Home . Articles . Columns & Blogs . On the Wind . Don’t let life’s troubles keep you from sailing—seize the day

Don’t let life’s troubles keep you from sailing—seize the day

2011 October 3

I have been writing about sailing for more than four decades now, and I was just reminded afresh how the written word can touch people. As a journalist, my work goes into print (or onto the blue screen) and there is usually no direct connection to the reader. 

Oh, sure, there are the letters telling me that I'm an idiot for criticizing mommy boats or helicopter parents or for picking on people who want to sail around the world in 10-footers. But those are just snipers.

Musicians and actors who perform live have a direct relationship with their audience: They can see in it the eyes of their audience when the performance connects. Unlike them, when I find out later that I have reached people, it is immensely satisfying. 

Before continuing this thought, I have to say that this has been one of those months when, though the summer heat is upon us, there has been the melancholy of autumn in my heart and mind. It is as though the leaves are already falling, and several of those leaves were friends and acquaintances that passed away unexpectedly.

I suddenly know how my father felt when he decided to stop attending the reunions of his World War II squadron because fewer and fewer were at the gatherings. 

It has been a time of loss in sailing as well, with two sailors on the Chicago-Mackinac race and a teenager off Annapolis, Maryland.  And, if not for a large dose of both luck and preparation, not to mention England's superb Royal National Lifeboat Institution, there might well have been a crew of 21 lost on the Fastnet Race.

In the midst of this, an e-mail from a man in San Francisco restored the wind in my sails and the joy in my heart. Several years ago, I did a column (you can still find it on the SAILING Magazine website) about Hal, a fellow who was preparing his boat to go cruising. His wife had passed away, his kids were grown, his business had been sold, and he was planning The Grand Adventure. And then, one day, there was a For Sale sign on his boat. He had been diagnosed with The Big C-cancer. He had about a year and the end wouldn't be fun. He gave up his dream.

I urged him to go anyway and, one day, he took my advice, cast off the docklines and headed for the South Pacific. I got a postcard from him, saying it was the best decision he'd made. The title of my column was Carpe Diem. 

Seize the day.

The email that brought me from the doldrums was from Jim Murdoch, and I think that if you look up "Renaissance Man" in the dictionary, his picture will be there.  He is, in no particular order, a musician on many instruments and a clown for kids shows, a songwriter with albums to his credit and a college lecturer. To give you an insight into this man, consider that he has taught flamenco dancing to seniors at a retirement home. He is not a sailor but, if you listen to his songs, he loves the sea.

More important, however, is that he leads a workshop at the University of California Diller Cancer Center for men whose wives are dealing with the impact of cancer. The group ranges from those whose spouses are newly diagnosed, to dealing with chemotherapy, to some who know the end is near.

In an email, Murdoch told me that he had shared my Carpe Diem story with the husband's group and said, "I think Hal's story has seeped into our collective mind in very positive ways." 

That, to a writer, is pure gold.

He continued, "Our discussions have led us to a point of agreement about the fundamental challenge-the uncertainty of a cancer diagnosis and the difficulty of living in the present with so much uncertainty.

"So by talking about life's uncertainty, there has come a level of acceptance. People are talking about making plans and going ahead until something stops them rather than taking a wait-and-see attitude."

And here are the lines that touched me: "My gut feeling is the story of Hal has had an effect on how they tell their own story and, as a result, how they feel about their lives. They are also expressing humor in the stories they tell, recognizing that since we don't know what will happen, we should enjoy our time together now."

In the short view, I had written something about sailing and sailors that touched a group of people enduring the worst times of their lives, and had perhaps helped them.

In the larger view, I realized that it wasn't about me. I could see that Murdoch and his group exposed a greater truth. It isn't about dealing with cancer. It's about dealing with life.

Because the diagnosis for all of us, with or without cancer, is the same: we aren't going to get out of this alive. We just don't know the when or how. 

And so it brings me back to that essential truth. Carpe diem.

Seize the day. Go sailing. Now.

There might be a torn-out ad tacked on your bulletin board for a charter in Greece or Thailand. You might have always been wanting to spend the weekend anchored in a faraway cove that sounded wonderful. Maybe you've been thinking about trying to win the club championships or perhaps even the nationals. Maybe it's just deciding between mowing the lawn or grabbing the sails and heading for the marina.

Hal knew the answer. And so do the men in the support group in San Francisco.

Carpe diem. Seize the day.