Sick to my stomach on the high seas: a rough day at work

Chuck, Dave, Ian & Dimitri (l to r) - In St. John on Jaska, just before casting off for Europe

Obstacles are allies and difficulty is our friend. It is easy to say, but I internalized this lesson the hard way, sick to my stomach and out of reach of land on a small sailboat.

When I was 25, I moved to the Virgin Islands, thinking I was going to live the life of Jimmy Buffett. However, just eight months of Margaritaville living (looooooong story) convinced me that my place was in the real world, so I decided to leave the Caribbean. I chose as my means of egress a 53-foot sailboat bound for Europe, across 4,000 miles of North Atlantic. I was one of four crew members who were to deliver the sailboat Jaska to the Dutch owner’s summer home in the island of Ibiza in the Mediterranean.

There was one problem: I’d never really sailed before – not for more than a day or two, anyway. This was going to be a five-week crossing. My friend Dave, an experienced sailor, had gotten the gig for the two of us, and for some reason the captain thought I’d be a good addition to the crew.

It wasn’t long, though, before it was clear that I was the weak link in our crew. Just a day and a half into the journey, my stomach and I had become uneasy crewmates. Worse, I had begun to sink into despair — despair over my foolish decision to get onto the boat, my utter lack of sailing ability, and the shameful seasickness that set me apart from my crewmates.

Only 36 hours into the trip, we were well beyond the point of no return, and I was feeling profoundly isolated, truly lost at sea.

I could not visualize reaching Gibraltar. I could only see the obstacles ahead, not the least intimidating of which were the millions of waves that would buffet our boat and batter my stomach.

The third day out of St. John, I ate a bowl of cereal for breakfast. For lunch, I picked at a salad. And the dinner entree was a handful of crackers. Nothing else looked like it would stay down for long.

The seasickness was probably the biggest contributing factor to my gathering depression. I was fighting the sea, and I could not imagine that I might win this fight.

I soon learned that retreating below to the cabin was a great way to generate seasickness. In the cabin, you rock with the boat. So unless you glimpse the horizon bouncing wildly outside a porthole, the room appears to be stable and solid. Meanwhile the fluid in your ears, which determines how balanced you feel, is sloshing around like pool water in an earthquake. The difference between what you see and what your ear canals report that you should be seeing is what creates your seasickness.

The answer is to stay up top where the fresh ocean breeze soothes and the distant horizon appears more stable. But seasickness is also mental. Once you think you might be seasick, it is nearly impossible to mentally reverse course.

Compounding both the seasickness and my somewhat hypochondriatic thoughts about being seasick was the fact that I had no way out. I felt like crap, and it looked like I’d continue to feel like crap every minute of every day for the next month.

I fought my thoughts and the unceasing rocking with little success. The waves were my enemy, overwhelming my determination to feel better.

At 5 p.m., as I lay listless on a bench near the wheel, Ian shouted from below: “Cocktail hour!”  His head appeared at the bottom of the companionway opening, which was the passage way from the cockpit to the cabin below.

“Cocktail hour!” Ian’s head cheerfully called out again. “Who is interested in a drink?”

Dimitri and Dave both gave a yell, but I passed. Neither my stomach nor my spirit was ready to party.

I was surprised by his offer anyway, since the boat rule was no drinking while at sea. But Dimitri explained that every day at 5 p.m. we were allowed a small drink.

Ian climbed the ladder into the cockpit as the boat pitched and swayed, balancing a bottle of scotch and four glasses like a circus performer. The polite Antiguan had spent most of his adult life as a working sailor, and was comfortable on the rolling ocean. He poured two fingers of scotch into the four glasses as Dave and Dimitri held them.

Slumping on the cockpit bench, I weakly repeated that I did not want any scotch. Again Ian smiled.

“Dis drink isn’t for you. It’s for da’ ocean. We have to pay honor to da’ ocean.” And with that, Ian dumped one glass of scotch over the side of the boat. Then my three crewmates sipped and chatted while I prayed for death.

That night after my 8 – 10 p.m. shift, I couldn’t stomach the idea of my tiny bunk in my tiny cabin near Jaska’s bow, where the motion of the ocean was magnified to roller-coaster conditions.

So I lay on a foam-cushioned bench in the darkened main cabin, listening to the wind blow through the rigging. Jaska’s hull shuddered violently as she crashed through the peak of wave after wave after wave after wave. As the boat pitched forward, backward and side-to-side, the thought of the millions of waves between us and Ibiza was unbearable.

I pondered Ian’s offering to the depths, an open admission of the ocean’s dominant role in our fate. A Taoist thought bobbed gently by: a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step. The unspoken next sentence is that the journey only continues with another step, and then one more, and one more. Therefore, each step, each obstacle — and each wave — is necessary. We would not reach our goal without them.

We curse the obstacles in our lives, but it is the obstacles that give our lives meaning beyond mere existence. Just as the high jumper could not set new records without the restraining force of gravity constantly working against him, our accomplishments only have significance within the context of the obstacles we had to overcome to achieve them.

A conclusion washed over me: gravity is the high jumper’s ally, and each wave is my ally.

Each wave is my ally… The weird thought wandered around in my head, as the suddenly soothing waves and wind rocked me to sleep.

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