As the morning light starts to crack open the cloud-covered sky over the Strait of Gibraltar, I make Ryan a strong cappuccino and give him his 15-minute warning to start his watch.
We dropped our mainsail during the night, expecting to hit strong gusts and messy waves near Tarifa with sea states predicted to get worse as the ocean funneled us through the strait. But the high winds and rough seas never arrived, despite my vigilant lookout for them through the night.
I climb back up to the helm and sit quietly, looking out on the glassy sea as we glide calmly over its surface, the Rock of Gibraltar looming large ahead of us with Morocco to my right and Spain to my left, both of them so close I could probably swim from one side to the other.
Ryan is rubbing his eyes as he steps into the cockpit. “Oh my, is that Gibraltar?” He looks around sleepily and repeats “Wow!” over and over again, reminding me of the time in 2012 when we sailed our old boat, Hideaway, to Annapolis from New York. Ryan was practically jumping up and down in the cockpit, so excited that we’d sailed all by ourselves to the sailing capital of the U.S. He has that same look on his face now, overwhelmed with the thrill of sailing our own boat from France to the north coast of Africa.
I’m too tired to speak, but the morning air is infused with Ryan’s giddiness and I realize I haven’t thought much about our geographical location and what a milestone it is to be sailing past Gibraltar on our own. I’ve just been motoring along all night as though it were the most normal thing in the world to just sail past Africa. We are approaching 1000 nm in one journey, something we’ve never done before on our own, in a part of the world we’ve never sailed before.
I was up all night, navigating between Spain and Morocco, but I hadn’t yet felt the wonder of what we were doing. Perhaps it was because, during the night, I received the tragic news that 49-year-old Andrew Ashman, a crew member and experienced yachtsman on the Clipper Round the World Race, died from an accident on board the IchorCoal boat. @ClipperRace tweeted that IchorCoal pulled into Porto, Portugal just a few hundred miles behind us, to get the crew to shore and, I’m sure, manage the emotional consequences of this accident.
All night, as I sat at the helm alone in calm waters, I thought about adventure and risk and the fear that rises from stories like Andrew’s in the hearts of people who believe adventurers to be foolhardy and selfish, taking risks with their lives and worrying their loved ones unnecessarily. To the unadventurous, those who take on extreme challenges can seem ungrateful, as though they are willfully taunting fate by stretching themselves towards the ceiling of human limitation.
I thought about Andrew’s family and how they, like my family, probably questioned why he wanted to take on such a crazy challenge as to race across treacherous oceans. What drove him to pursue such an uncomfortable endeavor? I wondered if Andrew gave his family the same arguments I gave mine: “Life is too short not to take advantage of such an exciting, mind-expanding opportunity. Hundreds of people do the Clipper Race every year, training very seriously for it, and no one’s ever died.”
I thought about how I repeated that same argument to myself before I stepped on board Henri Lloyd to race across the Southern Ocean, a body of water that evokes fear and awe in the guts of even the most experienced sailor. But I didn’t die. I didn’t even get hurt. I sustained a few bruises and a nasty rope burn and, in turn, I gained the skills and confidence to do what I’m doing right now: sail my own boat across oceans around the world.
With that confidence, the desire for more adventure grows and pulses with the beat of every new thrill, every stretch beyond what I thought I was capable of before. Every new experience strengthens the desire to do more, see more and fill the vessel of life with the dense cream of memorable experiences, filtering out the watery moments of boredom.
Sometimes that pursuit comes with risk.
As Ryan and I are standing on the bow of Cheeky Monkey, looking at the Rock of Gibraltar, with hot coffees in hand, I shriek, “Look!”
A pod of dolphins is coming straight towards us, but not in a way I’ve ever seen dolphins swim before. They are are standing up in the water with their flippers in the air and their tails moving quickly enough to keep their bodies suspended above the water by their tails alone. I can’t help but laugh and squeal as we watch this incredible feat of synchronized swimming from what feels like our own personal welcoming committee.
As the dolphins drop into the water and swim under the bow, popping up to play in the wake, I am bathed in a love for life that is much more intense than anything I’ve ever felt with my feet planted safely on solid ground.
To some, it sounds crazy, even dangerous, when I tell them I live on a boat; that I have no mailing address, no permanent phone number, no place on land I call home; that my travels are dictated by the weather and my moods; that I can’t tell you exactly where I’ll be next week or how long I’ll be out of sight of land; or that I choose to live this way.
But as the sun rises over the Rock of Gibraltar, I am sitting at the bow, contemplating the fact that, for me, this is how life is experienced to the fullest, with waves of intense joy lifted in proportion to the difficulty of each physical and mental challenge.
And I feel I have chosen wisely.