March 1, 2007
By Douglas Bernon
In the time since Bernadette wrote the last log, we’ve made the second longest passage of our cruise: we moved back onto land. Ithaka is moored in front of our house, and we are sleeping indoors, in beds, in a home we had purchased a decade ago and rented out. We’ve never lived here before.
To look out at our sweet and beautiful protector of six years—now tethered to the earth—is both glorious and heart-breaking. Just beyond her we can see the red and green markers that denote the deep-water, shipping channel that winds its way from the sea to Fall River, Massachusetts. Directly in line with Ithaka and the Hog Island Lighthouse are the flickering lights of Bristol, Rhode Island. I sit and look out the window and wonder in disbelief that the adventure is winding down, that we are now faced with the challenges of remaking our lives on land and selling our boat.
When we bought Ithaka from Gary Back, who was not only her first caretaker but also her father and shipwright, we knew we’d been given the responsibility to look after one of the loves of his life. When we reached a financial agreement, that was but half the contract that needed to be approved. He flew from his home in Capetown, South Africa, to look us over, to teach us about his beloved boat and to say his own goodbyes. I remember him that final hour as we sat in the main saloon and he showed us this and that, as he explained the idiosyncrasies of the vessel, as he listed what she liked and didn’t like. I recall him dithering at first, not willing, initially, to mount for the last time the companionway steps that he had fashioned in his workshop. When he finally summoned the power to move, he halted in the cockpit to catch his breath. He shook hands with me and Bernadette, then hugged us and silently strode down the dock, not once looking back. It was a brave, generous and, I suspect, confusing moment for him. Within the year he and his family had emigrated from South Africa to Australia, re-establishing their lives continents and light yeas away. He and Brigitte, and their kids, have a courage that awes me.
In the years since then, Gary and I have corresponded from time to time. He tells me that that last hour aboard his beloved Slithermoon of Hout Bay, was one of the hardest days of his life. I never understood that until now, and I suppose I won’t get it fully until the event actually occurs for us, too, but even today, as I sit here at the window, typing away and gazing on a boat that has carried us well into our dreams and returned us safely, I feel a sadness that is choking me.
The decision to bring the “active” part of our cruise to an end has not been easy or smooth. Sometimes Bernadette wanted to continue and I did not, and sometimes I wanted to push out into the Pacific and she did not. Like all couples we teetered on a balance that sometimes stalemated us. In the end, though, we both agreed that we have been blessed with extraordinary good fortune, good health and energy, but that to all experiences there is an autumn, and we were facing ours. The decision to bring a cruise to an end is just as emotionally difficult as to set sail in the first place. There are no truly good reasons or times for either. There is, though, the will, the drive and, mercifully, the endless hopes.
For the two of us, we came to understand that we don’t actually like long passage all that much. Five or six days is just fine, thanks. It seems like heresy to admit this, but I don’t love the process of sailing enough to make a commitment for something larger than that. The greatest joys for me have been physical, emotional and psychological: the joys of living outdoors, the thrill of pushing myself further than I thought I might be able, and the resulting personal victories. I love immersing myself in cultures that are new to me, and I adore the friendships that cruising offers. In the past year I’ve even come to enjoy the mechanical challenges, which at first nearly sunk me and our cruise.
But in the end, we didn’t want to revisit again the places we’ve already seen, and we did not have the drive to push across the Pacific nor the interest in traveling Europe by boat. Perhaps most importantly we also wanted to have other adventures on land, ones for which a boat is more burden than ally. Bernadette’s dad is now in his eighties and going strong. She wants to spend more time with him and to continue writing, but not always about boats and sailing.
I am drawn to my profession still. I love working as a psychologist and I will, in the fullness of time re-open my private practice and teach again. I hope, too, that I will bring some refreshed perspective to my work—informed by being more awake than ever during this recent part of my life.
But all this is down the line. First we must re-establish our being-lives before our doing-lives. We want the former to determine the latter. And we will now sell Ithaka, the former Slithermoon of Hout Bay. This decision, like ending our cruise, has been a series of back and forth discussions, arguments and ultimately agreements between us. We have wrestled with the question, making endless pro and con lists, and ultimately understanding that there’s no way to add up more points in one column and declare that a decision. The buying of a cruising vessel is irrational by any common standard of thinking, and there’s no reason why letting her go should be seen any differently. What finally made up our minds was not so much what we thought or wanted, but rather what we, like Gary and Brigitte, felt we owed to the vessel. We have to set her free.
Precisely because we think our fulltime, live aboard sailing life is now over, we feel we must pass our stewardship on to others who will use this fine little ship as she is intended. Bernadette and I will cruise again, but probably not 12 months a year, and not always on boats. A cruising boat is a proud creature that should never be shackled for too long or allowed to rust and whither. The process will drain it of life.
And that, as we begin this chapter, is a lesson for us as well.