Sailing – a metaphor for life

The time is five thirty on the morning of August 1st. I am leaving our home in Cantabria to travel to Esbjerg in Denmark, from where, with my brother, I will help sail his yacht across the North Sea to Kent in the South of England. The getting there will take two aircraft, two trains and will last all day. The journey is most agreeable. Unexpectedly befriended a Turkish guy and shared a Thai lunch in Copenhagen Central train station.

I finally arrive at about 8:30 pm. My brother is on the boat and has prepared a Malay curry with such things as chicken, pineapple, coconut and spinach ─ our family soul food, delicious!

Some thirty-two hours later it is 05:00; we are leaving port this early to take advantage of the ebbing tide. We are sailing across the North Sea ─ a journey of about 670 kilometres. The sky is clear with only light winds ─ the start of a small adventure which could last anything from 4 to 7 days. We are sailing and thus at the mercy of the elements.

In the end we cross in 4 days and 5 nights.

Sailing is a great metaphor for life as, although you have an idea where you want to go, you have no control of the weather, the wind the sun and the sea. The job of the proficient sailor is to be aware, to be mindful; mindful of the trim of the sails, the handling of the boat, of the changing wind and sea. It is to be simultaneously connected to the elements and to the boat in order to respond to what is happening. We cannot determine how quickly we travel or when we will arrive; we can only create the most favourable conditions to best take advantage of the prevailing conditions and maximize the speed.

Talk between my brother and I on the first day is about catching up on family news. Apart from that talk is sporadic, with silences lasting many hours. There is no discomfort as there is no need to talk; in fact most of the talk after the second day is about sailing. For example, he shows me how the windvane autopilot works. I believe that if we were to total all of the time spent talking it would not be more than half a day during the four-day passage.

Much of the time for me was in mindful mediation, in choiceless awareness; staying in the present moment is not so difficult in these circumstances

Bad weather and I feel seasick ─ not the debilitating kind; I just cannot hold down any food. This means I eat dry bread and drink lots of water and every so often I have to pause to vomit, which always comes as a relief. I feel worse below decks so this means I spend all of my time now on deck, the place I am happiest. The variable and squally weather keeps us both occupied and fully in the present moment.

This contrasts with a half-day becalmed beneath a scorching sun.

There are some truly magical moments; for example one night under a cloudless and moonless sky. Not another living creature in sight ─ just us, the boat, the sea and the sky. The wind almost on the beam. The boat heeled over to about 15 degrees. The hiss of the water as the boat cuts through at 6-7 knots (11-12 km/h). The fresh breeze on my face. The sky, a perfect dome, full of millions of stars. The Milky Way brilliant and beautifully clear overhead. Although we do not talk, we are both touched by a sense of wonder, of connection, of smallness, of plenitude, of peace, of the immense privilege, of gratitude to be alive and experience this.

This contrasts with the tension of making the eight-hour passage into Burnham- on-Crouch at night-time. Absolute concentration is vital in order to pick out the lights, markers and buoys, to avoid the shallows, sands and obstacles that lay waiting for a lapse in our attention. Box-breathing is my friend, keeping me centred, making sure that I keep balanced. All of this whilst feeling very, very tired, having spent days sleeping in short bursts.

For all of the above reasons sailing provides us with a great lesson in acceptance and mindfulness. There is no point in complaining about the weather, the sea or anything else for that matter. You just have to respond the very best way you can, being present with open curiosity, observing then finding the most positive way to act. You have no control over the elements so you have to welcome them.

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