Back on The Water

30 September 2020

In many ways, I am so very lucky. Alongside an incredible litany of things gone wrong,there have been gifts that humble me and make me appreciate just about every day. (smile)

I was given a such a gift four years ago by my partner who wanted to sail and brought me along with him. This wsa something I have wanted since before I can remember. It was wonderful – being able to fulfill this lifelong dream. Actually learning to sail was far too lofty for me, I was happy just to be on the boat. Once I was there, though, I knew I was home.

I spent the summer of 2016 sailing in the San Juans and up into Canada’s Desolation Sound. Learning, cleaning, learning, sailing, learning, tying knots, throwing lines, learning, and loving it.

I spent the spring, summer, and fall of 2017 sailing from the San Juans to Alaska via the Inside Passage and back. Learning, cleaning, fishing, sailing, tying knots, throwing lines, sailing, and loving it more.

I spent the summer of 2018 between Oregon and sailing. It was a tense summer, of divided time, locations, and priorities. And then it was all gone.

I lost sailing. And confidence in myself as a sailor and crew when my partner and I broke up. Parkinson’s is progressive. And due to a traumatic fall, one eye is blind and the other impaired. Being with someone like me is not everyone’s desire.

I longed to be back on the boat though. A physical ache began to grow, and I was sad for myself seeing friends sailing in familiar places I knew I’d never return to.

Life on the boat was so different from land. My Parkinson’s was better. My balance improved, nerve and muscle tension – and pain – less. Laughter and joy came much easier. I started doubting, though, if everything had really been that wonderful. Was I building it into something grander than it was?

In my dreams I would remember …

The feel of the wind as the mainsail filled and she heeled just to that spot where boat and sea and sky became one. The summer sun hiding behind the sails, only to slide slowly around on a turn, or burst through quickly on a tack. The raindrops joining forces to pelt boat and crew alike, dripping down necks and up sleeves, making the most mundane act a test of balance, awareness, and endurance.

I needed to be back on the water. For two years, I worked on it.

And then, a phone call with one of my favorite people in the world and the only person I trust to take me out in a boat – or not if he felt for any reason that I wasn’t up to it. A couple more phone calls and it was settled – four days in September. We would go sailing. My heart soared. My doubts silent for once.

Arriving at the boat, we decided that we didn’t need to wait for morning to head out; with instruments, he was perfectly fine motoring at night, and I was perfectly fine sitting in the cockpit appearing to be watching the world go by. I can’t see at night – 0ne blind eye and one eye with a damaged retina make that impossible.

So the conversation went a lot like this:

Him, “Look over there, Janie. See (insert noun here).

Me, “Nope.”

Him, “The stars are starting to come out, can you see the Big Dipper?”

Me: Nope, I can see no stars.”

We anchored in a little bay after less than an hour, had dinner and turned in. I fell asleep to a rhythm my soul remembered.

I was awake before dawn. There were no sounds in the boat, but I moved carefully – one, so as not to awaken, and two, it was an unfamiliar boat and I was trying to roll up a blanket.

I carefully climbed the ladder up the companion way, blanket under one arm, cursing at every noise I made, until I settled into the back of the cockpit, wrapped up and silent.

Being on the water this time of day is magical. So many things to see, hear, feel, yet so few things that distract. My mind and heart glided from topic to topic. No anxiety. No pain. No tension. Just the boat. The ocean. And the rising sun.

And I knew.

I just needed to be back on the water to know that was where I needed to be. I was home. I cried a bit, from happiness at the whole ot it. And sadness for having not been able to be here for so long.

We had a grand time. For the next two days, we sailed, albeit slowly because there was little wind and even less current. Using only sail power we moseyed a peaceful 4.5 knots. We also fished a bit, though the only thing we caught was a sea cucumber.

I took my turns at the wheel and felt the same as I did four years ago when I first took the wheel. I belong here. I can breathe here.

My feelings were real, and my voice trembled as I recounted the experience to my brother.

That’s funny,” he said.

What’s funny?”

Mom used to say that. She needed to be back on the water.”

A lump grew in my throat as I fought unsuccessfully to hold back my tears. “I didn’t know she said that,” I replied, “but I’m happy she did. She would understand why I had to go.”

So, am I capable of being a crew member on a sailboat? Yes, but not one whose strength is counted upon. My Parkinson’s symptoms are not always stable. My eyesight is no worse, and mostly better than it was those last two summers. I could, though, fill the role as a helper in navigation, weather, and seas, or at least as cook. I can take a turn at the wheel as long as it’s the daylight and there are no rocks ahead.

I am making plans to go back. Sooner rather than later. As I am reminded, more frequently than I would like, Parkinson’s is progressive. Time is too precious to waste. I have an ocean to sail, sunrises to see, and a life to live.

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