Wonders of a slow-motion adventure

Crossing an ocean by sailboat is, among other things, an exercise in slowness. With a maximum speed of around 6 m.p.h., the destination is no longer several jet-flight hours away. Around the fifth day into my Atlantic crossing, I realized I had better get used to the sight of an endless gray horizon stretching out before, behind, and around me. And I vowed never again to say flippantly, "What a small world!"

I wasn't always certain how, as a self-proclaimed mountain person with no boating experience, I had ended up committing 3-1/2 months to a life at sea on a 43-foot sailboat. I was joining a friend who was in the midst of a circumnavigation/Internet education project. The timing was right, with my teaching job ending just before she was due to set sail from Mallorca, Spain. And my spirit of adventure told me I should never turn down the opportunity to experience something new. So last August I found myself flying to Spain, eager to join the six-member crew for the final leg of Makulu II's global journey.

As a seasoned traveler to out-of-the-way places, I was initially attracted by the itinerary. Images of the Canary Islands, Morocco, Senegal, and Brazil came vividly to mind. A couple months into the voyage, however, the realities of sailing had replaced the romance of a Moroccan souk as the trip's more lasting impact. It was the journey, not the destinations, that mattered.

In today's age of high-speed Internet connections and supersonic jets, the chance to travel with wind as the only power source, out of touch with family, friends, and the media, is eye-opening. There is nothing you can do to speed up the trip or instantly gratify the desire for a hamburger or a movie. The answer to "When are we going to get there?" is "Whenever we arrive." Which all depends, of course, on the wind.

Going slowly didn't mean a lack of excitement; Storms and other emergencies occasionally had us running up on deck in full foul-weather gear at 2 a.m. We lost our engine, all the electronic devices it powered, several sails, and our cooking propane. We switched our destination from Brazil to Trinidad. I finally realized that the only thing you can truly expect on a major sailing venture is the unexpected. And that the most necessary items to bring are resourcefulness and the ability to laugh even after a 50-knot gust of wind has just destroyed your jib.

Losing the luxuries of e-mail, a fridge, electric lights, and a motor to speed us along sometimes complicated things, but I found that the freedom to relish the present moment without other distractions was a gift far more lasting than the modern conveniences I was doing without.

When I revisit my journal of the trip, I read accounts of the disasters and difficulties we faced, but also this: "Day 8 of the Atlantic crossing.... Last night I sat up at the bow with Shawn, watching a sunset, and the magic of the sky nearly crushed me." Or this: "Day 13.... What a lovely, rich, free, alive day today was!" "Day 24.... I feel like the ocean - and this boat, this crew - really has worked its way into my heart more than I ever thought it would. I will be so thrilled to see land in a few days, but there's actually a part of me that's sad that this is all about to end - this slow-paced, intimate travel over the ocean."

When we finally crawled into Trinidad 29 days after leaving Dakar, Senegal (our original estimate was 21 days!), all six of us were excited to see land. The colors and smells were overwhelming, and we were giddy at the thought of fresh fruit and telephones. I couldn't get over the speed of the cars.

But now, months after the voyage ended in Florida, it's not the rainforests of Trinidad or the friendliness of the Senegalese that most sticks in my mind.

I think instead about my nightly watch below a star-studded sky, the nearest light a thousand miles away. Or the amazement I felt as I watched our little boat handle huge seas and powerful gusts of wind, her sails taut. I remember the joy that dolphins brought with their playfulness and boundless energy; they sometimes elicited cheers from us after a particularly acrobatic jump.

I have particularly vivid memories of time spent with the crew - very quickly, a surrogate family - celebrating Halloween in makeshift costumes on Day 20 of our crossing, or listening to Justin play guitar as a fiery sunset stretched across the sky. I learned that though the ocean may indeed be void of mountains, the sea is not a monotonous gray stretch, but a constantly changing landscape, fertile for the imagination. And, having now rejoined the world of cellphones and traffic, I am ever grateful for the opportunity I had to, at least once, slow down to the speed of the wind.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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