Boating Is A Lifeline For This Veteran

By Dave Livingston

He went to war, and dreamed about a life after. He imagined his wife, himself, a boat, and freedom.

Illustration of holding a lineDuring my time in Afghanistan, I had to find a way to dream. My wife and I added it up once; I've been gone for more than half of our eight-year marriage.

I started to keep a journal while I was deployed to Afghanistan in 2011, but every day is pretty much the same over there — Marines call it Groundhog Day, after the movie. After writing down all the events of just one of those difficult days in my journal, I decided that keeping a record of my time there wasn't going to work out. I'm grateful I put that one day down on paper, though. I never want to forget those who didn't make it back with the rest of us. That one entry reminds me of all the men and women who got hurt or died while we were there.

I work in an operations center as a Senior Air Coordinator. I have not been, and most likely will never be, in a firefight myself, but the decisions I make can result in life and death for others risking their lives. My job in Afghanistan was to manage air support for those in combat, and to coordinate medical evacuations. Though confined to a room of computers, TV monitors, radios, and liaisons, the decisions we made in that ops center were demanding. The day I wrote about in my journal was September 28, 2011. During my shift, within a four-hour time span, five men died; six were blown up by an improvised explosive device and needed urgent care; and a medevac helicopter we sent out came under rocket-propelled grenade fire and was almost destroyed, with injured personnel onboard.

At times, no matter how fast we got a medevac helicopter out, or how much air support we provided troops on the ground, it wasn't enough and our brothers died. It's not the kind of thing you want to focus on, but it's the kind of thing that took place every day. During my time in Afghanistan, I had to find a way to dream, to escape what I could not change.

Dreaming Of A Boat

It's been eight years since I first set foot on a sailboat, and it's become something I think about and dream about on a continual basis. In 2005, my wife Jessica and I were on a vacation in San Carlos, Mexico, a few hours south of where we lived in Tucson, Arizona. Jess, a teacher, had spent some summers there with her family, sailing the Sea of Cortez on their boat Borborygmus. She has always loved boats, and when a chance came for us to go sailing with Barracuda Bob, who owns a local ice-cream store, she jumped at it and took me along. Jess and I sat on the leeward side of the boat, dragging our feet through the water, getting splashed from head to toe. The sun was out, the breeze gentle, and Barracuda Bob played Santana on the radio. The sails sounded crisp against the wind and, as if to make it all the more perfect, a huge pod of dolphins came to play in the boat's wake. It was my first time on a sailboat. I loved it.

Two years later, in the summer of 2007, I kissed Jess goodbye to attend The Basic School (TBS), a six-month infantry tactics-and-leadership school for new Marine Corps officers in Quantico, Virginia, 50 minutes south of Washington, D.C. With the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay close, it was a great boating area. Jess encouraged me to sign up for a four-day introductory sailing course with Mariner Sailing School in Alexandria. Their 19-foot Flying Scots are one of the most fun boats I've ever sailed. During my six months in Quantico, I rented boats every now and then, and loved being in control, trimming the sails, handling the tiller, making the boat heel, and keeping it in balance.

After my Virginia training, Jess and I moved to North Carolina. The ocean was 45 minutes away, and the Neuse River could almost be seen from our backyard. For $4,500, we bought a 1986 Catalina 25 with an inboard diesel, small galley, head, and room to sleep three or four. We owned Un Poco Amor (a little love) for three years, and kept her at one of the two Cherry Point Base marinas. We'd hoped to sail down the Neuse, out to the Atlantic or Pamlico Sound, and take trips to the Outer Banks, but I was gone so often that we only ended up doing day trips.

Finding Balance

Jess and I added it up once, and it turns out that I've been gone for more than half of our eight-year marriage. While in North Carolina, I attended different training courses and traveled for a number of military exercises on an almost monthly basis. I was deployed for a year in Iraq, working out of a wood hut, in charge of a detachment of Marines and civilians working with unmanned aerial vehicles. Then, during the second deployment, to Afghanistan, I coordinated air strikes for troops engaged with enemy combatants and provided helicopter medevacs, decisions that ultimately ended with an enemy dying or a friendly troop getting needed medical help. The quick response time needed and the significance of the decisions made this a stressful position. Because of the stress, the time away from Jess was more difficult during my second deployment. For deployed military personnel, there's no world outside of the base on which you live. Everyone needs an outlet, be it movies, exercise, video games, or books. I found one of my biggest outlets by accident.

Jess and I had talked about retirement and what we'd do when that day came. I'd been in 14 years and had six to go. We'd talked about how nice it would be to take a few years off after the military and go sailing. We could see new places, meet new people, experience the world, and spend some quality time together; we've missed that over the years. So as I sat in Afghanistan, away from my wife, that's what I thought about; that was my outlet.

One night, I did a Google search on people who've actually done it, who've dropped everything and sailed away into the setting sun.

I came across one couple's journey that caught my eye. I started reading "The Log Of Ithaka" on, and got hooked on the six-year cruising adventures of Douglas and Bernadette Bernon. With four months left until I could fly home, every night I read a few entries. BoatUS had them archived in order, so I didn't have to wait around for the next weekly episode; I had the equivalent of Netflix for readers. These entries were funny and inspirational, and they swept me away. I daydreamed (when not at work, of course), and researched, and mapped out distances, and talked to my wife about what we could do and where we could go. It seemed perfect.

When I finished all the Ithaka logs, I felt like I'd come to know the Bernons. I took a chance and emailed Bernadette, who by then was working at BoatUS Magazine, to tell her how the stories had touched me and how badly I wanted to follow in her wake. We started to correspond. She made me believe Jess and I could do whatever we set out to do. I became addicted to the idea of living on and sailing our own boat, wandering off into the world, not knowing if it would be sunny or stormy, if our boat would run perfectly or if something would need fixing — OK, so something always needs fixing! — or if we would find ourselves in Guatemala or the Virgin Islands, or off the coast of South America. This is what we craved. This is what we wanted to do.

Photo of Jess and David LivingstonJess and I chartered in St. Maarten last year, and had a sailing sojourn that sustains and invigorates us as we plan for the future.

Jess was planning, too, and had booked a sailing vacation for us to the British Virgin Islands. After I returned from Afghanistan, we sailed off on my first extended sailboat charter. Sailing around the islands in such beautiful, clear water was better than I could have hoped. Never in my life had I slept more soundly or felt more alive than I did during that week. I know part of it was that we were on vacation, but this was different. Being on the boat, feeling the warm island breeze, falling asleep to the gentle rocking, and spending time with friends all made this feeling so much more intense. These new adventures were opening us up to new ideas for our future, such as working for a charter company after retiring in 2018. Who knows?

Since that first voyage, Jess and I have chartered in Panama and St. Maarten. Those extended times on sailboats taught me some lessons. First, though I realize things will go wrong and there will be difficulties, living on a boat is going to be a lot more peaceful and relaxing than our current jobs. Second, and this might be more important, the friends we will make will be the kind who help you through most any situation and stick with you — either through shared experiences or through memories stored in your heart. Every time I set foot on a boat, I feel one step closer to realizing my dream of sailing off with the love of my life.

Jessica introduced me to something she loved, and along the way I fell in love with it, too. As a couple with a marriage based in strong friendship, sailing has brought us even closer together. While I was gone for military missions, Jess had to work, take care of our family connections, our bills, our animals, and our vehicle issues. She even bought and moved into a new house when I was in Iraq. I know I can rely on her for anything. Just like deployments, when we're sailing, we rely on each other to do the things the other cannot. We've become a real team, looking forward to our boating lives unfolding, just as I'd dreamed during those darker days in Afghanistan. 

— Published: August/September 2014

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