Monday, November 24, 2008

Living the Dream (and the Dream Lives)

I lounge under the dodger, out of the occasional spray. Every twelve minutes my watch alarm beeps and I rouse myself to scan the horizon for ships. Duty done, I reset the watch and slouch back full length on the cockpit seat. I doze, not even doing the work of entertaining any thoughts.

When my brain does flicker to life, it is to reflect on what a talent I have for bringing indolence to active adventures like ocean sailing. During my climbing career there were few who enjoyed a good storm day as much as me: long tent-bound days with nothing on the agenda but cups of tea and a paperback and endless naps in my muggy sleeping bag. I taste some of that old magic on the first few days of our passage to Australia, as I keep a lookout for hour after hour. This trip is starting off under overcast skies and with rough seas, just like all of our trips in the western tropical Pacific. Pelagic rolls and pitches. Water comes sweeping over the windward rail and goes streaming out of the low side scuppers. It’s a good day to keep my ambition firmly in check, to doze in twelve minute intervals and just let the time pass by.

Let others wonder how they might do something like this sail from Alaska to Australia. I do do it, as often as possible, resting on one elbow and stretched out full length in the cockpit. It seems to work for me.

Later in the day I stand on the coaming aft of the cockpit, one hand grasping the security of the stern rail, scanning the endless waves around us, seeing how big the world really is. There is some little job I should be doing on deck – shaking out a reef, or untangling the weather jib sheet from the anchor windlass. But first I’ll stand here for a few more minutes, looking at eternity.


We left Passe de Dumbea at dusk, wondering if we would get away with just one more passage without any of the “bad day at the office” type experiences that some of our friends have run into, like an hour of reported 60 knot winds in a squall on the way to New Caledonia.

The wind models from the Australian meteorological service had shown light and variable winds parallel to the coast of Grande Terre, the main island of New Caledonia, and then a sharp shift into the 25 knot southeasterlies that stretched all the way to Australia. Exhausted from our hard push to get out of Noumea, and deflated after the exhilaration of departure, I skipped the production of rigging ourselves wing-and-wing and let the ship find her way under jib alone. I set up the windvane to steer us on a course to the south of where we wanted to go. That kept the wind a little forward of the stern, enough for us to maintain speed and self-steer. When the wind is this light and right on the stern we move slowly, the windvane begins to have problems, and I stay up half the night adjusting things. Getting a little farther to the south would also put the southeasterlies aft of our beam when they came, guaranteeing us a fast and comfortable ride.

The next day we did reach the trades, but found they were south-southeasterlies instead of southeasterlies. This meant that we had the wind forward of our beam, just as we did on the sail from Fiji to New Caledonia. And, just like the sail from Fiji to New Cal, the decks were awash and the cabin got soaked forward and to starboard by our old friend the leaking caprails. My band aid caulk job in Noumea evidently hadn’t done the trick. And, just like the trip from Fiji to New Cal, I found myself with the numb feeling in my face that is my first symptom of seasickness, and then I was on my knees in the cockpit, spewing downwind like a good sailor spews.

“Oof,” I said to Alisa after regaining my equanimity. “I think the lesson may be that we shouldn’t be so cavalier about setting off into 25 knot winds.”

“I don’t know,” she said. “We knew it would be like this. It really isn’t that big a deal.”

Even though we had had a fairly miserable time on the passage from Fiji, with a soaked interior and sea conditions that required constant vigilance over Elias’ safety, Alisa had been completely unfazed by the imminent passage to Australia, bringing to bear the “get ‘er done” attitude to seafaring that she picked up from her time on commercial fishing boats in Alaska. It had been Alisa who had been the main driver for overcoming port inertia in Noumea and getting us back to sea quickly. We know of a lot of boats that are finishing their cruise across the Pacific with the wife flying ahead to New Zealand and the husband making the passage from Fiji or Tonga with friends or casual crew. It’s hard to overstate how different this is from our approach on Pelagic. Different things work for different people, but we can’t imagine setting out on a trip that we know in advance won’t be sailed by both of us. Pelagic only goes with both of us, where both of us want to go. With the boat being so much our home, and this adventure so much the current version of our shared lives, there is no other way.

Which brings me to the answer that I’ve imagined for anyone who might ask for advice on sailing the world on a small boat. You could do it without my wife on board, I would say. But I wouldn’t recommend it.

Later we reflected on an acquaintance boat that had gone on the reef in Fiji and, according to the grapevine, suffered fairly substantial damage to their rudder. The wife had flown home while the husband had stayed behind to organize repairs. “I’ll tell you his first mistake,” I said to Alisa. “If you’re going to sail the world with your wife, make sure you sell your house so there’s nowhere for her to fly back to.”


After a couple days of uncomfortable sailing the wind backed from south-southeast to southeast, and everything changed for the better. With the wind further behind us, Pelagic was able to stand up and sail on her feet. We picked up a westbound current that boosted our speed by as much as a knot, and found ourselves back in the effortless passagemaking that we first experienced sailing from Mexico to the Marquesas. Pelagic danced over the seas. The waves, tamed by the following current, gave the boat just enough back and forth motion to lull us, ease us, sooth us. Storm petrels fluttered off the stern. The GPS showed our speed as anything between 6.6 knots and an otherworldly 8.5. Elias went down for his nap and Alisa and I enjoyed the rare freedom of relaxing in the cockpit without worrying over his safety. Everything was sunny and blue, the world was perfect and it was ours.

The shortwave carried news of a worldwide financial crisis. It sounded impossibly abstract – toxic debt, bailouts, credit lockup. Somewhere, on some computer, we had investment accounts that were suffering. But that was all part of a pretend world, a parallel universe for people who don’t get outside much.

Night found us only three hundred miles away from our landfall in Bundaberg. Our previous noon to noon run had been 160 miles, a stellar pace. I began doing the arithmetic in my head to calculate what it would take to get us into port in time to clear in during business hours in two days’ time. Liking the answer I got, I began tweaking sails in search of an extra quarter knot to give us a cushion against dying wind. Throughout the trip I have been cautious about speaking my greatest fear aloud, that Elias might be injured when we were far from help. Now I found myself counting down the hours until the passage would be over and I wouldn’t need to live with that one particular worry.
Sharing the last coconut of the Pacific crossing.

The next day the trades failed. The wind speed dropped and the wind came right onto our stern, where it did us little good. We left the favorable current and sailed into a giant eddy that gave us a contrary current. We were making four and a half knots through the water, and a dismal four over the ground. We began motorsailing, picking up an extra couple of knots. For a while the windvane was able to steer us, but then the wind became too light and I started to handsteer. Elias went down for his nap and Alisa gave me a spell.

After she got the feel for the motion and the rhythm of responding to the waves with the wheel she looked at me and said, apropos of nothing in particular, and everything in general, “You know, I’m not ready to stop sailing. We’ve got to keep going for a few more years.”

On this blog I have tried to tell the story of our trip as truly as possible, without either overselling the good or dwelling too much on the bad. It’s been interesting to watch the relationship between the story that I have wanted to tell, and thought I was telling, and the story that the blog’s readers have come away with. Throughout the trip, and especially early on, we were getting supporting emails, both from people we knew well and from strangers, telling us to keep up the fight, to see it through, to trust that a better day was coming. “Hmm, that’s very nice,” I would always think. “But things haven’t been that tough.”

There have of course been the inevitable challenges of an abrupt overhaul in lifestyle. But we remind ourselves that we would have also faced real problems, real challenges, if we had decided to keep living in our house and working our two jobs while we raised Elias. Those problems are mundane and they don’t make for riveting reading on a blog. But the problems of staying at home are real, especially for someone like me who always has to see the other side of the mountain, or the next bay along the coast, or the tropical islands five thousand miles away.

This is all to say that while sailing across the Pacific took a hell of a lot of work, and some serious readjusting to new realities, our life afloat hasn’t necessarily been harder than life ashore would have been. But at the same time I have always been conscious of the fact that it was my dream we were following. Alisa has bought into the dream completely, and has thrived in her life aboard. But I have always been aware that she gave up a lot to go to sea.

Which is why it was so great to hear Alisa, unprompted, say that she wants our family life to continue afloat.

In the last months of our Pacific crossing we talked more and more about other possible trips we might make. Having Australia as our firm goal on this trip has freed us from the tyranny of endless choice between equally wonderful destinations that has caught other crews we know. If we are to keep sailing, we’ll need a new goal. Continuing right around the world is an obvious choice, but where’s the adventure in that? Pretty much any dunderhead can circumnavigate. Alisa and I both love high latitude places, and for months now we’ve talked over the idea of sailing to Patagonia.

But of course a hundred things play into the choice of our next cruise, or even if there will be another one. We’ll be operating under the constraints of sailing with a small child for years to come, there’s the eternal question of finances, we both want to get back to Alaska while we still have a few good ski trips left in us, etc., etc. It’s complicated. A few times I’ve tried to get Alisa to shake hands on the idea of sailing to Patagonia, but she always refuses. To her, committing to a trip like that means that she’ll do everything she can to make it work, bring everything to bear to make the trip succeed. She’s not ready to give that kind of commitment yet. And neither am I. I suppose.


The sun set on our last day at sea. It fell over the vastness of Australia, still out of our sight to the west, and silhouetted the tankers that were paraded up and down the shipping lanes along the eastern seaboard of Oz. I got out the camera and started snapping away like a tourist. After watching the sun set out of sight of land a hundred times, I’m suddenly not sure when I’ll see this simple miracle again. For the last sixteen months we’ve always lived in the company of our next passage: talking to other sailors about it, plotting it out on the chart, considering patterns of wind and weather, making lists of tasks that must be completed before leaving, working away to get half of them actually done, reading about our destination, considering what the people might be like, how expensive it might be to live, what the history and natural history have to offer us; everything involved in making another relocation on our endless shift from here to there. And now, we have no idea when our next passage might be.


At dawn land was still out of sight. But rays of light seemed to spring upwards from the western horizon, through a scurze of purple-brown atmospheric haze, giving us an indication of the vast landmass ahead. As if the huge desert landscape of this continent were a jewel floating in the ocean and casting its own light heavenwards. What would a lookout at the masthead of Captain Cook’s ship make of the sight? Would he have hesitated before hailing the deck, trying to make sense of what he saw? Or would he have sung out with joy and certainty?

Excitement at our arrival animated every brief conversation between Alisa and me, enlivened every routine task. For years we dreamed of the day when we would set out from home on a small boat to sail to Australia. It seemed that day would never arrive, would never be as real as all the sleepy, half-pointless days that came along with such regularity in our life of routine. And then it did come, and we left. Then we had a new day to dream about, the day we would make landfall in Oz. That day, too, seemed unlikely to ever arrive. As we traveled onwards and onwards it stayed stuck in the unknowable future. And now that day was here, it was today, we were living in the midst of it. But we still couldn’t see Australia, and without that all-important visual, our arrival seemed hypothetical and uncertain. We tried to convince ourselves that we really were reaching the end of the trip, that we really had sailed the boat almost all the way from Alaska to Australia. Neither of us quite believed it.

Nineteen miles from Australia and we still had no sight of that low continent. I raised the courtesy and quarantine flags and went below to catch up on sleep lost the night before when we conned our way around the northern end of Fraser Island. While I slept Alisa saw Australia and called out a sotto voce “Land ho!” to let me rest. When I woke we went through a mad dash to shower ourselves and clean up the boat for our arrival. Before we knew it we were motoring up the Burnett River to Port Bundaberg.

Raising the Australian courtesy flag and the yellow quarantine flag.

My Uncle Ken and Auntie Marge had been haunting the marina for a couple of days, looking for us. And right after we tied up at the quarantine dock, there they were on the other side of the locked gate, waving at us. How nice to be greeted by family.

Since Alisa holds a resident visa and I am an Australian citizen, there was some chance that Customs would require us to pay import duties on Pelagic, at a stinging 17% of assessed value. There was also some chance that the Quarantine folks could require us to haul out and repaint the bottom within a week of arrival – good for preventing the introduction of exotics into Australian ecosystems, terribly inconvenient for us.

So we were a little more nervous than usual when the three officials (two customs agents, one quarantine) came aboard. Rebecca, the “good cop” customs agent, sat down with me in the saloon to go over our various forms while Rory, the “bad cop” customs agent (all shaved head and biceps) asked, “Mind if I have a look around?” and started poking through the boat.

Rory spent most of his time up forward, where Elias sleeps at sea and Alisa and I sleep at port. It’s a personal space, a place where normally no one has any right to go. Although we had nothing to hide, it made me incredibly nervous to watch this stranger go through our clothes lockers and rifle through the storage space beneath our mattress. I tried to keep an eye on whatever he was examining, but at the same time I was trying to make eye contact with Rebecca, especially when she started asking about the criteria that would determine if we were liable for import duties. Meanwhile the quarantine agent was asking Alisa about our inventory of dried foods, I was trying to fill out the rest of our small craft arrival form, and Elias was running around in the tiny space, now filled with five adults, imitating the shark that had attacked our windvane two nights before.

In the midst of all this madness I noticed that Rory had found something up forward. His back was towards me, so I couldn’t see what he was holding, but he was studying whatever it was closely.

“So, what’s the story, Michael?” Rebecca asked. “How long will you be in Australia?”

Don’t look nervous, I said to myself. Make eye contact. Remember that they are trained to hone in on unease. But what the hell did Rory find?

“Oh, a year. Then we’re off to New Zealand”

“That’s OK then. Don’t worry about the serial numbers on those forms.”

I risked another glance at Rory. He turned towards me slightly, just enough for me to see what he was holding.

He had found one of Elias’ favorite books: Hippos Go Berserk. And he was reading through it, page by page, all the way to the end.

At that point I figured that we had nothing to fear from Australian officialdom.

As soon as we were cleared in we went through the quarantine gate and had a great chat with Ken and Marge. They soon had to run back home. We were spending the night at the customs dock and didn’t have to worry about moving the boat, so we decided to take a walk before dark and stretch out our legs after six days on board.

A few hundred yards down the road we came to a meadow that had been surveyed for new development. We walked past the no trespassing sign erected by the Bundaberg Port Authority. And there, fifty meters or so away, was a mob of eight kangaroos, probably eastern gray kangaroos, Macropus giganteus.

The sugar cane fields to the west were burning, their smoke spiraling upwards in purple plumes against the setting sun. The low light picked the kangaroos out against the field as they stood erect, staring at us. Alisa looked back at them through binoculars. Elias rested in my arms and pointed at the mob. “Kangaroos!” he said. “One two three five eight nine ten!” He looked back at me and finished with, “Wow!”.

Alisa and Elias of course had never seen wild kangaroos before, or any kangaroos. We had been ashore less than an hour.

“What a welcome to Australia,” Alisa said.

Poppin’ the Dom. Trip’s end, Port Bundaberg customs dock.


We’ve been in the country almost a month now. Our first days were a whirlwind of family visits and the silly housekeeping tasks that are always one of the main pursuits of life. It didn’t of course quite feel real to be here. Surely there was something more momentous waiting for us at the end of all that sailing?

Now, a month later, it still isn’t real. Aside from a delightful week-long cruise with my Dad, we have been spending our time in soul-less, overdeveloped coastal towns where it’s possible to dock Pelagic at a marina or anchor in a river. We’re having fun visiting family, and are having an especially great time now that my immediate family from the States has come down for two weeks. But I can’t shake the feeling that this first month in Australia has been like the first semester at college, when you hang out with people who you never see again after you make good friends. Whatever place we do settle in will presumably be very different from anything that we’ve seen so far. To really find our place here we’ll have to do some serious exploring of the continent. We’re hoping to do a Christmas cruise on Pelagic and a whole series of car-camping trips inland. We have everything to learn about this place, and natural history is such an important part of our worldview, so we’ll have to figure out the snakes and the birds and the marsupials and the platypuses and the major habitat types and the good swimming holes and so on and so on. We can already feel what a treat it will be to be biologists in the midst of the independent evolutionary experiment that is Australia, where everything is new and strange. And we’ll have to meet our people, find like-minded friends among the undifferentiated mass of Australians that passes before us every day.

And while we visit with family and think about exploring the continent, we’re also going through the nuts and bolts process of getting settled. I applied for a job already, although I hadn’t even started looking for one, and we’ve all gotten the Medicare cards that get us into the national health system. We’ll look up one day and find that life has moved forward on us and that Australia is, if not exactly home, then a place where we know how we fit in, however imperfectly we might understand it as a whole.

Pelagic in the bosom of family – Uncle Darryll, my dad, and Uncle Ken in the cockpit.

We look back at the life we left behind in Kodiak and marvel – it feels like a life that was led by somebody else, in a distant time.

I remember going to Yosemite Valley years ago to meet up with good friends who had biked there all the way from Fairbanks, and were continuing on to South America. Hanging out with them in Camp 4, the famous climbers’ campground, I marveled at how travel-hardened they had become from living on the road for months, camping all the way.

That’s us now. We talk about visiting Lord Howe Island, three hundred miles or so off the Australian coast, and think nothing at all about the sailing involved. Right now, in the middle of visiting with my family, we could be ready to put to sea for three days if you gave us an hour to prepare. If you gave us a day to get ready, we could put to sea for a month. It’s hard to explain how much this trip has changed us in part because it’s hard to remember what it was like to be back home, dreaming about sailing the world and wondering what it would be like to travel far from the beaten track with a two year old. Just as we can’t recognize our old lives, our old selves back in Kodiak wouldn’t quite recognize the people we have become.

Now that we have served this year and a half apprenticeship, sailing to any one place would be as easy, and possible, as sailing to any other – Ecuador or Europe, South Africa or Singapore. We have worked the trick of reclaiming the feeling of endless possibility that hasn’t been part of our lives since we moved to Alaska in our early twenties.

A year and a half ago we walked away from two good jobs and a cozy house and the condition of being known quantities among a community of friends. For a year and a half we lived by our wits, keeping one step ahead of a toddler and the deep blue sea. And now we look back on that departure a year and a half ago and realize that we gave up all the security in the world.

We gave up all the security in the world and received, in return, something far better.

The world.


  1. Michael, Alisa, Elias,

    Thanks for letting me sail along with you on this trip. I have read and enjoyed every word. I could say so much more, but after reading your last post I feel the way I always feel at the end of a good book with a happy ending: I wish there was one more page...

  2. Words can't describe the joy that I feel after reading this last entry. For lack of better words - how proud we are of you guys and what you have accomplished in this journey. My eyes welled up with tears while reading this entry.

  3. Congratulations! And thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing your adventure. As a sailor and a mother of two kids I have followed your journey with interest. I am someone who wants the adventure but is not sure she wants the adventure. At the very least I will have been a part of yours. Many happy sails...

  4. Alisa and Mike, glad to hear you made it safely to the end of your rainbow. I really enjoyed reading your "arrival" blog entry. Hope you have a hot hot Christmas, with family and new friends. Cheers, John Piatt