Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Scratching A Thirty Three Year Itch

It was back in ’76 that I found an old, dusty copy of Slocum’s Sailing Alone Around The World and read it. In its wake I also read Robin Graham’s account of sailing the Dove around the world solo. Small boats. Big water.

Slocum was an old, weathered sailor retired from a lifetime of captaining sailing ships. His Spray was a 36’ sloop. Graham was a 16 year old kid at the outset of his journey. The Dove was a 24’ sloop. Both had their reasons for doing what they were doing. Reasons plenty legitimate to them though there were plenty of people that thought both of them were a little touched in the head with something bordering on lunacy.

Captain Slocum’s journey took three years. Graham’s was a five year trek that involved a generous amount of island hopping. Both encountered treacherous seas and conditions that most people would consider harrowing. Both experienced life and enjoyed adventures in ways that far exceeds the biggest dreams of most dreamers.

Slocum returned to his point of departure only to launch out again after a short time of walking on land. He never arrived at his destination in South America. Some think he may have encountered a hurricane and gone down in the deep.

Me? I don’t know. Nobody does. I do consider though that old Joshua may have simply turned the wheel and sailed Spray to one of those out of the way places that he knew of where he lived out his days in either absolute solitude or in the company of friendly natives that vowed to never disclose his whereabouts.

Graham returned to his point of departure, put the sea behind him, attempted college on a generous scholarship and, in a sense, turned the wheel and moved to a remote mountain location in Montana. He’s still there.

Both Slocum and Graham realized something of the futility that most people immerse themselves in. Graham so much as says so. Both refused to be drowned in the dark, murky waters of futility. They dared to chart their own courses in life in ways that cut across the lines drawn by safe and comfortable avenues.

There are few books, one is the Bible, that I ever read more than once. Slocum’s and Graham’s I’ve read three times and will read again. Maybe this year.

Thirty three years. 1976 – 2009.

It’s really hard to find the words to describe what it feels like to have a thirty three year itch scratched. It’s an itch that has never left me. Oh. I learned to ignore it. Deny it. Pretend it wasn’t there.

But it has always come back. Every time I’ve stood beside a body of water large enough to launch even a sailing dinghy on. Or motored on the water. No little surface rash. Something bone deep. At times it’s come on with a vengeance. And there has been no possible way to scratch it.


I was expecting a nice little excursion as a guest onboard a 35’ sloop complete with a pot luck lunch on the water. Little did I know that only a few minutes after the sails were filled with wind that I’d be standing the helm.

North winds 10 to 20.

Making hull speed of 8 knots.

Across the Bay and back again.

Close to 4 hours at the wheel.

I knew others were onboard and I did carry on a little conversation as we sailed. For the most part, though, I was alone with a dream.

At last.

Listening to sails filled with wind.

Boat heeling quite sharply at times when the gusts would come.

Small waves pushing against the hull.

Feeling the effects of the wind and waves on the boat and holding course.

Passing to the stern of a cargo ship in the channel.

Steering to avoid logs and debris on the west side of the Bay.

I missed lunch on the trip. I didn’t mind. There’s plenty of time in life for eating. But this? I needed both hands on the wheel.

Some itches are incurable. Scratching only drives them deeper into the bones.