race, is responsible for warming the earth’s oceans is also difficult to comprehend. While science has proven that human-caused global warming is true and that climate-change denialists are ostriches with their heads in the sand, it’s still hard to wrap your mind around after you’ve floated on the ocean by yourself for days.

Lesson #4: “It’s People” – (…to quote Charlton Heston’s last lines from Soylent Green). While I saw wonderful new things on my voyage and had solitary experiences that were utterly new to me, my most-sailent memories are of the people and the friends I made. It’s also interesting to me that looking at blog-post feedback from all of you, while the technical stuff about sailing and celestial navigation is interesting, and so are the travelogue posts—what was the most intriguing were the stories of other sailors and the stories of Colleen and me and our grief.

Building on the people theme, I also learned that sailors—and I like to think of me included—are such a fascinating cocktail of self-reliance mixed with unmitigated helpfulness. If you’re doing it right, when you are in the middle of the ocean you should know how to troubleshoot and fix every system on your boat, and get by without it if you can’t fix it. Conversely, a true sailor will do absolutely anything for another sailor if they are able to assist. When I was quarantined in Little Harbour for that month, I couldn’t swim or paddle by one of the bigger yachts without getting offers of food, drink, water or anything else I needed. When Go & Lan and I were simultaneously preparing for our passages, I inventoried my ship’s stores and knew I was way over-provisioned for my 10-day sail home…I gave Go&Lan a big bag of dried and canned goods that I’m sure they have put to good use.

Quick aside…Speaking of Go&Lan, yesterday I got a video message from Gautier and Lancelot. They have reached the Azores after 24 days of upwind sailing. I was so good to hear from them and I hope to talk to them in the next day!

Lancelot and Gautier’s selfie with the Azores in the background

Also, I just heard from my friend and former harbormate Zoltan that he reached Gibraltar after 30 days of singlehanded sailing and a stop in the Azores. Zoltan is from Transylvania but set-sail from Croatia so he’s “nearly” homefree now that he’s in the Mediterranean (distance is all relative).

Gibraltar taken by Zoltan

Lesson #5: I Really Like the Voyaging Lifestyle and Like Earning My Distance on this Earth – While I talked about these concepts hypothetically when I opened this blog, I really didn’t know much. Now, after 115 days at-sea on a boat, I’m determined to do more of it.

In writing about trains and travel in the 19th century, the art critic, philosopher and social thinker John Ruskin (1819-1900) said, “All traveling becomes dull in exact proportion to its rapidity. Going by railroad I do not consider traveling at all; it is merely ‘being sent’ to a place, and very little different from being a parcel…. But if, advancing…slowly, after some days we approach any more interesting scenery…the continual increase of hope…affords one of the most exquisite enjoyments possible to the healthy mind; besides that real knowledge is acquired of whatever is the object of traveling to learn, and a certain sublimity given to all places, so attained, by the true sense of the spaces of earth that separate them.” Sailing through the ocean at 5 knots has begun to give me the true sense of the spaces of earth that separate our destinations. While I totally understand that driving and flying is a necessity for us all at some points in our lives, I’m determined to earn my distance as much as possible. The side benefit of low-carbon-footprint travel is also immensely intriguing to me.

Lesson #6: Don’t Freak Out – I first wrote about this concept after my passage from the Bahamas to the Virgin Islands and have confirmed it during my time in the Virgin Islands and on my passage home. Rodney Dangerfield used to tell a simultaneously funny and meaningful story in his stand-up routine:

A woman goes to her doctor and says, “Doc, I want to get into shape. What should I do?” The doctor looks at her medical history and says, “Why don’t you try walking two miles a day?” The woman calls her doctor a month later and the doctor says, “Well, how is it going?” She says, “The good news is that I feel great—the not-so-good news is that I’m 60 miles from home.”

There is an element of that to long-distance sailing and—in retrospect—there’s an element of that to the early stages of grief. Fortunately, after Colleen died, my sleep was never overly-impacted. Yes, I’d have some sleepless nights and some dark-nights-of-the-soul but, in general, I slept pretty well in the first months after she was gone. However, in that early-morning, dreamlike, interstitial time between sleeping and wakefulness, in a semi-conscious state I’d say to myself, “Something is horribly wrong in my life but I don’t know what it is.” After some minutes of thinking, processing and becoming further conscious, I’d remember and say, “Oh, that’s it…Colleen is dead and is never coming back.” Although an unlikely teacher, Rodney Dangerfield’s lesson was to not freak out. Just get up every day and walk that two miles and be confident that you will feel just a tiny bit better at the end of the day.

The same goes for long-distance sailing. In some ways it’s no different than an extended series of day-sails. Don’t get freaked-out by the enormity of the ocean or the enormity of the distance to be travelled—just take it easy and focus on sailing one tiny bit of the ocean at a time.

In going deeper, it’s the same for the super-humans who are in addiction recovery, like Colleen. They don’t think about staying sober forever. It’s too big, too daunting. Instead, they focus on staying sober one-day-at-a-time. On a bad day, they know to further-narrow the aperture to staying sober for the next hour…or even the next five minutes. When the sailing gets tough and the weather is rolling in, just focus on getting through the storm’s initial front. If you’ve prepared well, trust that the rest will take care of itself.

Lesson #7: What Life Wants Is Not It’s Own Love back in Copy Speech, But Counter-Love, Original Response – If that sounds incredibly poetic—almost too good to come from your friend Dan—you’re right. It’s from Robert Frost and his poem The Most of It:

He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree-hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder-broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter-love, original response.

And nothing ever came of what he cried
Unless it was the embodiment that crashed
In the cliff’s talus on the other side,
And then in the far distant water splashed,
But after a time allowed for it to swim,
Instead of proving human when it neared
And someone else additional to him,
As a great buck it powerfully appeared,
Pushing the crumpled water up ahead,
And landed pouring like a waterfall,
And stumbled through the rocks with horny tread,
And forced the underbrush — and that was all.

While I had a wonderful time by myself as a singlehanded sailor and learned so much about myself, at-times I felt that “mocking echo of my own”, and yearned for counter-love, original response. I’ve got to think about that one more.

To close this post, I’d like to first thank all of you for following along on this voyage and for your public and private comments. You gave me that virtual counter-love and original response. Your support during this time in my life has meant the world to me.

The natural closing question to the voyage is, “What’s next?” Well, I have a couple thoughts there:

First, I have several other travelogue blog-posts from the voyage half-completed and I want to finish and post them.

Second, as mentioned above I am going to spend the summer (which is also hurricane season) at home in Pompano Beach and focus on a major re-fit to Hazel. Think of it as a well-deserved, summer-long spa for this 30 year-old girl. I’d like to post on that and the adventure of a sailor doing a re-fit to a yacht themselves. It’s different than just taking your yacht to a boatyard and paying a lot of money to have all the work done by others. It’s a similar concept to “earning my distance” and will also give me a more intimate knowledge of Hazel and increase my self-reliance at sea. Here’s where we are at the moment and a preview of coming attractions…

Finally, I’d like to start talking about the next voyages that I’m envisioning. Similar to this past voyage, telling all of you what I am planning will help keep me honest and true to attaining my dreams. I’m eternally grateful to all of you for that.

Fair winds and following seas…

11 thoughts on “The Voyage: What I Learned, How I Grew

  1. I was waiting for a quiet morning and a hot cup of coffee to devour this post. Got it today. Great as always to read about the voyage and to hear that your friends’ voyages are going well also. What a crazy experience having to climb the mast twice on the open ocean! From those pictures it looks like Hazel’s summer at the spa is well in gear. We all look forward to your continued posts, Dan, and to hearing about your upcoming adventures. Your world never needs to be flat.

    1. Craig: Thanks so much for the note. Funny on your “flat”-world comment. I never thought about the double entendre until I saw it in your words.

  2. Loved following along, Dan. Your blog gave me some amazing insights into my own life! Thank you for being so open and candid. I hope we get to catch up in person sometime soon, my friend. Stay well, stay safe, always.

  3. Dan, it’s been wonderful following along on your journey. Thank you for being so open, candid, and eloquent with your thoughts and philosophies! I’ve learned much about myself through introspection induced by reading your words. I hope we get to catch up in person soon my friend (in the post-pandemic world). Stay well, stay safe, always. ~Saad

    1. Saad: Thanks so much for you notes and it makes my day that the thoughts I have about my own life could be helpful for you. Take care, and yes—look forward to seeing you in-person at some point.

  4. Dan – Terry told us about your venture and your blog – Mary and I have just started through you entries – really interesting and well written – not to mention sooo thoughtful. looking forward to the rest of the entries! All the best – thinking of you! Let us know if you get up to Chautauqua this summer!

    1. Bill: Thanks so much for the note and best to Mary! I appreciate you following along and I look forward to blogging on future voyages. I am thinking of a road trip to Pennsylvania and Western New York this summer and will keep you posted. Some of it depends on if my dad (in skilled nursing facility in Pittsburgh) is able to have visitors. His facility is currently, and understandably, in lockdown at the moment. Take care.

    2. Bill: I will. I was hoping to get to Chautauqua and , more Importantly see my dad (92) in Pittsburgh. However his skilled nursing facility is totally locked down

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