February 15, 2007
Newport, Rhode Island
41º 29.093 North
071º 19.326 West

Going Home Is Such A Ride

By Bernadette Bernon

There was one song I wanted to hear as Ithaka passed the Brenton Reef navigational buoy headed toward Newport Harbor, and we sailed the last hour of our homeward-bound leg. It was by Mythical Kings and Iguanas by Dory Previn, and I knew the song well enough to know that the lyrics were what I was feeling, and I wanted to hear her sing them.

“Going home is such a ride,” Dory sang. She is oh so right.

Newport's Cliff Walk, with its mansions and promontories, faces the sea.
It was about 7 a.m. as we passed Brenton Reef, and old memories rushed through my head – of summer days sailing our little 24-footer out from Newport to Block Island, of major international yacht races that had used the old tower there as a finish line, of gentle weekend getaways. How many times have we sailed past that buoy in darkness and in light? We soared along under main and genny, and passed the beautiful old summer houses that line the shorelines of Jamestown and Newport.

We passed the Inn at Castle Hill and I recalled lazy Sunday afternoons on the lawn there, listening to jazz and we swept by the Castle Hill Lighthouse, tucked into the rocks. I remembered all the other times we’ve felt the warm familiarity of that little light, and imagined all the decades of boats heading in and out of here on their way to who knew what.

Newport Harbor at sunset. Day or night, the harbor is home, and is totally familiar to us.
We passed fishing boats headed out to work, and tankers headed out to sea -- everyone going about their business, no one knowing that the two people on the white sailboat had many miles beneath their keel, and were about to complete a voyage that had so changed their lives. Douglas and I were giddy with excitement over what lay ahead, and at the same time filled with nostalgia for what we were leaving behind. Newport was home, and we longed for so many aspects of that. But wasn’t our boat home, too, and all the places she’s taken us in the last six years?

But time marched on, Ithaka turned the corner of the harbor entrance, and there ahead of us was the display of boats for which Newport is famous. America’s Cup yachts, superyachts, racing yachts, cruising yachts, classic yachts, all bobbing in the mooring field, lit by a bright sunshine.

Bernadette and her Dad
We rolled in the genny, fired up the engine, took down the mainsail, and puttered into the scene. It was the same scene we’d known before. But on this new day, with the layer of excitement we felt at being back, everything looked extra beautiful, and we noticed the details – the greenness of the grass on the New York Yacht Club lawn, the delicate spire of Trinity Church rising above the rooftops, the line of Optimists crewed by happy children already out sailing on this beautiful morning. This heightened awareness of the details would dull over time, of course. You can’t stay hypervigilant forever, so I enjoyed the moment, and tried to hold these visions in my mind’s eye, knowing it would be fleeting.

A fishing boat ghosts out of the harbor for its work days on the bay
When we lived here, we kept our boat on a rented mooring, which we gave up when we set off cruising. Now, like the other cruising boats visiting this international harbor, we headed over to anchor in the only area clear of moorings, off the Ida Lewis Yacht Club. There were boats around us hailing from all over the world – fellow cruisers, fellow travelers, people moving through. We were one of them, and then again, we weren’t. The feelings of confusion set in again. We found we couldn’t let ourselves anchor immediately. Instead we motored leisurely around the harbor, a personal victory lap.

We called my family on our cell phone, and the excitement in their voices made me cry. My dad said he’d jump in his truck and be right down to the harbor, and we told him where we were anchored. My brother said he’d be right down too. We called a few friends. The whirl began.

Bernadette's brother owns an Irish pub on Long Wharf, near the Newport Yacht Club, named Celtica, the site of many homecoming gatherings of our family and friends.
It’s been two weeks now, and one of the things I’ve noticed since we’ve returned home has been the absence of silence. There is always something to distract us now – phone calls, visits, people, options. Our “to do” lists have radically changed. Instead of tasks completely related to our boat, and our live-aboard lifestyle, our lists include the chores of land life: “Buy shoes. Buy a car. Buy a laptop…” Our heads are spinning.

Douglas and I have a house in Portsmouth, which is a few miles north of Newport but located on the same Aquidneck island. The house has been rented while we were away. The tenant just moved out. After being home a couple of days, we head over to the house and start cleaning, and painting, and making new kinds of lists. “Buy a bed. Buy a couch…”

"Bonniecrest" glistens in the sunset
We start moving things off Ithaka and into the house. Load by load, day after day, the boat begins to rise up on her lines as the garage fills with boxes. She’s feeling emptier, like her traveling days with us are done, and this feels so sad to me. Douglas and I start to talk about what we need to do to her to get her ready to be put up for sale. It feels strange to talk about this while we’re onboard, like she’s got a life too, and she hears us talk of abandoning her. For me, I know it sounds crazy, but it’s easier to talk about selling the boat when we’re in the house. Everything is happening so fast. “Buy car insurance. Buy shelf-lining paper. Buy a lawn mower.”

When people ask us about our cruising experiences, invariably some inquire if we’ve weathered any big storms. Normally, we say no, not really. When we say this, they seem disappointed. So, we’ve come up with a couple of stories we can tell, of squalls, or storms, or whatever. It’s not how we really remember cruising. But when we drum up a story or two, there’s a sense of satisfaction from those friends, and I wonder if their seeking these stories is a way they can confirm to themselves that they would never want to do something such as go cruising.

Bernadette and her brother Mark
People keep asking us what we’re going to do next. We notice, after a week or so of this, that we’re both coming up with a set of answers that are succinct and as complete-sounding as possible. We find it’s best to give cheery answers that make it sound like we have it all sorted out. That way, we won’t get into our confusions and fears about re-integrating into land life.

“I’ll be doing lots of freelance writing,” I say, which seems to be a good answer.

“Do you want to go back to your old job?” They all seem to ask.

“No,” I say, “you’ve got to go forward. I’d like to just explore all my options now that I’m home.” I discover that this answer doesn’t work, and I start to modify it, as it always ends up being a long discussion about my options, and this starts to exhaust me.

I’d like to work again as a psychologist, but with child refugees overseas,” says Douglas. People are interested in this, although they look a little alarmed, wondering I suppose why he’d want to turn around and fly right out of here now that he just arrived. “And I’ll be opening up a limited practice again,” he adds, and then people calm themselves down.

We realize before too long that our deepest cruising memories are our own, and that they can’t be shared easily and still remain completely true to the experience. Thank God that Douglas and I have each other with whom we can share these more nuanced memories and feelings and our logs to look back to.

Douglas and I decide that we’re going to give ourselves six months to regroup, move off Ithaka and into our house, settle down again, and sort out some of our options. This calms me down from the tree somewhat. We’ll have time to experience and think and plan and re-consider.

The Pell Bridge, during the day, and at night -- in a time-release photo by Douglas - our view from Ithaka's cockpit while we were anchored off Ida Lewis Yacht Club with the other international cruising boats.

We’ve been home two weeks now, and already I’m seeing that you spend a lot more time remembering your experiences than you spent having them. As I hear myself tell the same story for the third time to different friends, about the squalls we faced while sailing home from Virginia, I realize that I am etching this spoken version of the experience into my own mind as well. I make a mental note to try to hang on to all the other details of the story for as long as I can.

One sensitive friend asked me the other day, “I thought, when you came home from cruising, that it would be because you were done with it, ready to move on to something else. But it sounds like you miss it. I don’t understand, why did you come back?”

Bernadette and our niece Hannah, making costumes out of paper -- the simple joy of spending time with loved ones.
“I do miss it already,” I answered. “You’re right. It’s hard to explain. Sometimes when you’re cruising, you get a feeling that it’s time to see and do other things, challenge yourself in a new way. Get re-involved in something that matters more than counting the gallons of water we’re using. It’s not that the cruising life isn’t good. In fact, it’s great in most ways. Something was just pulling at us. We’re still young enough to make a difference somehow, I guess, get involved in something bigger than ourselves. Does that make any sense?”

Well, it sort of did. But then I could see by the look on her face that it sort of didn’t. Normally, middle-aged people don’t need to come face to face with these questions of re-invention. Sometimes I envy them that certainty or that inertia about their lives – call it what you will.

“And I really want to get into more freelance writing,” I said. And this brought the conversation back on track. Dory Previn’s lyrics had it right: Going home is such a ride.

Sailboats ghosting along the Portsmouth coast, in front of our house.

Now that Bernadette and Douglas are back in the U.S., any groups or corporations interested in booking them for slide shows and talks can reach them at SV_Ithaka@hotmail.com