This roadside photo taken yesterday along the edge of our property, shows that autumn’s on full display. This time last year, we were down to our final 10 days of pre-departure preparation. The forest around us was broadcasting its brilliant palette, but we only noted it in passing. Our attention was fully fixed on the tasks at hand. We weren’t sure that we would be able to finish up the essential boat work on time. The final date for craning Ariose into Lake Ontario and launching our adventure loomed, and we were giving it our all. In a frenzied rush to the finish line, we made it.
Fast forward one year – and indeed, it has felt as though time has passed in the blink of an eye – and once again, we find ourselves surrounded by fall beauty. This time, we’re able to spend leisurely hours sitting on our front porch, or walking our woods, or paddling Trout Lake, soaking up nature’s seasonal spectacle.
So, we have been back on terra firma for nearly 3 months (already!), and what have we been up to?
It was mid-summer when we last posted an Ariose Note. Our voyage was over. It was time to haul our sailboat home, unpack, and transition back to land life. We felt far lighter on our return, figuratively, and now needed to literally lighten the load that we were towing back. It’s astonishing how much stuff can be packed away within a space as small as Ariose. It was like we were on a treasure hunt, finding things that had remained untouched our entire time away. Some items we didn’t regret bringing, like our storm sail. Although never in conditions that warranted its use, it was reassuring to have it along as a just-in-case. The extra main and genoa? They were unnecessary considering we were outfitted with new sails, and weren’t heading off to remote parts of the globe or on lengthy ocean crossings. The spare stainless hardware? Definitely excessive! It contributed to weighing us down below our waterline. We brought all sorts of items that we intended to use to improve Ariose: extra winches, supplies for a bimini, and more. That “to-do” list for the most part was ignored, guilt-free, while underway. My side of the v-berth cubbies seemed like a magician’s hat, as I pulled from them an endless stream of extra bathing suits, footwear, and other articles of clothing… most never donned. And food? We had provisioned well enough for a circumnavigation. Cans of food purchased in Ontario before departure, sailed in our hold to the Bahamas and back again, now well travelled and well rusted, were finally consumed once home. We made mental notes on packing for future voyages to aid us in striking that delicate balance of being sparsely but fully prepared.
Before leaving this discussion of things discovered when unpacking…
Tim and I had agreed to not buy souvenirs – an easier commitment for ardent anti-consumerist Tim to honour than for me – so, when Tim wasn’t looking, I had tucked a few found conch shells aboard as keep-sakes. I recalled placing one or two in the lazarette, under the sole, maybe even one in the shoe cubby. Well, all I can say is that they must have multiplied, as each excursion to empty another corner of the boat unearthed one more shell and looks of resigned disbelief from Tim. We have given several away and still have over a dozen now adorning our front porch.
We went through the motions of hauling Ariose and ourselves from Kingston to North Bay, but were in a surreal fog. The greens of the forests and the rock-cuts lining the highway did seem especially beautiful, though. Time away polishes the beauty of home. One small incident along the way – a blown tire on our tri-axel trailer followed by the discovery that our jack and tire iron had inadvertently been separated from our gear – gave us an opportunity to meet yet another good Samaritan, the final in a long list of generous people lending helpful hands.
On our return, we were greeted by black-eyed Susans in full bloom at our driveway – a lovely welcome.
Then reality hit. Our yard looked like a battle scene. Those final frantic preparations had not allowed for a tidy exodus. On our departure day, tornado-like, we did the final pack, throwing things we needed in the truck, and tossing other items aside in a spree of last-minute decision-making. Piles of sawdust and wood debris, trim from constructing the galley, bookshelves, and cubbies, had gathered cobwebs on our front porch while we were gone. Our straw bale garage that serves as our home for now was decidedly un-welcoming. We had pushed and stacked our meagre furnishings in the corners to allow us to squeeze our 2 vehicles inside the garage, and every spare space was filled with tools and various pre-departure flotsam and jetsam. It was nearly impossible to enter. It was disheartening.
Other inhabitants had clearly found our home to be a welcoming space, though. Mice. Lots of them. There was a rodent-sized hole carved along the edge of a wooden door, but they must have removed the flashing neon: “party house here” sign before we returned. Bags of couscous and birdseed had been emptied, with seeds and grains deposited in drawers, in footwear, between towels, everywhere. And the droppings from the seeds and grains that had been consumed? Also everywhere. Most fabrics had been nibbled then woven into colourful nests. Some of those nests were still occupied by the next generation. It took a full week, starting at one corner and methodically working our way through to clean everything, slowly moving things back to where they belonged. Once we got to the point where we could set up our rain-water collection system and not need to haul water from the lake, the clean-up progressed more quickly.Tim was chipper through it all, clearly happy to be back on home turf. On good days, I felt the thrill of freedom from the confines of life on a small, always moving boat. And the worry-free, full nights’ sleeps in a stable bed were absolutely decadent. On other days, I was cranky, yearning to get Ariose back in the water and resume our adventure.
Much to our surprise, we found that getting our land legs back was not just a figure of speech. Nine months of life aboard had taken its toll on our middle-aging bodies. That vision of an active lifestyle sailing on the high seas proved to be an illusion. Yes, there were bursts of physical demands, weighing anchor by hand, or lugging provisions back to the boat come to mind, but these workouts were sporadic. Aching hips and knees, unaccustomed to the strain, shortened our hikes during the first months back on terra firma. It was rather alarming to experience such a quick slide in our fitness. Another mental note for our next cruising: daily exercise!
Getting our land legs back relationship-wise has also been an adjustment. Suddenly, Tim & I did not need to be within arms’ reach of one another, unless we so desired, of course! I found myself informing Tim whenever I needed to use the bathroom facilities. Living aboard, with the head/toilet only a few inches from our bed pillow and a few feet from the galley, this was a necessary courtesy allowing the other to escape to the, shall we say, fresher air of the cockpit. Now on land? It was no longer polite to do so, just kind of weird. Having space between us has taken a bit of getting used to.
Our time away has assumed the strangest time warp. Our adventure, once complete, immediately took on a dreamlike quality. When going about day-to-day business on our return, whether renewing a license or reactivating health insurance, I would feel almost fraudulent explaining our absence. Why did I let my plates expire? Well, we’ve been out of the country. Cruising. We sailed from Ontario to the Bahamas and back. I would be met with raised eyebrows or an incredulous “oh?” on the receiving end, and left with the feeling that we had imagined the entire voyage.
On one of the 1st days we were beginning to feel settled in, dark clouds advanced across the sky. It was quite incredible to watch the storm’s approach from the protection of our front porch, feeling wind increasing with promise of something powerful about to hit. That anticipation was laced with familiar trepidation. Then, as the thunder and lightening began and the rain poured down, we realized that we were well anchored on solid ground and could just head inside when we had enough of the show. We had many of those kinds of life aboard versus life on land moments of contrast.
On the topic of storms, it had been the impending hurricane season that was the main motivator of the timing of our return. Although the season officially begins June 1st, we knew statistically, there was little chance of an early encounter, especially on our northbound route, so we weren’t concerned about still being on the water for the first month or two of the season. Tropical storm Arlene, with its April arrival, reminded us that nature does not abide by statistics. Then mid-June, Bret hit Trinidad, an island considered outside the hurricane zone. I guess nature doesn’t abide by maps, either. Both were far from us, but were unsettling nonetheless. We could feel a difference. Months of blue-sky days had shifted and we were frequently seeing storm clouds and feeling a heaviness in the air. We had made the right decision to head home when we did. By mid-July, we were safely ensconced inland along the New York canal system. By the time Harvey, Irma, Maria et al. wrought their devastation, we were safe and sound at home. But our hearts were still out there. During the strongest storm we had experienced, gusts were reported to have briefly hit 80 km/hr. That frightening night made it all the more unfathomable for us to imagine the force of 250+ km/hr winds. We found ourselves at home, chests tight with anxiety, turning off the news reports because they were unbearable to listen to. We hoped for the safety of all in the hurricanes’ paths.
Although we had unloaded much at the dock before craning out, it still took weeks to fully unpack Ariose. Tim was short-listed for some contract work and needed to immerse himself in studying for the pre-requisite tests, so I assumed responsibility for unpacking duties. It was a slow go. Just heading up the ladder to board Ariose would trigger a wave of sadness. Our boat had become such an important part of our daily lives, an animate and loyal creature and now she looked so empty and neglected. The reality that this chapter in our lives was over would sink in. I would load up a few bags of stuff, cart it back, and call it a day. My heart longed to leave Ariose as is, to get her back in the water, to find an island with a sheltered anchorage, and to point our bow there.
One antidote to that melancholy has been tackling projects. We’ve given Ariose a quick cleaning (she’s barnacle-less once more), and drafted a new task list. Particularly strong currents near the locks colluded with protruding nails along the canal walls to carve their marks into her hull. We likely won’t take on that repair work until next year, but we did get started by stripping her stripes. It felt fitting to remove them. Yes, they were distinctive – handy when other cruisers were searching us out to offer us a beer but less appreciated when we’d get “you’re the boat that grounded at Warderick Wells!” recognition. Those stripes always seemed too aggressive for an Alberg 30’s character and for ours. We’ll go with something a little more true to her classic boat style when we re-finish her.
We’ve also been busy constructing a shed to store firewood and to give Tim a protected area to work on his ancient vehicles (since we’re living in the garage!). And we’ve been taking advantage of the unseasonably warm weather to do some repair work on the roof, and to construct a massive planter box up there, preparing it to become a living roof. We look forward enjoying the fruits of our labour – herbs and strawberries perhaps – next summer.
The other antidote to the post-adventure emotional doldrums has been reconnecting with those we had left behind. One unanticipated benefit to blogging about our voyage was the connections we made with new and old friends and acquaintances. Knowing others were virtually voyaging with us was heartening. We were delighted with every comment. The distance from close family and friends, though, felt exaggerated. Reuniting was high on our priority list. Less than a week after returning to Canadian soil, I visited my parents, intending to surprise my mother on her 84th birthday. She had suspected I would be appearing on their doorstep that day. Clearly, she wasn’t born yesterday!
Over the first couple months back, we’ve enjoyed many get-togethers, embarking on a binge-socializing sprees of breakfast, lunch, tea, dinner, and evening wine dates. It’s been wonderful catching up on what’s unfolded in others’ lives during our time away. It’s been these reconnections that have generated a sense of truly being happy to be home.
The most special reunion has been with our children. A portion of each of our broods’ visits overlapped, giving them a long-overdue opportunity to meet one another. We enjoyed short hikes, long campfires, and paddles/sails to Camp Island’s beach (we dug out our long-neglected Sunfish). As always, our time together passed too quickly.
We’ve also been occupied with job hunting. Tim likely has garnered a contract picking up on some environmental work he had previously done that had been paused while awaiting approvals. We hope it will be enough to fund his expenses through the winter without infringing on his wood chopping and snow shoeing time. I had been rather reluctantly ramping up my search efforts too, although a couple postings actually were enticing. I’m pleased to say that just last week, I was offered and accepted one of them, and soon will fully transition back from our cruising life to navigate the waters of managing a specialized community mental health team. This leisure / adventure chapter of our lives is coming to a close.
People have been asking, and we’ve been reflecting on, what we have learned. A lot. On our Ariose Notes home page Tim and I describe ourselves as novices. That no longer fits. After all, our first 24 hours out provided enough for an article in an upcoming issue of “Good Old Boat” magazine. They profile stories from those who, as the notes to authors says, have “screwed up big time and lived to tell the tale”. Thankfully, not all days were so full of lessons. The learnings list is long though: how to read charts and how to trim sails in a range of conditions; to never ever, ever anchor off a lee shore; how to anchor in tides and currents so that we have a chance of getting a restful sleep; how to trust technology without dismissing gut instinct; and how to be patient with your partner and yourself. We’ve learned that dawn always comes, even on the longest, darkest, roughest night; how much sea water to use for boiling perfectly salted pasta; and that winds are important, but the tides and current rule. We learned many times over that if you are wondering if you should do something, whether that something is reef the main, put on a life jacket, wash the dishes, or apologize for crankiness, that the answer is yes. Do it now. We learned that skin that usually doesn’t see the sun may need extra protection; that there are some things you can cheap out on and some things you can’t; that fear is no excuse for not stretching yourself. We learned that home is where you are. That there’s beauty all around us. That an uncluttered, simple life brings rewards.
Most of all, at the risk of sounding clichéd, I’ve recognized a deeper learning. Our cruising has fostered within me an appreciation of the transitory nature of life. Trying times come and they go. In the midst of the roughest, most exhausting conditions we faced, we would ward off feeling overwhelmed knowing that the coming hours would bring a change. The morning after a night of being thrashed about in a violent storm at Compass Cay, we found ourselves transported to tranquillity as we snorkelled in calm clear waters among amazing coral forests. And we learned to savour the times of serenity and beauty and wonder, because they, too, pass. Our perfect day of ideal sailing crossing the aquarium-like Yellow Banks from the Exumas to New Providence was followed by our propeller becoming fouled, necessitating a plunge among the floating fish carcasses in polluted marina waters to untangle it. It may take hours, but after a prolonged calm, that breath of air would always return, filling our sails and our spirit into a blow that we then wished would subside. And it would. There is no such thing as permanence. Change is constant. The present moment is what we have. This lesson continued upon our return.
The day we craned Ariose out, I received news that my pooch who I had missed dearly, my standard poodle Melo, likely had multiple myeloma. He had been cared for by my ex-husband while we were away, and had fallen ill the last month or so. I had left the most youthful energetic 10 year old dog I’ve ever known and returned to a frail, aged old man.
It seemed like such sad news to return home to. Then, I received an email. Vague symptoms being experienced by a family member over the last few months had finally been diagnosed. Our fears were realized. Cancer. Incurable. Expectations of decades of life yet to live harshly cut to months. I’ll honour their request that I not write about it, but needless to say, Melo’s impending death was thrust into stark perspective. He was a dog, who had lived a good life. He had enriched my and my kids’ lives. Although heartbreaking, I was grateful to have a little more time with him. Nothing lasts. Impermanence.
I prepared myself emotionally for our reunion, likely a short one, knowing that I would soon face “the” decision. Remarkably, Melo’s appetite returned, he gained weight and recovered energy. My walking buddy’s usual perky step reappeared, and his mischievous ways resurfaced, sneaking away to our waterfront to harass the local beaver. Hope rose up – perhaps there’s been a misdiagnosis? That hope was dashed a couple of weeks ago. A very quick decline rendered the decision that I had dreaded an easy one to make. With Tim at my side, a compassionate veterinarian helped us end Melo’s life. My tears watered the soil as we dug his grave. His body lies alongside a favourite walking trail on our property, in an area with plenty of chipmunks to entertain his spirit.
This past weekend, it was Canadian Thanksgiving. We have much to feel thankful for. These reminders of mortality reinforce the reality that life is finite. There’s preciousness in knowing that all things come and go, that everything will end. Tim & I are ever so grateful for all that we have, and for the dream we’ve realized. This sailing chapter in our lives gifted us with far more challenges than we had expected, and far more rewards. It has gifted us with a lifetime of memories.
When I left work nearly 2 years ago so that Tim and I could launch our dream, my colleagues wished us well with these words attributed to Mark Twain:
Sail away. Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
And that we did.