By Bernadette Bernon
March 20, 2000
At first glance, it appeared that one of the simplest tasks on our winter to-do list was to name our boat, the boat that would take us long-distance cruising beginning this summer, the boat that would be the container of all our dreams and possessions, the boat that would keep us safe and carry us to grand adventures. But this task remained unaccomplished throughout the winter.
We'd bought the 1993 Shearwater 39 in September last year, sailed her home to Newport from Annapolis, and worked on her into the last frosty months of fall, all under her old name. But as we hauled her out for the winter, we faced the fact that the name Slithermoon belonged more the boat's previous owners than it did to us. Despite superstitions about changing names, we tried Lark on for size, because finding her in the first place had been such a lark. Then we tried Silkey, after the stories of the Irish seal people I had loved to hear about when I was a child. For a while we liked Belair. For a weekend, Orbison. For one desperate day she was Moonface. Often we fell back on Ruby, the name of our previous boat, as we already had towels monogrammed with the name — a Christmas gift from Douglas's mother.
But none of these quite suited this elegant vessel with her clipper bow and saucy fin keel. She needed something unique and evocative. Nothing cutesy. But nothing too pretentious. Something proud, yet something we could belt out over the radio if we needed help without sounding too pathetic. Then, one day last month, along with a letter of good wishes from a Greek friend came a poem by Constantine Cavafy called "Ithaka." Standing at the kitchen counter, Douglas opened it and we read it quietly together:
As you set out for Ithaka, hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops, angry Poseidon, don't be afraid of them:
you'll never find the things like that on your way
as long as you keep thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops, wild Poseidon, you won't encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
After the first stanza, we stopped reading and looked at each other. The poem was speaking to our trepidation about heading into the unknown, especially as we're buried under leaving our jobs, house and families; jettisoning our stuff; and moving aboard. Yet it was singing of our exhilaration at the surprises we hoped to find and how incredible it feels to cut the ties to our known worlds. The only person to whom either of us can talk about all this is one another, which has created an intensity in our relationship that's like nothing we've experienced before. Other cruisers who've gone before us nod knowingly when we mention this, but otherwise we're on our own with these new feelings.
Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when, with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you're seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony.
Sensual perfume of every kind, as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you're destined for.
But don't hurry the journey at all. Better if it lasts for years,
so you're old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you've gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
(Photo: Michel Savage)
"But don't hurry the journey at all ..." Indeed. It's only during the last month or so that Douglas and I have emerged like moles from under our lists to begin plotting our actual voyage beyond the first three months. We'd like to explore the coast of Maine or even farther north this summer, and that seems to be falling into place. After that, we'll come back to Newport to fix whatever we broke up there, then head slowly toward the Chesapeake Bay for hurricane season.
We've bought cruising guides for Cuba, Central and South America, as well as for the traditional Caribbean cruising routes, but we're reluctant to nail it all down, hesitant to promise we'll meet anyone anywhere, slow to say how long we'll be gone. We just want to see what feels right, follow interesting ideas that present themselves, learn about our boat and ourselves, and figure out how to live together 24 hours a day — which will be enough of a mission for the first year.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn't have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you'll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
"Wow," said Douglas as we finished the poem. "I love it."
"So do I," I said. "What do you think?"
"Yes, let's do it," he said.
And that's how we decided, then and there, to name our boat Ithaka, after the home Odysseus strove to reach. Already she has begun to teach us a great deal about ourselves and about the ripe possibilities of the journey ahead.
Everyone has a different reason for going cruising. Ours isn't so much about reaching some specific destination on a chart as it is about just going, living self-sufficiently, and challenging ourselves. Ithaka will do her part to protect us. You can't ask more of a boat than that.
This article was first published as an editorial in the February, 2000 issue of Cruising World Magazine.