It has been nearly three decades since I last lived on a sailboat, but much of my writing is inspired by what I learned over many years on the water. Every sailor knows that the path to your destination is not well marked, the route you take depends on the weather, and sometimes you end up in a place very different from where you thought you were heading when you set out.
In other words, sailing is a metaphor for life.
That metaphor took on much richer meaning when my husband and I abandoned successful careers at age 40 for a five-year circumnavigation of the globe. In fact, we only made it halfway (New York to New Zealand), but it was nearly ten years before I returned home. Having “dropped off” off the professional track at an age where the path to success begins to narrow, I returned to a career that was much more satisfying than I ever could have imagined if I’d remained in New York instead of going sailing.
So herewith, one perspective on sailing as a metaphor for life.
Every sailor knows that the basic elements of the boating life— the wind, the weather and the current—are out of your control. But Tom and I were experienced sailors and it never really occurred to me that I could die at sea.
That is, until one sunny day 18 months into our voyage, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, miles from the shipping lanes. That day, a group of experienced yachting friends failed to check in on the scheduled ham net. We laughed, at first, about too much partying the night before or a dead battery due to engine trouble. But when the yacht did not re-appear after several days, I could not avoid the possibility that something catastrophic had happened on a beautiful day in the middle of nowhere. And that the probability of being rescued was close to zero.
If it could happen to them, of course, it could happen to us. For the first time in my sailing career, I understood, in the pit of my stomach, that my life could end at any moment, without warning.
I fought panic for nearly a week, berating myself for giving up a comfortable life in New York City for an existence that was so fragile.
And then one gorgeous night with the full moon marking out our southwesterly course on the sea’s surface, it dawned on me that my comfortable life in New York had been an illusion. I’d been so busy trying to control the small details of daily living—racing to get onto the subway before the door closed … getting to the movie early enough to get good seats … planning a cruising itinerary with arrival and departure dates five years out—that I’d never stopped to think about all the big things that could snuff my life out in an instant.
A brick falling off the façade of a building on Madison Avenue as I walked by. A drunk in the wrong lane of the Saw Mill River Parkway. A fire in my high-rise apartment building. A stroke.
But even worse, all that busy-ness had been in service of yet another illusion. I had no more control over the subway door than I had over the drunk on the highway. I had no more control over whether a guest broke a wine glass than I had over the arrival of a hurricane.
As I watched the moonbeam dancing on the water ahead of our bow, I realized how much time and energy I had wasted trying to manage things, big and little, that were ultimately uncontrollable. The cruising life had already taught me to be content with the uncontrollable nature of wind and weather. Now, it was teaching me to be content with uncontrollable nature of life itself.
Cruising was teaching me to love living out of control.
Mary Gottschalk is retired and living in Iowa, much too far from the world of serious sailing. In 2008, she published Sailing Down the Moonbeam, a memoir about her journey from New York to New Zealand. She is currently working on a novel she expects to publish in early 2013. She also works as a freelance writer and speaker. A version of this article first appeared in www.WriteontheWater.com