Living the Dream
When sailing away is how to be at Home
We weren't always sailors. Our combined experience on water ranged from occasional childhood outings to regular exposure, but nothing close to sailing a boat.
My wife Carolyn grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. Water was in her blood, and boats filled her life throughout childhood, from rowboats to speedboats, to small yachts. At the age of seven, she learned to waterski, and every summer, she was on a boat. I grew up land-locked in Atlanta, Georgia. Neither the slow lazy southern rivers, trips to the lakes with friends, nor the handful of times our family ventured off to the ocean called out a yearning for me to be near water. My attraction to the sea deepened after I met Carolyn.
The saltwater, warm sand, and sea breezes were our yearly prescription for relaxing. On one of our holiday ventures, we fell in love with the idea of sailing. Well, it wasn't precisely sailing that first caught our attention. We met a couple our age at a marina with a trawler cruising the Great American Loop. The Loop is a way to explore the waterways of Eastern North America, including the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic, Great Lakes, inland rivers, and finally back to the Gulf - a big circle. We were hooked, at least for a moment. It didn't take me long to leap from cruising on a trawler to sailing. Carolyn was on board. That year, we signed up for sailing lessons.
Mind you; my first dream was not sailing. I always wanted to travel North America on an RV when I retired. When Carolyn responded with an explicit, "No," I changed gears. Sailing was an easy "yes" for both of us, as it provided the same sense of connection to the outdoors as an RV offered. Sailing also provided a safe way for Carolyn to travel. She has extreme reactions to fragrances, and most sailors are not applying fragranced products all over their bodies.
Our sailing dream was planned in increments of yearly lessons for five years, culminating in the final step of purchasing a boat that we could retire on. The classes gave us barebones knowledge. Living and sailing on our boat seasoned us with experience. We wanted to take risks in our golden years – not sit idly watching our years pass by. We got what we wished for.
We decided on purchasing a Leopard 43, a blue-water sailing catamaran known for its stability at sea. Carolyn found the boats; I inspected. On my second trip to the West Indies, we settled on a four-cabin 2005 Robertson and Caine (Leopard) 43 we named Home Berth, a double-entendre, as you may have already guessed on home birth. Carolyn was a homebirth midwife for over three decades.
Home Berth is a weathered, sound boat, nothing like the shiny production catamarans you see at boat shows. She is sprinkled with stains and bears marks of years of use. She is beautiful, but her old age is showing, and she is at the just-right age where almost everything needs replacing. But like an old car in a car lot, when we first boarded Home Berth, she was ready to sail, and her first trip would be from St. Lucia to Puerto Rico, where we put her on the hard for refitting. It would be nine months before she was back in the water.
Our reunion with Home Berth was scheduled for January 3, 2020, just after Carolyn and I retired. The boat was supposed to be ready to sail, like a packaged deal. We were startled when we first saw her. Surrounded by dozens of boats held up by wood blocks and stilts, the dusty boatyard seemed to harden her. The skeletal outline of her mast without lines or sails was daunting. Parts and pieces were strewn around inside and out. Our first clue of “Caribbean time” - there is no schedule. We were destined to live ashore, at least until she was in the water.
Amid the continued work on our boat, on January 30, 2020, we splashed Home Berth and moved aboard. Six weeks later, the government of Puerto Rico shut down the island due to Covid, as did all of the Caribbean and Bahamas. We weren't going anywhere.
That didn't stop our dream. We held tight through the hurricane season at Puerto Del Rey Marina in Fajardo, the sails down, and Home Berth chained to the dock.
Puerto del Rey, the largest marina in the Caribbean, was like a ghost town. No workers were allowed for months, and a friend from Puerto Rico picked Carolyn up every week to go grocery shopping. Activity began slowly, with one worker at a time allowed to work in one of two portions of the marina at a time. We still had work to be done on our boat – always.
We felt fortunate, really; we had a safe port to dock. Many boaters worldwide had nowhere to go, stuck somewhere between islands, lands, and countries. Some traveled hundreds of miles without stopping. Some found refuge at an anchor. We could have left Puerto Rico and sailed non-stop to the United States, but our boat was still being worked on, and we lacked the experience to make such a long trip on our own. When the islands between Puerto Rico and the U.S. opened in the winter of 2022, we were free to leave.
As novice sailors, I know we took some of our friends and family's breath away. "How can you do this alone?" "Aren't you afraid?" "What if something happens?" Our answers did not leave them thirsting for more, as would a weathered sailor. Despite their reservations, we felt confident. After all, we had all the bells and whistles to help us navigate anywhere, like innocent children with new toys. Plus, we took lessons and sailed from St. Lucia to Puerto Rico. We dove right into sailing, unfettered by the bounds of our inexperience. What could go wrong?
So here is the real story about sailing. Innocence does not last long. Adversity made real sailors out; sipping Piña Coladas on the beach did not. It took shaking our confidence to see what we were made of.
You can listen to the excitement in our voices as we talk about unexpected adventures: The time our sail wouldn't come down, crossing the Gulf stream on one of two engines, or heading into an inlet from the Atlantic Ocean with 35-knot winds and no visibility, with Carolyn shouting directions to help me stay centered on the route, my white-knuckled hands on the steering wheel and rain and hail pelting down to the very bones of my body.
Thankfully, those heart-beating moments are few and far between. And those times when sailing is not terrifying – it is magical, like sailing at night with the full moon shining on the water in front of our bow, leading the way. The sounds of water lapping the sides of our boat is indescribable. The sails full of wind take us in the direction we want to go. We feel the most alive when we are on the water. It is like we have always belonged here. And, we do. Now we can sit for hours and tell sailor stories with the rest of them.
It takes commitment and compatibility to move aboard a boat with plans to sail the seas. Carolyn and I have both. More so, it takes courage, which without, we would could not be here. We may not be well-seasoned, but we are getting there. We are weathering the storms of living full-time aboard our boat, and we are living our dream.