Home . Articles . Columns & Blogs . On the Wind . Need a refit of the soul? Sailing provides the needed restoration

Need a refit of the soul? Sailing provides the needed restoration

2010 June 1
Sailing has always been a dream. A dream of warm winds and sun and spray and freedom. It's a dream that gets us through the work week, that teases us through the coldest winters.

But sailing can be more than a dream: it can be salvation. Two men showed me how it can provide a rescue, a deliverance for those in need.

We were on a charter in the British Virgin Islands, sitting at anchor late in the day, with the sun setting in a reddish glow. It was time for the day's special libation-a piña colada, a planter's punch or perhaps a lethal brain dead.

We were sprawled in the cockpit in that bonelessly limp posture of total repose that we had assumed about 10 seconds after we'd cleared through immigration into the islands. To say we were relaxed is like saying Everest is just a mountain.

So it was with interest that we watched a fairly good-sized sailing yacht come around the point under mainsail alone. It was clear she was going to anchor, and you could almost imagine the skipper looking at his choices.

Hmmm, nice spot next to that powerboat, but his generator is going to run all night. Next best is alongside that bareboat with people lying all over the cockpit. Hopefully they'll pass out early.

He was, of course, looking at us.

Anchoring in a bareboat paradise like the BVI is a spectator sport for those already anchored, and so we watched to see how this latecomer would fare. But it was a textbook example.

The sloop rounded up neatly in the fairway and we could see there was just a single man aboard. The main came down quickly and, with the easy grace of experience, it was quickly secured as the boat made a wide circle with the diesel just
ticking over.

He put the bow where he wanted his anchor, strolled forward to release it with a clatter of chain, and let the boat drift back to where he wanted to stay. He sauntered aft, gave a short burst of reverse to set the hook, and shut the engine down. No muss, no fuss. It was so boringly perfect that I was even more intrigued.

And so it was that I found myself in our inflatable tender the next morning. I'm an inveterate dinghy-hopper, and can amuse myself for hours in a busy anchorage, just moseying around and looking at boats. Some great friendships have been formed with two sentences: "Great looking boat. What is she?"

As I neared the mystery sloop, I could see the man propped in the cockpit, reading a book. He looked up as I neared, and I said, "You gave a great lesson in anchoring to all the bareboaters yesterday."

He laughed and said modestly, "Well, I've been doin' it long enough." And thus was launched a most fascinating conversation.

He looked like any other sailor-khaki cargo shorts, faded T-shirt and bare feet, although he was no spring chicken. I'd guess mid-70s, but clearly fit and tanned. Invited aboard for a glass of juice, I was intrigued as his story unfurled.

A sailor all his life, from racing dinghies through ocean racers and into some more comfortable boats, he'd looked forward to retirement when he could go cruising with his wife. It was their dream, but she died suddenly before it was fulfilled.

His kids were grown with families of their own, and he found that most of his friends were really couple-friends, with little interest in him as a single widower. He was at loose ends, and depressed.

"And then one day, I thought, what the hell. Go by yourself!" He grinned as he recalled that turning point, and the rebirth of enthusiasm that followed. He found a suitable yacht, threw himself into fitting her out, and was soon ready to cast off.

"My God," he recalled, "there were so many naysayers. So many who went tsk-tsk, both in private and to my face. How silly of him, they'd say. How dangerous. What if something happens to him? What about his kids?

"I thought, phooey on the kids. They've got their own lives, they're in the will, and now is my time."

He's been sailing for five years now, cruising from the Great Lakes and now lazing around the
Caribbean. Some exciting times, a few storms, but mostly just pure pleasure. His cabin was stacked with paperback books so he wouldn't run short of reading, and he seemed a man who was supremely happy.

"If I hadn't gone, I'd be dead by now. I would have had dry rot of the soul, and I would have let grief and loss take over my life. Yes, of course, I miss my wife. But this renewed me."

Sailing can be salvation.

A couple of years ago, we met a young man while we were chartering in Greece. He and his father were aboard a small sloop Med-moored next to us in the harbor at Hydra. The young man was not just visiting, though, but taking his father home.

We sat one evening and listened to his plan. He was worried that his father, now well into his 70s, might hurt himself on the boat. His idea was to sell the boat and take his father back to England, where he would put him in a home for the elderly. And, of course, his father didn't want to go.

The man's arguments were good ones. "It's my life, and not harming anyone. I don't want to go to an old folks home. So what if I kill myself, I've got to go sometime."

The son was torn between doing what seemed best and what his father wanted. We waited to see the outcome, and it was Mother Nature that provided the answer.

One afternoon, a Meltemi wind blew with a hot ferocity, and the boats in the harbor started to bang around. Out of nowhere, half a dozen men arrived at the old man's boat, jumped aboard, reset the anchor, added fenders, and generally made things right.

The next day, the son stopped by our boat to say goodbye. His mind had been put at rest by his father's many friends who were clearly looking out for him, and he had seen that taking the old man home probably would have killed him. It was a tough decision to make, and the two hugged for a long time on the quay as they parted.
Sailing can be our salvation.