Is Heeling Healing?

Happy times in front of a prehistoric megalith on Menorca in the Islas Baleares

Perhaps you’re thinking that this post will be a shameless promotion of our book Heeling is Healing (available now at a finer blog site near you!)—but it’s not. This post’s title is an honest question that I’ve been wrestling with lately: is heeling (sailing), really healing (good for me, good for Rhett, good for our relationship)? While I’m sure that sailing was my savior when I was single-handed soon after Colleen’s death and I was in the Caribbean in spring of 2020, I’m less confident about it now.

Clearly, some of my questioning of what I thought was a fundamental principle in my life is driven by the challenges of Mediterranean sailing; something I didn’t fully appreciate before leaving Gibraltar in our stern wake. Like most Americans, when I imagined “sailing the Med,” my mind’s eye saw nothing but blue water, blue skies, and steady 10-15 breezes blowing in any direction I wished.

In retrospect, this spring back in Florida—as I was prepping Hazel for the voyage and reading Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey—I should have suspected that my idyllic daydreams of Mediterranean sailing were just that. While the Iliad’s subject is the 10-year Trojan War (fought on plains surrounding Troy), the Odyssey is all about Odysseus, King of Ithaca, and his protracted 10-year journey home from the Trojan War (as an aside, our English word “odyssey” comes from King Odysseus, something I never figured out until I read the epic poem!). As I became engrossed in the tale, I mapped the location of ancient Troy (now in Western Turkey) and the island of Ithaca (in the Ionian Sea between mainland Greece and Italy) and estimated the distance between the two at about 400 nautical miles. It was easy for me to then conclude that Odysseus must not have been much of a sailor. Granted he had no diesel engine (like Hazel’s “Ox”) that he could fall back on when the wind died, he had no geosynchronous orbiting satellites and GPS system and electronic chartplotter—but still…10 years to make 400 miles? Give me a break. He must have royally offended Poseidon to have 10-years of obstacles thrown into his path of what should have been a leisurely week’s sail. That was my naive thinking this spring from the Western Hemisphere. I never knew how good I had it on my first single-handed odyssey in the Caribbean just months after Colleen’s death, where trade winds blow true and honest and are predictable day after day after day. Now that Rhett and I are firmly ensconced in the Mediterranean Sea and starting to get a feel for its weather patterns, Odysseus taking 10 years to cover 400 miles doesn’t seem so unreasonable.

As an example, on our last passage, 235 nm from Menorca (in the Spanish Baleares Islands) to the Italian island of Sardinia, our conditions ranged from a beautiful sailing wind (both in strength and direction), to no wind, to a light wind on the nose, to gale force winds with gusts of 45 knots in a blinding thunderstorm—and this was all in the same day.

However, in this post I’m less concerned about the number of miles we cover, our average speed, our days on passage and all those numbers and metrics, and more concerned with the emotional stability of Hazel James’ captain. Sailing with others is a difficult thing for him in the finest of weather—then, when the winds are fickle and ever changing, or blowing like a banshee and the seas are steep and confused (as we’re seeing most every passage), look out! He can be a holy terror—he’ll even go so far as to start talking about himself in the third-person.

Although I know myself well enough to know I can be this way, what really bothers me is my lack of progress with “getting better.” That is, being less demanding of myself and others when we sail, not manufacturing crises just so I can look like the hero when I solve them, and other transgressions I’d rather not disclose.

A little over a year ago (who’s counting…but I’ll tell you it was on Saturday, September 19, 2021 at 8:15 a.m.), I wrote in my journal that the day before Rhett told me, “My sweet Dan leaves when we sail.” While her comment was anything but funny, it mirrored good humor (it’s funny because it’s true). We were sailing in Long Island Sound from Montauk Point to New York City and the day before I had not been my best self. Her comment was so accurate about me, so dead on, that I wrote about it in my journal, thought about it endlessly, meditated on it—and still here we are. I feel like Odysseus; Poseidon throws obstacles in front of me (he has home field advantage here in the Med) and I lose my temper.

In doing some quick calculations from Hazel’s Ship’s Log, I’ve sailed over 7,000 nautical miles since Rhett made that comment a year ago, that’s a lot of physical progress over the earth’s surface. However—emotionally—it feels like I’m sitting in the same bathtub drinking the same bathwater. I start to question how I’ve structured my recent life around sailing and voyaging, and—by extension—how Rhett has graciously structured hers, and how we are building a future life together. I love sailing, but what if it brings out the worst in me? What then?

A sailing season is like life, neither lasts forever. If there’s anything I should have learned in my 58 years on earth, it’s that. A couple weeks ago, it seemed like we’d be sailing forever this season. However, in our time here in Sardinia, Rhett and I have taken a hard look at the calendar, noticed the shortening days and intensifying oncoming Mediterranean winter weather, and done our best to figure out our immigration status in the EU and how long we can rightfully remain in the the Schengen Area before we need to exit for a number of months. Long story short our forever-sailing has suddenly morphed into laying-up Hazel within the next couple weeks in mainland Italy for the winter so we can explore Northern Italy, France, and maybe the Netherlands for a month or so before we turn into “Schengen pumpkins.”

Now, all of the sudden, I’m writing this blog post on the eve of what will likely be our last passage of 2022. It should be a 260 nm sail from our current location in Marina di Stintino in northwest Sardinia, through the Strait of Bonifacio (separating Sardinia to the south and Corsican France to the north), to the town of Gaeta on mainland Italy. We have some newfound friends in Gaeta and wintering Hazel there seems safe for her and logical for us. The emotional net-net of all of these machinations is that if I want to show myself, and of course Rhett, some progress in my attitude toward life onboard, I’ve got to do it over the next several days; not some fuzzy future the next several days! The weather forecasts are good, we’ll be sailing east and we should have moderate to fresh southerly breezes to blow us to Gaeta on a beam reach. However, I have some well-founded trepidation given that we’re in the Med. “The captain” does a lot better and is a lot easier to live with in fair winds and following seas (who isn’t?). While the forecasts predict just that, I’ve learned enough about the Med (and the tricks that Poseidon keeps up his kelpy sleeves) to know to not count on the forecasts. That’s the challenge, both getting the boat from here to there and doing it on an even-keel—balancing miles and smiles. As I envision slipping our moorings early tomorrow morning, motoring past the marina’s breakwall with a pre-dawn glow in the east and out into the Golfo dell Asinara, hoisting sails and laying in a course for the Strait of Bonifacio at a range of 50 nm, I think about what captain will show up for the sail and will he talk about himself in the third-person or the first-person? I so want to finish the sailing season on a positive note. Your guess is as good as mine on how it turns out: stay tuned, I’ll update you on the other side.

Well I’m thinking I’m knowing that I gotta be going
You know I hate to say ‘so long’
It gives me an ocean of mixed up emotion
I’ll have to work it out in a song

John Prine, You Got Gold

Thanks as always for reading and allowing me to work out my little ocean of mixed up emotion with you.

Fair winds and following seas.

3 thoughts on “Is Heeling Healing?

  1. How do the decades slip by without any visible progress on adult temper tantrums? Agreed, well correlated with the weather and the state of the boat. Do we have to join monasteries and chant, attempting to overcome ego and earthly desires? That’s too uncertain and slow, I think. But what is certain is the lack of personal progress.

  2. “the obstacle is not in your path, the obstacle is the path.” sounds like God is trying to see how serious you are about this whole personal enlightenment thing, throwing you curve balls to see how you catch them 😉 dont sell yourself short, admitting to your temper (on a public platform no less) and endeavoring to change it is progress, you may be closer than you think.

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