I made a dash for the garage as soon as the van pulled to a stop. Behind large wooden doors turned gray by the beating sun was a musty room that smelled of fish and sea salt and rust. Beach bikes hung from the ceiling; surfboards stood in a rack; there were fish gigs like Neptune’s scepters, nets, buckets, and rods. But all I cared about what was on the trailer.
The doors leading out the back of the garage were held in place by a timber resting in two metal brackets. Lifting this out and jumping back as the timber crashed to the concrete, I would throw open the doors and let in the North Carolina sunshine. Two weeks of summer vacation on Figure Eight Island. I grabbed the hitch of the small trailer and wrestled the sailboat back toward the sound. Most of my two weeks would be spent sailing in circles, pretending that I was sailing around the world.
At nine or ten years old, setting the mast of a little Sunfish sailing skiff was like raising a flag over Iwo Jima without any buddies to throw their back into it. Trial and error. It’s been a year since I remembered which lines went where. Invariably, I made a mistake or two. Fouled something up. Wondered if maybe my memories of sailing the year before were nothing but fantasy. Why had this seemed so easy once?
Pale skin had to burn again. Calluses had to remember where to go. By the end of the week, the rail was dipping in the water, the rudder thrumming, the keel groaning. I was all bare feet, freckles, and smiles. And an earlier fantasy of digging through the sand to reach Australia — the other side of the world — was replaced with more audacious dreams: sailing there.
Some years ago I visited Australia for the first time on book tour. I remember standing under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, looking over at the Opera House, and imagining sailing there by boat one day. This was after ten years of working in the yachting industry, five years of living on my first boat, and several aborted attempts to get across the Pacific on various freelance jobs. At the time of my visit to Oz, I was neck-deep in a writing career I’ve always dreamed about. I was putting out two or three novels a years and a handful of short stories. More than half my time was spent on the road as I said “yes” to every opportunity that came my way. I was living one dream, but I never let go of the other. As fate would have it, one of my dreams would help make the other possible.
I write this from Bundaberg, Australia. Yesterday afternoon I completed a passage from New Caledonia. Greeting me were three humpbacks who breached a dozen paces from the boat as we sailed by. It marked the end of my Pacific crossing, nearly two years spent sailing the islands between here and Panama, easily the best months of my life. Milestones are great times for reflection, and I can’t help but think back on my time learning to sail on a little dinghy, dreaming of getting to the other side of the world, as far from where I was as possible.
I could fill a book with all I’ve learned thus far on this adventure. The biggest lesson would have to be one of perspective, a lesson on scale. The world is far smaller than I ever imagined. You can traverse the globe at a walking pace, and you’ll run into familiar faces thousands of miles from home. I’ve learned that we are far more alike than we are different, and that we seem to know this, which is why we seize on our small differences and attempt to amplify them for reasons both good and bad. I’ve learned a weird sort of humility that is tinged more with shame than pride. I remember a boastful humility from college days, where we bragged about how little we knew, the subtext being “see how much I know?” Now it’s just an embrace of ignorance. I’m wrong more often than I’m right. I’m getting cool with this.
Maybe the best thing I’ve learned is that the learning never stops. There are so many people to sit and have kava with, a glass of wine in the cockpit of a stranger’s boat, a house in Cuba to be waved into, another language to fumble over, someone else’s adventure which is so much more insane than anything I’d ever dreamed for myself. Every corner and over every horizon another dose of awe. The green flash of a setting sun or the blur of maybe an insight, but it’s too early to be sure.
Along the way, I’ve stopped sharing my thoughts and opinions as much. I got off Facebook last year, stopped logging onto Twitter this year, very rarely publish anything on my blog. I haven’t stopped writing those thoughts; I’ve just stopped hitting the “publish” button. There’s an irony here I’m still trying to understand, coming from a history of self-publication and hyper connection with readers. My best guess is that writers are like sponges, and I fear spending too much time wringing for that last drop and not enough time absorbing all the experiences that made me want to express something in the first place.
But now I’m in Oz with my boat, and it’s a great time to express my thanks to everyone who made this possible, who made both of my dreams possible. With every story we shared together, you made it possible for me to make a living as a writer, and then to attempt to sail around the world. I’m more than halfway there thanks to you. You may not hear from me every day, but know that I think about you every single day. I’m in awe of what you made possible. Thank you.