Adventures in sailing

(thoughts on fear, on adventure, on doing it regardless and tips on how to float like a jellyfish)

Jam and I raised our anchor in Ibiza and cast off at 2am, in the pitch black of a night when the moon had already set. The outline of Ibiza rock hung heavy on the horizon, outlined as black nothingness set against the backdrop of the milky way. A backdrop without disturbance, blotched with nebulae. Shooting stars shot by overhead every minute and the sea around us was dead, silky calm, save the drone of our engine. A couple of miles out, a mist arose from the warm sea, entirely covering horizon line, hanging low all around us.

There is no reaction to this more suitable than awe, and awe often comes accompanied with its BFF terror. Awe and terror: the terrible twosome of the ineffible. Eyes wide (mine were goggling about all over the place as I was sleep deprived and finding it hard to stay awake), we ploughed forwards. Nights like this, you can understand where the myths come from. Its easy, stuck in our little box houses in our safe little cities, to read about these things and think ‘oh, that’s nice, a mist rising up from the sea making it impossible to see anything except the dead calm around you and the milky way overhead and then a monster emerges from the depths and swallows the boat whole. Cool. Great imagination.’ but then its another thing entirely when its you slicing through the calm warm air that parts eerily in front of you and closes up behind you. Believe me when I say this: this is the stuff that underworld journeys of old were made of. Horror is the only suitable response. In the face of this, naturally, I went back to sleep and let Jam deal with it alone. My sleep was riddled with nightmares of giant octopi (most likely fueled by the giant octopus I’d seen devouring a crab the day before) emerging from the mists to wrap themselves around the engine as the boat screamed for help and Jam and I sunk to our doom, swallowed into the mists that [obviously] guarded the entrance to the underworld. I awoke just before dawn, and padded up on deck, coffee in hand, to relieve Jam of his watch. He went belowdecks to sleep, and I carried on our journey as the sun rose behind me. The wind picked up slightly. I raised the sails. And I thought about fear.

Sailing, to me, is an exercise in fear management. Sometimes I succeed at said management, and sometimes my body goes into a full blown fight-or-flight response that is so overwhelming all I can do is curl up in a ball and shake. This response is, for the record, entirely new to me on this trip. I think my adrenals hate me. There are so many hair-raising experiences, even in three weeks... there was that time we tried to drop a stern anchor so that we were facing into the swell (if you’re side-on then the nights sleep can be horribly rocky) and the anchor rope got wrapped simultaneously around our prop (which my brother had stupidly left in reverse) and around my pinkie finger, then the anchor dropped and everything got tightened. My screams that night pierced the night for miles around us. As the boat bobbed and the engine made screeching noises and the rope (more like a thick string, really) around my finger got tighter and tighter with each second. As it happened, I remained somewhat calm: asking Gina to switch off the engine and retrieve a sharp knife, asking Alex to help give some slack to the ever tightening rope so that it didn’t chop my finger straight off, pointing to Gina exactly where to saw away and to please not chop my finger in the process. Finger released, everyone back on board, we surveyed the situation, figured we'd wait till dawn to untangle the anchor rope from the prop. And then, crisis averted, I started shaking. This lasted four hours.

There was the time we motored into a pretty little anchorage that was so busy there was barely ten feet between boats. We didn’t realise that there was no space until we were already in, and let’s just say that steering a big heavy boat is not like steering a car. you can’t reverse out, and you can’t really do tight little turns. We pin-balled our way through that mooring field, while a nice friendly Dutch man gave us a running commentary of the reasons we weren’t welcome there (Ok I admit it I lost my temper and unleashed a string of profanities and insults so horrific I’d lose all my readership if I wrote it down, and if I'd had jellyfish on board to fling at him, I would have used them). We got through it, found a new anchorage (a prettier one, and much quieter) and then I started shaking, and curled up in a ball on my bed and spent the next hour asking myself why I do this (masochism hovered near the top of the list).

There was the time we ran aground trying to get into our favourite little anchorage. Its 1 metre deep in most of the entrance channel, and there's a very narrow secret spot where it gets to about 1.5, and we can sneak in. Of course, it was our dad's secret, not ours, and we forgot the right way, hence running aground and having Jam jump in to push us free then guide us in like an intrepid tug-boat-human. The stress of running aground, and all the images of horrific things in my head (seeing two shipwrecked and sinking boats in the couple of days prior hadn't helped), yes, once again, I went into shock.

But its not all hair-raising terrifying moments (see pictures-- these moments alone make it worth it). And there's something to gain from these terrifying moments. I think that life is often a complex dance of things you can act on and things that are outside your control. And those people who manage to navigate through it without being reduced to blubbering stress cases are often the ones who have a high estimation of their ability to handle things. But they're also people who can let go and accept where the realm of their control ends. Most of the time I feel like Piglet-- you know, scared of everything around me, unsure of my ability to handle things. And almost all my 'outside my comfort zone' endeavours are met with a wall of sheer panic at some point in the process.

My sister Louise and I were discussing this a few weeks ago, sitting on the deck of the boat with our feet dangling into the water. Life is terrifying: there are just so many things that can happen and it all gets a bit overwhelming at times, and incapacitating at others. In my times of curling into a ball and crying, I thought 'Why do I do this? Why don't I just stay home and not do anything this stressful and scary? This can't be healthy!' but then I thought of the alternative: staying at home, doing the same things every day, watching other people live adventurous lives and wishing I could do it too, and I realise that its not masochism, but a deep desire to see and experience the unknown, even if it does terrify me, and even if I take every step with my entire body shaking in fear. The consequences of not doing it are greater than those of acting. This is what Lou and I discussed, while sitting there. I can't tell you what a relief it was to hear that my big sister was also scared of things-- for some reason I'd just assumed that everyone else who I respected in life was fearless.

And then I looked around me and realised that no, the rest of the world isn't fearless at all, that I was just too caught up in my own fear and inadequacies to see that fear affects everyone who isn't a psychopath. And I don't think that's a bad thing, as long as it doesn't stop you. As long as we press on regardless.

We dropped anchor on our last day, off the West coast of Tabarca island, on our sail back to Torrevieja, where Gatablanca is based. I dove off the boat and swam a ways out, to where the swell was a couple of feet high, and there, I turned my head to the swell, lay on my back and spread my arms and legs like a starfish. Panic. At first its just panic, because you don’t know what’s under you, you don’t know what’s around you, you can feel yourself being tugged by the current, and you know there are really big ships out there, not too far away, as well as rocks to be dashed against without mercy, and waves that can crash over your head. And then at some point the fear gives way to something else: its as if the floodgates separating self from outside self are all of a sudden gone, and all that is ‘me’ can spread out into the sea around me. I am self and sea. I am fish and seaweed. My arms and legs start moving with the current, and I am simultaneously kelp, fucus, jellyfish, octopus, medusa, eel. The waves pick me up and drop me down and break dangerously close to my head and I am plankton, I am algae, I am minnow, boquerone, sardina, salt. That is what I've decided that fear should be like: hovering on the surface of the sea, with limbs that can kick into action and being aware of what could happen but also surrendering to the flow of things enough to feel the sun on your face, the cool of the water at your back, the world around you dipping, ducking, diving, dancing, wriggling, crying and laughing together in the big web that is life.