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Lessons At Sea


It was the worst of times. An "accidental" meeting with some old friends had touched off a monumental shift of balance. What am I doing in this job, with this partner, on this planet? My emotions were out of control, soul on the rocks. I started a search for a job anywhere but here, made up new rituals, got me some runes, changed what I was eating, put one of my feet in front of the other one, (don't ask me which one in front of which other), and waited for the universe to act through me. It didn't.

Sigh. I needed to go sailing, get away, step off the land, "Rock Me on the Water." So I went surfing first on the World Wide Web, looking for someone to teach me to sail on the worldwide seas. After a couple of hours, my eye finally stuck to a web page which read: Sailing and Self-Awareness for Women, LIVE-ABOARD "IMMERSION" COURSES. Prices for live-aboard "immersion" courses include all on-board food, non alcoholic beverages, accommodation, charter fees and detailed instructional materials for a minimum of 2, and a maximum of 4 clients.

Call a sailing course "immersion"? Hmmm. Someone with a sense of humor, and a pretty subtle one at that. And then there was the odd exclusion of alcoholic beverages. Atypical of the breed. The prices were good, even if the dollars hadn't been Canadian. I rang.

Tricia answered the phone herself, and talked to me for 20 minutes or more, about how women learn differently than men. How her courses were designed with the female aspect in mind. How she had written her own manual, taught courses for ten years. She offered to give me first refusal on the last space available this summer. I could have some time to decide, to rearrange my life and my money, and she would let me know before she sold it to someone else. I felt cared for. It was considerate. I felt myself open and feel warm toward her. I was clinched.

Three p.m. on a Sunday afternoon in late August, I trudge up to a 35 foot C&C. It is open, and I hoist my olive army canvas stuff bag aboard and go below. The cabin is tidy with gray-blue velvet cushions, the color of some drapes I had once in a living room somewhere; and there are dusty pink colored corduroy cushions. I feel at home already. A rosebud floats in a brandy snifter on the table next to boxes of cashews and mints. Nice.

Captain Tricia arrives, brown and sunned, not weathered, but having spent enough time outdoors that I can't guess her age. 35? 45? She is slightly built, with curled or curly hair that might be combed or might not be, a full but controlled smile with a wrinkle at either end pinning her mouth in place, and wiggly blue eyes that move to the task at hand. I immediately feel that she doesn't often look dreamy. Indeed, throughout the four days I am with her, I never catch her looking off into space.

For Women Only? Tricia has a theory: that women learn differently from men. Well, its not exactly so cleanly divided into women and men. Rather, each of us has some male aspects, some female aspects, to everything we do. Its easier to talk about men and women than it is to talk about male aspects and female aspect, so we will know what she means. Still, the short sleeves of her t-shirt are precisely rolled, and on its front is printed: Sailing and Self-Awareness Instruction for Women.

So how are women different? For example, women like to understand what they are doing before they try it. Men like to just try it to see what happens, their understanding growing out of experimentation. Women don't feel safe trying something unless they know what to expect.

We spend the first afternoon and evening going over the boat, looking at all the holes in it (drive shaft for the rudder, sea intake valve to cool the engine, head intake and outflow). Tricia has samples of ball and gate valves, so we can see how they work, which way the handles have to point to be open or closed.

The first morning, Tricia leads us through a meditation, connecting us to the earth, the sea, each other. She asks us to visualize putting all our thoughts about our lives into a bucket on the dock and leaving them there while we sail away. Especially we are supposed to put our gremlins in the bucket. My gremlin: I want to be perfect. Only one way to be right. Only things worth doing are not just worth doing well, they are worth doing perfectly. I understand where this comes from (my father), I understand that it is a harmful illusion, but I still feel that way. Help! How do you change these feelings? I stuff this gremlin quickly into my already full bucket, and then kick it off the dock in my mind. Be in the moment, give your full concentration to the opportunity in front of you. I think she may be sneaking in a little male aspect here, but I find the exercise helpful, and with relief picture myself sailing away from work, money, friends, automobiles, telephones and perfection.

In fact, we don't move from the dock until after lunch, after we understand all the systems that have to be checked, how the boat works, how it can fail. I feel safe. I understand it. I like it.

From time to time, Tricia pushes a little harder on the man/woman thing. When I give Giselle the order "Ready to cast off," she replies, "I'm not ready." Tricia chuckles. "She wasn't asking you a question, Giselle, she was giving you an order." Turning to me she says, "I usually say, 'Prepare to cast off.' Its clearly an order. But when I suggested this to my male counterparts they pooh-pooh it. They said, 'You prepare dinner, you don't prepare to cast off.'" Hmmm.

We do cast off and end up on Newcastle Island. Tricia leaves us for the night, and Giselle relates her life story: 2 children, 3 husbands, beatings, the death of a son, as we walk in the park, watching the heron, deer and rabbits in the twilight. We giggle in the dark as it starts to rain lightly.

This morning, this evening, (as every morning, every evening) Giselle cooks and cleans like crazy. I like her, she's genuine, not inhibited, but exploited. I exploit her too, because she insists on it. I sit back and let her cook, listen to her talk about how she holds down a full time job and cooks and cleans for her husband. I glance at Trish from time to time to see what she may be thinking. She looks back evenly. I don't know what either of them may be thinking. May they live and be well.

We sail and sail all day. Over dinner at the Dinghy Dock Pub on Protection Island, Tricia tells us she lives in a very small house. "Not as small as mine, I bet," I jump on her. Sharing a space only 20 feet square with solar paneling and no hot running water, I never lose this bet. "You're on," said Tricia. "How big is yours?" "400 square feet," says I. "Hah! Mine's 379." Ooof! Well, then, I think of our roof sloping down to only 4 feet at the back of the bedroom. "Maybe we ought to figure cubic volume. I'm sure I've got you there." Later, I reflect on the female aspect of the old male challenge. "How big is yours?" had become "How small is yours?"

It was Giselle's turn to take the wheel when we went in to the Dinghy Dock for the night. We wanted to get there early, since there was a race in the harbor that night. We were plenty early, an empty space right in front. Sitting on the dock with a stop watch and air horn, was the master of the Dinghy Dock, curly gray-haired Bob, who runs the races and owns the restaurant. Behind him milling about were half a dozen mugs with mugs hugged in their hands. I took my position, ready to step off with the mooring lines. We had carefully figured the direction and strength of the wind; it was going to blow the nose of the boat away from the dock. The ideal was to step off quickly to secure the bow, before it got out of hand and had to be pulled back in with the line. As we came closer, one of the men reached out a hand. "Need some help?" He wants me to throw him the line, I thought. "No," I said firmly, eyes steadily looking where I was about to step off, "Thank you. We're learning. We'd like to practice this time." "Lost part of the dock three times already this summer ," he replied, as he pushed the bow away from the dock! So, I jumped off and pulled it back with the bow line. We weren't going that fast. No harm done. But another jolt: he didn't know what he was doing, and did so with consummate confidence. I felt my own self-confidence soar. This was fun.

But as the days fled on, the trip became more than fun. I wasn't really after raising my own morale by male bashing, nor the company of women, although they were both part of why I had come. I was trying to find a way out of a gale force emotional storm. It slowly dawned on me that I had come to the sea, not because I was running away, but because I felt drawn to the challenge of mastering a physical environment that I was clearly no match for. Perhaps listening to Tricia explain how to pit my body and mind against the physical forces of nature, would help me learn lessons about accepting and maneuvering through the emotional seas that threatened to capsize the tiny boat of my life's experience. I started to listen to the things Trish was telling us, with an ear to the spiritual lessons they might hold.

Listen: You can't change the wind. When you are in a sailboat and the wind is blowing hard enough to make you go, you can go any direction, except into the wind. If you go straight into it, the sails flutter and drop and you are "in irons" and can't move. When the direction you want to go is exactly where the wind is blowing from, you can get there, but only by going back and forth in a zigzag sort of way called tacking. Sometimes, at least for this beginner, you forget and think that if you pull in the sail tight enough, and edge up carefully, you can go into the wind. Not. Other times, you feel like you can't get anywhere unless the wind changes direction. That feeling: that the wind is blowing from the exact direction that makes you totally helpless, and that you can do nothing but wait. That is a place my soul has found itself many times, many times. But in sailing it is a mirage. All you have to remember is: you can't change the wind. But you can use it, in a zig zag way, to get where you want to go.

Its even neater than that, really. Tricia pulls out some wind angle things made of Styrofoam and threaded onto 'dayglo' green strings we wear around our necks. For the wind to fill the sail optimally, the sail must always be at exactly the same angle to the wind. The wind and the sail should always be in the same relation to each other (an angle of about 135 degrees). When it seems to us we are moving the sail (letting it out or easing it, pulling it in or hardening it), what we are actually doing is moving the boat beneath the sail and keeping the sail in exactly the same angle to the wind!

Lesson: Lying in my bunk at night, I consider. I've been struggling with my emotions trying to change how I feel about my situation. Asking myself over and over, why can't I be happy with what I have? Facing my uneasiness head on, and trying to get past it with sheer will power. Now I see that I'm in irons. I tell myself to go with my guts, and use my brain to figure out how to appease them. Don't use my brain to figure out how to change what I feel; that's like trying to figure out how to change the direction of the wind. I can't. Just use the wind to get where I want to go. May not always be a direct route, that'll put me quick in irons, sailing right into the wind. Tack. Gibe. Twist. Shout. I'll get there.

Tricia also explains the nature of addiction; how to be awkward, dependent, ask for time and help and like it (and yourself); how to feel safe.

Listen: "I don't want to go anywhere where I don't feel like I can get out safely. If my engine goes 6 knots, I don't want to be in a tidal current faster than 3. I had to let go my male aspects and cultivate my female aspects. Do not put myself in a position of feeling unprotected or unsafe; do not put myself in someone else's hands without understanding how that person will protect me."

Lesson: Make boundaries and keep to them. Don't let people say, "Don't worry about that." Remember that worrying is an emotion. You can't change it, certainly not stop it, just by exerting your will. Reply to those people, "OK. In order for me not to worry, this has to happen." Then stick to it.

Listen: Don't change yourself, change the situation. Tricia was explaining the line known as the topping lift, a rope which runs from the swinging end of the boom to the top of the mast. When you tighten it, it lifts the boom. Many people don't use the topping lift. Those people are strong enough when hoisting the mainsail, to pull up the weight of the sail, and in addition to pull up the weight of the boom, which is hanging off the bottom of the mainsail, weighing it down. If you lift the boom first with the topping lift, you need only the strength to pull up the weight of the mainsail by itself. Life is easier, and not uncomfortable for those who can't handle the extra weight. Most of us weaker folk, without benefit of topping lift, automatically think, "I'm not strong enough to hoist the sail."

Lesson for the spirit: If you feel uncomfortable, there is not something wrong with you. There is something wrong with the situation. You can't change how you feel, merely by telling yourself that you don't want to feel that way, or that there is something wrong with you. But you can usually change something in the situation which will have the effect of changing how you feel, and will make you feel comfortable. Do it!

Listen: Trust your boat. Boats are made to head up into the wind and remain stable. They are engineered to right themselves. Its almost impossible to capsize a modern sailboat unless it has major damage.

Lesson for the spirit: Trust your body, your emotions. They are built for survival.

Listen: Take care of your boat.

Lesson for the spirit: Eat right, get plenty of sleep, and drink water. (Not only was there no alcohol aboard; Tricia didn't consume caffeine, although she didn't ban it either. It took me three months after the course to try giving it up.)

The trip was over in just four days. And what had I learned? Enough for me to pass my captain's test and sail a sailboat single-handed. But more important, I'd learned that what spirit is to the flesh, flesh is to the spirit. These lessons are almost impossible to learn in the realm of spirit alone. When I see and feel and hear them happening to myself, when the storm blows my feet out from under me, while I am trying to reef the mainsail, then its plain to me that I don't want to go where I don't know there's a way out safely.

So, back on the dock, looking in my bucket, finding all the things still there that I left there: job, partner, credit card debt, I realize that my sailing trip hasn't dissolved any of them. Neither does learning to sail mean that I'll never be caught in a storm. The point of sailing is not to avoid sailing. It's just to be ready and able to make it through the gale and come out the other end stronger, broader, more humble.


A condensed version was published in the July 1998 issue of Pacific Yachting.


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