Lessons learned from a year lived aboard a small sailboat in Mexico that are proving relevant today
I had a huge “aha” moment this morning. I realized that fifteen years ago this month, in the spring of 2005, my husband Bryan and I made one of the biggest decisions of our lives. We decided to sail off into the sunset. Literally. We owned a 36 foot sailboat at that time and she was a pretty capable vessel as far as boats go. For a variety of motivations, we decided to set off into the great unknown. Leave everything behind and embark on the adventure of a lifetime. So what did we do? Well, we finished out the school year at our education jobs and then we quit our jobs, sold our house, our furniture and our cars, and we and our two dogs moved aboard our 1979 36’ Pearson ketch, the “Salty Dog.” We spent the summer preparing and then in October we waved goodbye to our friends and families and headed south to Mexico. It ended up being one of the best decisions of our lives. We had an amazing adventure – so amazing that I truly hope we get the chance to do it again someday.
We had so much fun, explored new places, and made new friends. We experienced the culture and practiced our Spanish speaking skills. We grew our skills as sailors. We got lots of fresh air, sunshine, and exercise. We saw amazing wildlife, sunrises and sunsets. We visited remote, nearly untouched places in Baja that few people will ever visit. It was truly a life changing year. Sure, not every day was amazing, but most of them were.
You may be wondering why I’m sharing this with you today. You may be asking how this is relevant to what’s going on in the world right now. Let me explain…
When Bryan and I lived on that 36 foot sailboat together for a year, sailing uncharted waters (uncharted to us, at least), never knowing what the next day would bring, that’s a bit like what we’re all going though right now. What dangers lie ahead? What surprises? What new challenges? Can we handle it? Do we have what it takes?
There were even moments when I was completely terrified, like some of you might be right now. In fact, I remember one such instance near the beginning of our trip when I was doing my night watch at the helm. We were south of Ensenada but not quite to Cedros Island, and we were about 25 miles offshore. The seas got really rough. Huge waves. Lots of spray over the bow. I was in my foul weather gear in an attempt to stay dry and warm. I was strapped into the cockpit with my harness and jack lines so that I hopefully wouldn’t get washed overboard. It was cold and very, very dark. The only light was coming from our cockpit instruments and the running lights on the side of the hull, which would eerily illuminate the spray coming over the sides of the boat each time we plowed into a wave. The conditions were so challenging that the autopilot wouldn’t work and I had to steer by hand, but in those conditions it was almost impossible for me to hold the wheel on course. I’m pretty sure I remember shedding a few tears that night, and praying numerous prayers.
Bryan was down below, exhausted from his previous watch, trying to get a couple of hours of rest. The dogs – our kids – were down below, too. They were freaking out. At one point there was a noise so loud from our rigging that Bryan came running up from the cabin, thinking we had broken something or maybe even collided with a whale. We hadn’t, thank god, but picture this: my husband strapping into his tether and harness to go forward on the wet and extremely slippery deck with a flashlight, in the pitch dark, to see if there was any damage to the hull of the boat. Terrifying!! I just kept picturing him being washed overboard never to be seen again. It seemed like that night would never end, but eventually, after what felt like an eternity, dawn broke. The sun came up. The seas calmed down. We dried out. We assessed our situation. Our heart rates and breathing returned to normal. And then, way off in the distance, we could see an island. Our destination! It was within reach. We were going to make it. We were going to be okay.
Is that a metaphor for our current situation? Yours and mine? Sort of seems like it could be. I believe that despite the unknown and despite our fear, we’re going to be okay. Sure, we’ll all be changed because of COVID-19. We’ll be different versions of ourselves. Most likely, we’ll be stronger, more courageous, and more capable than we ever thought possible. The dawn will certainly come, the journey will come to an end, and we will make it to our destination.
Why else do I share this story with you? What other lessons are there to be learned from it? What did our experience of living together 24/7 in a very small space, away from family, no TV or internet, and with limited access to the “real world” teach us? Looking back now fifteen years later, there are three big take-aways that seem relevant today:
First, if you let it, the experience of COVID-19 will teach you how to be the most patient and understanding version of yourself. Because of the increased amount of time spent together, you’ll become a really good listener. You will learn to read the cues and body language of your significant other, your kids, and maybe even yourself. You’ll be more aware of when one of you needs space, or reassurance, or even laughter. Surely the days and weeks ahead will be fraught with trials and tribulations – every day won’t always be sunshine and rainbows- but when there’s no way to run from the storm you’ll begin to realize that there’s no place you’d rather be than braving it together with the ones you love.
Second, COVID-19 is no joke and we’re all feeling the weight of it. Quarantining at home runs the risk of affecting us all with a serious case of cabin fever and leaving us feeling like the walls are closing in on us. As someone who lived in less than 200 square feet for a year, I know the feeling well. As such, I encourage you to rediscover how therapeutic having fun can be. It’s like medicine for the spirit. Some of us have lost touch with that part of ourselves. COVID-19 is forcing us to slow down, reconnect, and if we choose, take advantage of the opportunity that’s right in front of us let our hair down and engage in some good old fashioned fun and silliness. Whether it’s playing games with our family, being goofy, laughing about the unique and inventive ways we find to cope, or simply wearing silly outfits because why not? No one is going to see us anyway!
Learning to overcome boredom is key to riding out this storm. As much as I would like to tell you that there’s never a dull moment when on a trip like the one we took, that’s far from the truth. The reality is that we spent many days just sitting around, anchored in some remote and undeveloped place waiting for bad weather to pass so we could move on to our next destination. There were also really long passages, sometimes close to 40 hours, like between the east coast of Baja and Mazatlan. During those “down” times, we had to get creative to keep from going stir crazy. Kind of like now. My advice? Pick up a new hobby: baking, writing, art, sewing, crafts, gardening… anything to feel productive and to get out of your own head for a bit.
Let’s face it- we’re all living through one grand experiment. We aren’t going to get everything right 100% of the time. Not hardly! In that year aboard, Bryan and I got frustrated, irritable, we broke things, we had to ask for help, and we definitely got off course from time to time. But we always found our way back. And learning to be extremely patient and understanding, prioritizing fun, and creatively avoiding boredom made the journey that much more memorable.
I don’t know why that year in Mexico is on my mind today, or why I keep seeing that dark, scary, stormy night in my mind. Maybe it’s the governor’s latest prediction that schools won’t reopen till next fall and the fact that that’s actually a possibility is weighing so heavily on my heart. I’m sensing something trying to take hold in my psyche that I can’t quite put a label on. It’s sort of a fear of the unknown, and that feeling of vulnerability, like what I felt that night off the coast of Mexico. But the perspective we gain from the passage of time is a beautiful thing. I’m able to look back on that night and feel victorious. I didn’t quit. I didn’t give up. I thought about it, but I pressed on. And I’m proud of who I became because of that experience – courageous, optimistic, capable and adventurous. Not only that, but I’m beyond grateful for the chance Bryan and I had to strengthen our marriage and grow as spouses. We’re the best of friends and we respect each other immensely, no doubt because we conquered the unknown together, side by side, in our little boat with our two “kids.” The experience changed us- made us better and stronger humans- which was a blessing for the next challenge life threw at us, and the one after that, too. We couldn’t have known then what we know now, all these years later, which is that life will never stop throwing challenges at you. And then you have to decide – will you quit or will you press on? I hope you choose the latter. Remember – we’re all in this boat together.
Until next time… stay well.