Sunday, February 21, 2010

Waiting for our wind

Twelve years ago I was invited to crew on a 42-foot wooden sailboat in the South China Sea. I was living at the time on a small island in the Philippines and already contemplating my return to this side of the world in the year to follow. I was young and free and ready for the next adventure. So even though I had no sailing experience and I didn't know what lay ahead of me, I was ready to step aboard and let the wind carry me into what was yet unknown. The owner of the boat, one of four ex-pats living on our small island, was ready to retire and wanted to take his boat from where it had been docked in Manila to his home port in Europe. I signed on for the first leg of the journey, a trip that would take us south from our island in the middle of the Philippine archepelego, past Palawan at the southernmost tip of the island nation, through open sea then skirting along the coast of Borneo, north through the legendary straights of Malacca, finally reaching my stopping point at Phuket, Thailand in the Andaman Sea. We had no schedule, only charts and maps that looked mysterious to me and a sense of purpose and adventure. 

I spent my first afternoon aboard The Bird of Passage below decks where I made myself useful cleaning and scrubbing and trying to find storage for the foodstuffs that we would need for the next couple of weeks. The boat moved gently with the small swells that entered the protected cove where the boat was anchored and I fought to to keep from vomiting as I worked. Exhilarated by the thought of what lay ahead I refused to let my lost sense of equilibrium get the better of me. By the time everything below deck was ship-shape I had succeeded in convincing my body that it could ride the waves without argument. When I came up for air my ship mates, all seasoned sailors looked at me approvingly. I suppose that all sailors have lost and found their equilibrium in times past and they remember.

From my perch here on dry land, in vastly different landscape and circumstance, I have to remind myself that it really happened. We passed close enough to Palawan that I could make out the beaches and trees and I was sorry that I had never made it there to dive as I had planned. Dolphins followed in our white churned wake. The first glimpse of Borneo, rising like a green gem out of the water, after a few days stuck in the uncertain monotony of the doldrums certainly felt like the great adventure I was after. When it was my shift at the wheel, I learned to stay the course in the dark of night by picking out a star in the heavens and using it as a reference point. When we headed into the infamous Straight of Malacca where piracy is a real threat, I learned to watch the other ships we encountered and to be on the alert if they seemed to be charting the same course. It was magical, all of it.

I don't think of this period of my life very often and when I do, it is not without a bit of yearning. In some sense, I will never be that free and ready for adventure again and how I do wish I could have it all back again!  Thoughts of this extraordinary time in my life came to me a few days ago when I felt that old stuck feeling and was angry and frustrated for not knowing what to do about it.  There are many times when it quite simply feels as though we are treading water, not going anywhere, making no progress toward any of our goals; not unlike the doldrums that drove sailors mad in the days before gasoline powered engines.

It just so happened that I was feeling this way when I moved a photo album aside so I could make room for a few more books. By chance I opened it and found the photos from my adventure aboard the Bird of Passage and in a bright moment it all came back. One photo of two crew-mates reminded me that they weren't having the wonderful time that I was on our little boat. They had taken a few weeks vacation from regular jobs in Germany to help crew this leg of the journey and they had a booked return flight home. They had a schedule. They planned to see something of Thailand before flying out. They were impatient. So when we found ourselves just sitting there, in the middle of the South China Sea, waiting for wind that wouldn't come they weren't content to scan the water and sky  to see whatever might distinguish itself from all that blue. They didn't find the bird perched on the tree growing from a solitary rock that jutted from the sea when no other land had been in sight for two days to be worthy of the only thing that really happened on that day. They wanted to move along, thanks. They wanted to get what they planned on from the start.

At the time I was so enthralled by everything that I barely noted my crew-mates discomfort.  As a novice sailor the absence of wind didn't seem like much to complain about when I was surrounded by such beauty. Imagine being on a sailboat and not caring at all about the wind! But now when I think of these two, now that I am mother to a boy who might need a gust now and then --  I have a lot more sympathy for them. Feeling like you are stuck anywhere is hard, especially if you're anticipating the place you'll be getting to. Still, I wonder if they remember that bird and that rock? And that amazingly improbable tree?

It WAS an amazing journey; once in a lifetime for sure. And this IS an amazing journey; one for a lifetime. Wind or no wind, it's good to be reminded of that sometimes.


  1. I'm new to your blog, and relatively new to mothering a child with autism (diagnosed in september 2009). This post really moved me.

  2. Wow, if my husband had met u first he never wouldve liked me -- you're so much cooler than I am! Funny how we both just came across 12 year old memories and blogged about it...
    Great perspective that I cherish- thank you

  3. Anonymous8:16 AM

    Beautiful post! And what a great adventure, indeed.

  4. Wonderful post. Incredible adventures. :-)

  5. Just what I needed - thank you. Like you I sometimes find we're barely treading water and I only have the faintest memory of a previous existence - glad you have a much finer memory than me.

  6. Anonymous6:24 PM

    what an amazing adventure.

    i wish i felt the way you do at the end of this magical post. i suppose i will get there.

    in the meantime, i'd like to be cursing the doldrums instead of cursing what feels like a water tornado.

  7. Really lovely post - what an incredible adventure! It's funny, but being in NYC this last weekend put both M. and me in a similar sort of place - thinking about adventures (also 12!) years past. I think we would all do well to slow down and enjoy the beauty in the journey - which at times is harder to do than at other times! But still... love the way you realized it.