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Last Letter From Home

By Shangri-La - Published September 15, 2008 - Viewed 2903 times

Here we are, a year since I first started writing for BoatUS about the trip with my boys. For half my life, I’ve been calling myself a writer, mostly on sailing-related subjects, and on one old computer I taped a bumper sticker that said, “I’d rather be vacuuming.” For years, it wasn’t a joke.

For the first time in years, this trip gave me something to say, and being a writer gave me so much more joy.

When this trip began to really take shape, I found myself facing deadlines and writing with much more frequency, for several venues, not just this blog. And, I’m happy to report that, among the many ways this trip has enriched my life, I actually started to enjoy my work, didn’t feel compelled to come up with a million excuses and ways to procrastinate.

For the first time in my writing history, whenever I sat down in front of the computer, there was something to say, real stories to tell, and they flowed freely. Each posting here to you has been a way for me to process and capture moments preserved much more effectively than would’ve been possible with just logbook entries, and for that I’m grateful.

Well, the five months my boys and I have spent apart – they’re finally home from sailing the Pacific with their Dad -- have passed. I’m writing this log in real time, the boys and the logbook have just come home now, and this will be my last entry for my BoatUS series. Shangri La is on the hard in New Caledonia, a large French island east of Australia.

The boys are home now, their cruising year a memory.

In one month, I’ll fly there to pack whatever the boys didn’t bring home for me, organize, wrap up details, say goodbye, and sell her. I don’t want to, but I really can’t afford to keep a boat that isn’t lived on, used, and maintained regularly. It’s time for her to become somebody else’s Shangri La, their ideal, like she became for us.

If I continue writing about our lives, it won’t be about sailing anymore, but about the gardens, the flock of rapidly growing meat chickens out back, the four new laying hens that replaced the ones we left behind who didn’t make it through the winter -- not your typical Boat US subjects. With the whole trip over, so ends this narrative, but not before I quickly backfill, and tell you the story about the time the boys spent sailing with their father.

Nicholas raises the main.

As humans, we can be pretty adaptable, but sometimes we can’t believe this is true until life teaches us a nature-revealing lesson or two, which, of course, was one of the primary reasons I wanted this trip for my kids. There were things they could never learn in our comfortably predictable routine at home.

When they arrived on the boat in Curacao, and over the course of the first couple of months, I don’t know how many times I heard 13-going-on-14-year-old Sam say he could hardly wait for the trip to end, that his time on the boat felt like an interminable prison sentence. He was positive he’d never get to like it. Never.

My reply was consistent. It’s an adjustment to a whole new life, I’d say. Of course you miss your home. But, it’ll always be there. Always. This adventure, however, will only last for ten months. Time will speed by, then it’ll be over, and you’ll never again able revisit a year such as this one. Nope, he’d insist. I’ll never get accustomed to this and time will continue to crawl.

I’d think of Sam, always overjoyed over his latest catch

But, time quickly rose up on two legs and sprinted, and when I left the boys in Tahiti, Sam had escaped from prison and wasn’t counting the days until the trip ended anymore, he was thoroughly enjoying himself. He’d adapted to the life as well as a mother such as myself could hope for. When I pointed this out as we hugged goodbye, he smiled sheepishly, admitted I’d been right, yet again, and turned back to setting up another fishing line. Nicholas just ordered me to stop worrying, they’d be fine. And, once I was back in Vermont, in lieu of the frequent writing I’d been doing for this website, the boys and I emailed, and they were fine.

Nicholas completely took over the SSB, diligently using it to send and receive satisfyingly frequent and newsy updates, while Sam took over the cleaning. He was doing all the dishes, he wrote to me, as well as all the sweeping, and was permanently exhausted.

Now, stuck with Dad in such a small space, he was finally realizing how much I did, how much we were alike, as far as craving tidiness and order went. On my half of the trip with them, we’d bonded in ways that would’ve been impossible at home, they really got to know me in ways typical teenagers don’t get to know their parents, and our letters were a hard copy continuation of all the talking and connecting we’d done out there.

The boys got some uninterrupted time with their Dad, and wasn’t all bad, right?

While they were bonding with their father, I adapted pretty quickly to living in a construction site, bonding with the paintbrush and vacuum cleaner. There were a bunch of house-finishing projects that needed doing while I was alone. After 13 years, I thought we could finally have a proper ceiling in the living room, trim, and baseboards, a refinished floor, some finished shelving and cabinets. So, my days were spent measuring, mitering, caulking, sanding, priming, and painting in between receiving and sending emails.

Not a single job seemed as hard or significant as so many of the tasks aboard Shangri La had felt. What a relief to worry only about the way things would look and not about whether an oversight would cost me a boat, or the lives of my boys. What a relief to worry instead about disappearing bees, dying bats, not enough rain, too much rain, the threat of offshore drilling, what Nicholas will do after the coming senior year ends, how they were faring on the other side of the world from me.

On Dad’s watch, between March and July, they sailed from Bora Bora to Raratonga in the Cook Islands, to Western Samoa, to Wallis Island, to Savu Savu in Fiji, and Ile de Pins in New Caledonia, before putting Shangri La on the hard in Noumea. They called when they could from internet cafes with Skype, sent a picture of Sam with his monster mahi mahi, and our exchanges totaled up to 60 pages of back and forth, 12-point, single-spaced dialogue when printed out.

Sam increased his shell collection

I caught them up to date on their school schedules for the next year, the growth following the seasons, the doings of friends and neighbors, world news, Obama updates, and I knew they cared. They, in turn, told me stories, like the one about when the camera was forgotten on the dinghy and fell overboard somewhere between the beach and the boat and the ordeal of finding it, because they knew I’d be interested, was always ready to listen, or in this case, read.

I heard about their weather, how Raratonga was a spectacular landfall, how they’d understood the Tahitian French better than the Cook Island English, how they made friends with local kids on the pier who took them swimming and snorkeling, about the delicious and cheap food in Indian restaurants.

As the snow melted and shoots started poking up through the ground, I read about the big squid and three-foot-long wahoo Sam caught on the way to Samoa and how it didn’t taste as good as tuna, got a log of miles made good, wind speeds, wave heights, the calm they got just before pulling into Apia.

Happy birthday to Dad – the boys make their own memories with their father

Right after the electrician finished wiring some more lights and plugs in the living room, I read about how Dad’s girlfriend had arrived, and two days later, how they were bouncing over a reef into a lagoon. Don’t worry, Nicholas wrote, always considerate of my propensity for worrying. It’s good we have a steel boat. “Never again will I complain about Shangri La being uncomfortable,” he said. “The fact that all we got were a few scratches in the hull paint makes her the best boat in the world in my book.”

They spent a couple of weeks anchored off Wallis Island, the most special South Pacific landfall I remembered from my long-ago trip. This is definitely my favorite place, Nicholas wrote, describing the empty lagoon, the friendly people who invited them for meals, the way no car on the road would pass without stopping to offer a ride

Sam was always with a fishing line, or in the water himself, looking for dinner

Then, he asked for instructions on how to clean and prime rust spots. Sam wrote about the piles of shells he was finding, how he was spending hours in the water spear fishing with the Alaskans on one of the few other sailboats there, how many push-ups he was doing daily. Then, he asked about how to flush clean the smelly sink and head drains. Our worlds were so different.

At home, as much as I’d begun to enjoy myself out there, surrounded by all that is familiar, I didn’t miss the sea for long. The boys, yes, but not the sea. Shangri La had been home for six months, this was home forever. The roots I’d yanked up before leaving replanted themselves pretty quickly and sprouted with the onset of spring and summer as the boys sailed to Fiji and onwards to New Caledonia.

The trees in the surrounding forest leafed out and the vegetable and flower gardens came back for another round of beauty and productivity to great the young sailors when they got back.

The boys made memories together, a precious bond they’ll always share.

Four days after painting the last coat of polyurethane on the floors, the raspberries were coming in and I was at the airport, hugging my tall, blond, tanned, and wistful sons who, on the interminable flights home, had already begun transitioning from a way of life they’d come to love to a home they’d missed. Because we adapt to some situations more quickly than others, re-entry for the boys has been smooth and speedy sailing.

Yes, the San Blas Islands, the middle of the Pacific Ocean on a perfect trade wind day, Ua Pou, Rangiroa, Wallis, Fiji, underwater worlds of wonder and discovery, these were all spectacular. And yes, beating for four days straight, squalls, winds, a needy engine, butting heads yet again with annoying Mom or Dad in such confines, all that was extremely memorable, too. However, to see Nicholas rediscover his place on the couch with such pleasured satisfaction, to watch Sam arrange all his shells on his knick knack shelves, and to hear both of them saying, repeatedly and gratefully, that they miss the boat a lot, but also feel lucky to have the past year end with such a special place to come home to, this is priceless.

Two weeks after they got home, the picture of Sam with his mahi mahi is already blown up and framed on the staircase wall leading up from the basement, under the light, where every incoming guest will be able to admire his fishing prowess. There is another one of Nicholas doing a back flip off Shangri La’s bow in front of Bora Bora’s dramatic silhouette that needs similar treatment.

There are images in our minds that will be there forever. Shangri La floating in liquid turqoise, one of the boys in mid-air, diving in…

The turtle tapa from Ua Pou is hanging above the staircase leading up to the bedrooms. Tahitian bowls and carvings are on the windowsills, the big wooden mask from Fiji contrasts darkly with a prominent and freshly painted wall in the kitchen, Colombian and Panamanian prints decorate the kids’ bedroom. Visual memories enhance our finished home, punctuating with fresh and vibrant colors the faded pictures and dusty carvings from my long ago first voyage that inspired all this.

My job is done in more ways than one. The boys have come to know the sea that once taught me so much about myself and life, they have also learned to truly appreciate what they have, and we all get to wait and see what, as a result of all this, will be the long term effects. Once again, only time will tell.

As I finish with the chronicling and sign off now, let me repeat that the writing has been a real pleasure, that it’s a gift to have such a record of the whole experience. Without readers, this log wouldn’t have been possible, so thank you for reading and sharing this trip with me and my family. Until the next time, fair winds to all. Over and out.


Shangri La in slings in New Caledonia, her voyage with my family ended. She’s been a great boat, kept us safe, and forgiven our sins.

My boys and I will always have this precious year we spent learning together, and knowing each other in deeper ways.




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