And you may ask yourself

Recently I was asked by a friend if I would like to go on a 900 mile trip in a sailboat from Scotland to Portugal. Without thinking, I said, hell yes. Everyone kept saying, wow, what an opportunity. You must go. This is a once in a lifetime. They were right. And so I went. Here is a list of things to ask yourself before you agree to a friend’s invitation to crew his father’s sail boat for a 5-8 day voyage from the Isle of Bute to Lisbon:

adobe creative suite 6

1.) Why was it my wife just said “Sure you can go. As long as you update your life-insurance policy.”? Spend some time thinking about that. And then go make sure you have updated your policy.

2.) Will we be crossing the Bay of Biscay? For those who do not know (and this included me until a week ago), the Bay of Biscay is the site of some of the fiercest weather in the Atlantic Ocean. It is not unlikely that one will encounter storms with 20 foot waves and 30 mph winds. In fact, it will probably happen. And it may continue for three days in a row. You may believe that you will die. And the words of David Byrne “How did I get here?” will haunt your waking thoughts?

3.) How far away from help will we be at any point in the trip? If you are crossing the Bay of Biscay, which is 400 miles across, at a certain point you will be 200 miles from help. This would be hours and hours before the coast guard arrives if a mayday were to be called in. Dark, freezing, panicked hours. And that is, if they find you. Make sure you are OK with this before you sign on.

4.) When your friend says we are going to be sailing through the night on shifts, what does that mean exactly? This is important to know, because four guys doing four-hour shifts means that in a 24 hour period you would have 12 hours off between shifts. Not bad. But, if two of the sailors are too inexperienced to do 4 hour shifts alone, then it means that the sailors buddy-up and the shifts become four hours of alternating work/sleep. If this occurs, you might go for almost a week sleeping no more than four hour at a time–if that much. Make sure you are OK with this before you sign on.

5.) Do you know what it means to sleep on a sail boat? I hadn’t even thought about this, but even when you’re not in a storm you are constantly being tossed. You have to minimize the amount your body is thrown around. The only way to do this is sleep wedged snuggly between two sides of stationary cleverly-staged padding of some sort. And even then, there is still the relentless noise. Not just winds and the crash of waves against the boat, which are very loud alarming sounds, but worse are the sounds of every untethered thing in the boat rolling or skidding back and forth. Pots and pans, cans, cutlery, bottles, anything that can make a clink or clank will do so. Imagine if no one on the boat packed any ear plugs. It is possible. Believe me.

6.) Have you ever been sea sick? Even if you think you are hardy, you must get the scopolamine transdermal patch. It works like a charm. Your eyes and mouth might dry out, but it’s worth it. Barfing a few times a day makes everything worse.

7.) What do you eat on a sailboat for 8 days? The short answer is everything you eat on shore. We packed eggs, bacon, spaghetti, sausage, fresh produce, fresh coffee, cream, milk, butter, pancake mix, and many canned soups and sundries. But in the midst of a storm, you can hardly use a rollicking stove or keep boiling water in a pot. Sandwiches, power bars, and pieces of fruit may become your meal three times a day.

8.) How do you bathe? There are “sun showers,” bags heated by the sun with tubes that come out of them. When the weather is nice, you can use these on deck. If the weather is not nice, you may go six days without a shower. Make sure you are OK with this.

9.) How do you use the toilet? There is an airplane-like toilet contraption on board, but without that reassuring airline blue current of sanitizing fluid that makes everything pure again. The boat has a bucket next to the toilet that has to be filled every couple of flushes, that when poured into the toilet facilitates flushing. Usually.

10.) How long will we go without seeing land? Prepare for five days.

11.) What if my clothes get wet? Prepare for six days.

12.) Will I get along with the other sailors? Hopefully you know them all in advance. If you only know one of them, and he’s very likable and cool, chances are, that well, the others will be like that too. And so it was. But it could have been another catastrophe. Roll the dice.

13.) Will I wish that I were spending precious vacation days doing other things? Totally. Like 80 times a day. You will wish you had just spent the full 8 days in Scotland or Spain or Portugal just traveling around, going to museums, eating great food, shopping, drinking, staying out late, sleeping in, making love. But then, you will end this trip and you will look back and you will feel proud and will remember this for as long as you live and tell the story for years and say, I fucking did that!

14.) What kinds of things will we see along the way that might mitigate the misery? There are countless porpoises in the ocean. They love to visit boats and do tricks around the edges. It feels like your own personal Sea World performance. Off the coast of Spain there is this neon phosphorescence in the water that glows intensely when stirred by motion. At night, the dolphins leave long trails of swirling light in the water. You will feel like you are dreaming.

If I had known the answers to these questions a couple months ago, I probably would not have gone. And so perhaps in an act of willed denial, I didn’t go searching for the questions, much less, the answers. You may call it a lack of curiosity. Or worse, a failure of imagination. Such things are considered defects of the human character and are shameful and universally condemned. Yet these are not merely stagnant character flaws. At times those defects are deliberate acts of passion. For they allow us to proceed with a plan that may cause us great distress, but appears immensely attractive. Yes, too many questions interfere with desire.

I wanted. I went. I suffered. I survived. I’ve begun to forget the hardness of it. And I’m glad I did it. And I won’t do it again. Or, rather, I hope not. But like most of us, I’m as dumb as denial.

All the best!


20 responses to “And you may ask yourself”

  1. g.a. says:

    No photos?

  2. g.a. says:

    All warnings notwithstanding, it sounds awesome!

  3. Scotty says:

    Absolutely wonderful post — the mixture of real and romance…

    I’m glad you did it too, but I would’ve liked to have seen a before and after photo.

    There must’ve been times that you thought about some historical seafarers, and wondered how they did it? When you were sailing into the Lisbon harbor were you feeling connected to Magellan?

  4. lane says:

    wow, as a parent no less.

    in fact, some of this reminds me of parenting. sure the still waters of 5 and 6 are nice enough, having survived the storm of 3.

    (and yet, 13, 14, 15 16 loom ahead like the dark treacherous waters they are.)

    sorry, back on topic. wow, amazing, FU**IN” AMAZING!

  5. Jeremy says:

    This is such a fun, fantastic read (so glad I’m merely reading, not experiencing)… I’ve been thinking about you these last few weeks, hoping you were OK; yet even when we were discussing this trip prior to your embarking on it, when we were both sort of pre-de-romanticizing it, I still never imagined that it would be so difficult–I just thought it might be kind of boring. On the contrary, I guess… thanks for sharing (and, yeah–what, no photos?)

  6. swells says:

    Farrell. Farrell. Farrell. I am so glad you’re back! I imagined it might be a little harder than any of us fantasized, but I didn’t foresee most of these realities. Yet I am so, so glad you did it. Can I tell you how much I LOVE this post? I thought your road trip post was amazing (sorry I never told you), but this one tops it–that paragraph at the end about desire and imagination and questions. You are an adventurer and a poet–what a great combo. Loved it!

    Now, on to Cuba!

    Also, how jealous am I of your experiences with porpoises and phosphorescence

  7. Farrell, I am way freaking jealous.

  8. Buffy says:

    Wow – I love that you did this, Farrell! It’s too easy to get cowed by the unknown and opt out of great adventures, but you plunged on in, huzzah! And I’m glad you didn’t become another story on “I Shouldn’t Be Alive.”

    Having had your own seafaring experience, you might enjoy the book Blue Latitudes, by Tony Horwitz. It’s a great, fun, educational read in which he retraces the voyages of Captain Cook. Good stuff.

  9. LP says:

    Ooops. Buffy got hold of my laptop.

  10. swells says:

    I knew you were Buffy, LP, you botoxed vixen!

  11. Rachel says:

    I am so glad I didn’t know about this beforehand, Farrell, or I would have been worried sick for you the whole time. (Trixie is a brave soul, too.) Welcome home!

    Your adventure encapsulates both claustrophobia and agoraphobia, and that doesn’t even begin to cover the seasickness. Wow.

  12. Tim says:

    Aside from “HFS!” I can’t really think of anything to say. I’m so glad that you did this.

    If I ever get the chance to do something like it, I promise not to ask any of these questions or else I’ll surely never go and will always regret it.

  13. Farrell Fawcett says:

    Scott, yes, I did feel a connection to history–mostly because our captain was a history buff and big fan of Lord Nelson. At one point just off the tip of Spain he said something like: “these are very historic waters. Lord Nelson won a tremendous sea victory here. Below us lie so many cannonballs, ships, and skeletons.” In full, sad disclosure, I did not make it all the way to Lisbon. On day 6, our wind died and we couldn’t sail. We were motoring at 4-5 mph. It became clear that we were not going to make it all the way in 8 days. More like 11 or 12. I had to make my flight as I couldn’t take more time off work. So on day 8, me and another sailor got dropped off at the port city of Vigo in Spain–about 200 miles north of Lisbon. We trained down to Lisbon for our flights home this past Monday. Sad. The sailboat finally made it to Lisbon yesterday.

  14. Farrell Fawcett says:

    And thanks for all the sweet words and concern. FTR, I did NOT have to deal with any seasickness. And I DO have some photos, I just haven’t uploaded them. I will add a couple or a link to flikr soon. I just finished unpacking last night.

  15. lane says:

    i’ve been thinking about this all day.

    i mean this in the best way, but farrell you are definately the “most likely to be killed mountaineering/iceclimbing” or “most likely to be killed at sea” please be careful.

  16. nikki says:

    i loved reading this. you have no idea. you have answered all of the questions that i have had and then some. you are such a crafty writer, insightful and heartfelt, etc. sounds corny i know, but like your other friends mentioned, that last paragraph is a zinger. arrow to the heart.

    i am glad that all the sailors made it to shore and am sure that you and duncan will share a bond for a long time to come

    xo, nikki

  17. Megan Rosenfeld (Spencer) says:

    Farrell, you could have asked ME!!
    Now you know why I hate sailing. You captured it perfectly. I think there is still a place open on the Portugal to Florida leg if you’d like me to put in a word…

  18. lizbet says:

    “At times those defects are deliberate acts of passion. For they allow us to proceed with a plan that may cause us great distress, but appears immensely attractive. Yes, too many questions interfere with desire.”

    Never really thought about questions and desire so succinctly before, I find what you say true. So glad you survived. Did you wonder about those teens who want to go it alone for the whole world trip? After reading a similar article John enthusiastically pushed in front of my nose I thought; “no, no I don’t think so”. He of course thought it was a great idea and his zeal was much like that of a kid’s enthusiasm over seeing a movie like Alien vrs. Predator. Too many answers for me but I look forward to hearing details around the campfire for years to come.

    xo Lizbet

  19. Matt N4 says:

    Nice job man! What do you mean, “won’t do it again”? There weren’t even any collisions or major failures! Cheers buddy!

  20. Chaosgirl says:

    Wow! What an adventure, and most certainly not a failure of imagination. What good is it to be if you can’t suck the marrow out of life while you’re busy being?