What’s it like to be in the middle of the ocean?

Well, one thing it’s generally not is dangerous. It may be more dangerous than sitting in front of the television, but given diabetes, high blood pressure, and general apathy, etc. it may not be (much can be said about television, but the fact that infomercials are successful and multiplying is perhaps all that needs to be said). Many people assume that the middle of the ocean is the most dangerous place to be on a sailing voyage. This seems to be because they assume that the waves will be bigger, the storms unavoidable, and that you’ll be far from assistance. These things can be true, BUT, being near the shore is generally much more dangerous than being at sea. Near shore, there is quite a bit more shipping traffic, which can collide with you, foul your prop with their fishing nets, destroy your hull with their seismic or tow cables, etc. Although people on boats near shore are almost always friendly and professional, there are also drunk & reckless weekenders and sometimes thieves or pirates. There are shoals, reefs, and tides that provide numerous opportunities to run aground and damage the boat. Waves generally become steeper, closer together, more uncomfortable, and more dangerous in shallow water. Winds, waves, and currents around capes and points are notorious for being uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous. Anchors can drag and leave you in all sorts of interesting situations and when storms do blow up, you’re often trapped by the land and have a more limited set of options for dealing with the storm (though the option of a protected anchorage can be a nice one). Oh yeah, there are crab and lobster traps that are the equivalent of a minefield just waiting to foul your prop in the middle of the night when they can’t be seen by the helmsman.

In contrast, the middle of the ocean is free of all these things. Aside from birds, fish, and sea mammals, there is only wind and ocean. Passages chosen for appropriate conditions and done at the good times of the year for the local weather generally don’t involve uncomfortably large seas, big winds, or even dangerous storms of the sort we’re used to in the US. There is of course the motion. Even after you’re accustomed to it and not feeling ill, it still makes everything a little slower and more difficult, but there’s usually not that awfully much that has to be done right this instant. When things do go wrong, there’s no hardware store to visit, Internet resource to reference, or expert to call, but you have spare parts, good books written by experts, and your own experience and resourcefulness, which is enough to get most everybody into port, though it’s not always the port they intended when they departed.

In the middle of the ocean there is a lot of blue, gray, and black. In general, the sky and water are blue, blue, blue. There are many different shades of blue, and the sailor sees them all at one point or another. The sea offshore in an afternoon sun has a particular shade of blue that I’ve never seen anywhere else; it is formed by foot after foot of sunlight penetrating down into the clear water and reflecting back up. When thick clouds cover the sky, both the sky and the waves take on a dull gray. At night, a clear sky is a deep black, with more twinkling stars than you can count and the Milky Way draped over them, reminding you of the immense proportions of the universe.

Something definitely has to be said about how you pass the time at sea on a long voyage, as you’re without many of the activities and entertainment that everyone is accustomed to on land. Things take on a different pace at sea, though. There isn’t the rushed everyday work routine. Aside from watches, you sleep when you’re sleepy, eat when you’re hungry, read when and what you want (as long as you brought it along), and have plenty of time to think. Time to really relax and think about what you want to think about at your own speed is one of those things that’s almost impossible to find in “modern life” but is plentiful at sea on a tradewind passage. Productivity is important, but in a vastly different sense. We certainly took advantage of a period of traditional Western productivity to provide ourselves with this opportunity, but once you’re free of that for a while, life is much more about sustaining your day-to-day well being and enjoying yourself and the people around you.

One of the things that gave Wes and I the idea to do something like this back in college was considering our likely life path after college. It seemed like even with the high level of productivity in the US, few people were using their productivity to really alter their life in a qualitative way. By that I mean that it seemed to us that everyone worked until “retirement age”, which seemed to be the age when Social Security or the company felt you weren’t much good for working anymore (at least in terms of your productivity-to-salary ratio), not the age when your boundless health & energy spurs you to explore. In between college and retirement seemed to be a non-stop life of work. Although the lifetime earnings of a college-educated US citizen are many times that of people in poorer countries, few used their earnings to trade standard of living for free time and experience a different lifestyle for a while. Most increased earnings due to advancement, promotion, etc. were spent on more expensive cars (to drive to and from the same work building), bigger houses (used when not working or driving to or from work), bigger TVs (“real life” often leaves the brain too fatigued for real life), and more exotic vacations (still no more than 2 weeks, then back to work). It didn’t add up for us. It seemed like you never get too old to sit behind a desk, but you do get too old to go sailing, so we started saving. It may sound like we just don’t like work, even though we’ve worked hard and filed income taxes since age 7. But who does really like their job that much. How many people can honestly say that if they won the lottery or could have another job of their liking for the same pay that they would actually be at the job they’re at right now? Most people work for the money and the luxuries. Don’t get me wrong on “the luxuries” either, when a country as rich as the US devotes as much of its GDP to consuming as the US does, there are some really enjoyable consumer experiences out there, but watch an infomercial or the makeup over the newscaster’s “facial blemish” on a giant high-def TV as he mentions something about ballooning national debt and then says “And now on to celebrity “news”, Tina, who’s the latest celeb to end a night on the town by smashing up their Mercedes?” and tell me things aren’t just a little out of hand at times.

Anyway, back to sailing. One great thing about sailing is that you actually care about the weather for a reason other than golf or the game. You care about where the wind blows and when, you care about ocean currents, the motion of the sun and planets, annual weather patterns, and the political and economic stability of the numerous countries you’re visiting. You come to care a little more about how nature works and how people work. The weather is just an easy example because it means everything when you’re sailing and next to nothing to the white-collar professional who only golfs once a year (me). Five days a week, I would leave a climate-controlled house, walk less than a block to my car (living to save I didn’t have a garage), drive a climate-controlled car to work, walk no more than a few hundred feet, and spend all day in a climate-controlled building then reverse the process. I was one of the “tough guys” who could walk the 100 feet or so to the car without a coat in the Texas or southern California winter, so I skipped the coat and umbrella, which as far as I can tell is the only reason the state of the weather really mattered during the week for a lot of us.

As you can tell, being at sea gives you time to think, including thoughts about the last time you had a hot shower (eastern Panama 3000+ miles ago), ate a real “American Breakfast” (Key West, 4000+ miles ago — thanks to Freddie & Debbie), enjoyed peanuts & beer at a baseball game (Cubs division clincher last year), or saw friends & family.