When I was 16 years old, I sailed on the Trimaran Columba from Ventura, California to the Hawaiian Islands with 11 other people. The captain was our high school football coach, and the rest of us were high schoolers and a few beginning college students.
I had a love/hate relationship with the water. In every part of my life, I had intense motion sickness. I ruined every car my family ever had, I couldn’t ride any amusement park rides that went in a circle, and I had earned the nickname “King of the Barfers” from how often I got motion sick. My parents loved to fish, especially deep sea over night trips. As the youngest child, I often had to accompany them. I loved the adventure of it all, but the movement of the ocean combined with all the smells of fish, diesel fuel, and cigarette smoke left me holding onto the rails and puking my guts out. With a bare hook and nothing else to do, I always caught my limit in the well-chummed water.
Being out to sea with the land in the far distance, I was always amazed at just how slowly sailboats travel. We could see land, and from that point, it was always about 24 hours of sailing before we made it to shore. It was faster on a motorized vessel, of course, but my love was for sailing – the slow rocking of the boat, the sound of the waves flapping or making the wind whistle through them, and the tinkling of the shrouds, the creaking of the hull, and the slap of the water against the hull held a magical fascination to me. Here we were – with wind as our only propulsion, going from point A to point B, not in a straight line, but with a plan and science.
On the trip to Hawaii, I was camped out in the back of the boat for 5 days, seasick out of my mind, unable to swallow pills or medicines of any kind, hoping to die. Finally, I got a seasickness pill down and some coca-cola syrup. This remedy did the trick and I slept fitfully for about 36 hours. When I finally woke up, having missed many watches, much to the chagrin of my shipmates who had to cover for me during this time, I made my way to the center of the boat and looked all around.
There was no land in sight at all. It was the first time I had sailed in which land was completely gone. All I could see was blue – a vast blue sea, somewhat calm, and a bright blue cloudless sky. The weather had warmed already and we were surfing waves pleasantly as we had found the trade winds which would take us in to Hawaii.
I had never experienced such openness in my life. I saw where we were on the nautical chart, far from anything, so small in the grander scheme of things. And yet, this boat, all I knew as home at that moment, didn’t feel like an insignificant speck in a vast universe. The sky, the ocean all of existence was wrapped up as if our boat was encapsulated and had become the whole world. That vastness of everything was like looking through a telescope – we were magnified and made bigger by the emptiness. And without any land by which to catch our bearings, the surface of the ocean became alive. I saw the ripples and small waves, the rivulets of current, every piece of foam course and flow with texture and shape. The minutiae of detail grew out of all proportion until seeing itself was all there was left. Gradations of blue filled the sky rather than a complete monochromatic blue.
The world became both smaller and bigger at once. Openness like this can drive some people made, while for others, they can see the far reaches and curling edges of the universe. For me, blue in every direction guided by the invisible wind upon which we played lightly with our sails and floating home, this openness became a way that forever after I would live my life – free from common strictures, free from conventional thought, always looking for a less common understanding and finding a way out of life’s closed-in spaces.
All I need is a glimpse of sky and a small boat on the water to achieve a peace like I’ve never felt anywhere else.
Later in my life, I lived on a sailboat. My greatest joy was to leave the workday behind, motor out to San Diego bay and turn off the engine and float, listening to all the nautical sounds and the seabirds while bobbing gently in the light winds on the water at sunset. Stress would melt away quickly, and I felt more at peace then I ever had before.
Someday, I will have a sailboat again.