On November 11th, as we flinched like a battle weary crew from a wave crashing overhead, the skipper came up on deck and informed us all it was Remembrance Day. He bowed his head and asked for a moment of silence to remember the sacrifices of the soldiers of World War I and anyone who fought for our freedom.
So we all put our heads down, and took a moment to be still in thought. And when it was over, Graham, one of our crew, quietly recited the words to the poem Lest We Forget:
They shall grow not old
As we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them
Nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun.
And in the morning
We will remember them.
And with the line “we will remember them,” I completely and surprisingly lost control.
I tried holding back the tears, being that a sailboat racing through hurricane-force winds on the Southern Ocean was the last place I needed to be having a break-down, but I couldn’t stop the stream now trickling down my trembling chin. So I hid my face behind the enormous collar of my foul-weather jacket and mumbled things like, “Gosh, all this saltwater…really gets in your eyes, doesn’t it?”
Just four days before I reported to the Henri Lloyd Clipper boat in Cape Town to get ready for the race to Australia, I got an email from my parents saying my grandfather, Walter Hacker, had passed away after being admitted to hospice for multiple organ failures. He was 92, the same age as my grandmother, who passed away earlier this year.
When I finally got hold of my father to ask how he was coping, he wrote to me saying, “I feel like I am in the Doldrums. I have no wind in my sails and I am just bobbing in the water. We keep doing what needs to be done, but my heart isn’t really into anything.”
The metaphor was an unusual one for my father, since he’s not a sailor, but it struck a chord in me. My family hadn’t just lost a member; we’d lost our safe harbor, the reason we always returned to Knickerbocker Lake, where my father and I both grew up. But with both my grandparents gone, we were now adrift, looking for that feeling of home that we always had when my grandparents were alive.
My grandmother, who died in April, was always the matriarchal organizer of the Hacker family — the magnet that drew us to The Lake for BBQ’s, coffee cake or yard work – while my grandfather was the time killer, storyteller and people lover.
My grandfather was the one I’d lose in the grocery store and find half an hour later chatting to the check-out girl, asking her about her studies at university and telling her about how his son studied engineering. I’d have to drag my grandfather away and shuffle him out the door as he’d call back, “It was nice to meet you! Good luck with your exams!”
My grandfather loved telling stories and I loved listening to them. My favorite tales were his World War II stories, and I knew most of them by heart. Like the story about the time my grandfather was driving his Army tank through the snow in Germany and he spotted another U.S. tank stuck in a ditch on the side of the road. When my grandfather got out to help, he was surprised to recognize one of the soldiers – it was his brother, who he hadn’t heard from since they’d been drafted and yanked in different directions by the war. And there they were, hugging each other in a ditch somewhere in Europe during a war.
But most of my memories of my grandfather involved cars: riding on my Grandpa’s lap while he drove his John Deere mower; Grandpa’s head stuck under the hood of his truck, tinkering, his clothes covered in grease; or him listening to the rattle in my transmission and getting his tool box out to fix it. Anything that had an engine, my grandfather could take apart, fix, rebuild and get working again.
The last time I saw my grandfather, in fact, he smiled and asked me first how Ryan was doing, and then asked how my car was running. Because those were his loves – people and cars.
In the weeks running up to my departure from Cape Town on the Clipper Race, I was so busy working on Henri Lloyd, preparing the boat and myself for a grueling passage across the Southern Ocean, that I hardly thought about my grandfather. And I felt guilty that I hadn’t had much of an emotional reaction to the news of his death. But somehow the news of my grandfather being gone just didn’t feel real, being half way around the world in South Africa.
Yet, two weeks later, when Graham said those words on the Southern Ocean, “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old,” my grandfather’s face immediately came to mind, and I was flooded with the most minute, mundane snippets of my life with him – painting old rowboats with him at the lake, riding with him in his pick-up truck, or watching him change a spark plug. The smallest moments in time spent by his side.
But those memories faded as quickly as they appeared on that Remembrance Day, leaving me with a lump in my throat and a flood of tears mixing with the saltwater spray on my face.
And I wondered what the hell I was doing out here on the ocean, so far from my family, chasing waves to places most people don’t ever attempt to sail to, unless they have a screw loose. My family had taught me how important it is to cherish the network of love and support a family provides. Yet I never said good-bye to my grandfather, or spent nearly enough time with him, because I’d been so busy jetting and sailing to far-flung places. Now all I could think about was my grandfather lying in hospice those last few days, longing for familiar, loving faces. And I wasn’t there.
I looked out onto the raging ocean I was battling with a team of 20 strangers who’ve been to hell and back with me, and I felt an intense swell of love for this alien sea, the places I’ve seen and the extraordinary people I’ve met. But, as I took the helm, I scanned the horizon as if looking for somewhere to place my grief and my guilt.
Just then, two albatross swooped out of the sky, circling the bow of the boat. They dove and coasted just inches from the ocean’s surface, soaring upwards and swirling around each other gracefully. Then, as quickly as they arrived, the birds flew away again, leaving me gazing upwards with a tearful smile on my face.
And as they grew smaller in the distance, I quietly said my good-byes and promised to remember.
Tasha and Ryan both raced in Leg 1 of the Clipper Race from London to Rio de Janeiro and Leg 3 from Cape Town, South Africa to Albany, Australia. Tasha competed on CV21 Henri Lloyd – ahem, the winning boat — with Skipper Eric Holden and Ryan competed on CV28 PSP Logistics – ahem, NOT the winning boat — with Skipper Chris Hollis. You can read more about the crew and the boats here at www.clipperroundtheworld.com/crew