Why? Why do you want to sail to the South Pacific? Why leave behind good friends and a great family, and the secure comforts of life at home to throw off the docklines and head south? Why spend the better part of five years in the uncertain realm of the sea, bouncing from ship to ship and port to port? I get asked these questions come almost as often as the standard, “so have you hit any bad storms?” People of all ages in every port of call—a Tico giving me a lift to a nearby beach, a pro surfer in an uncrowded Tuamotu lineup, an old Tahitian over lunch in his wooden shack, a Kiribati local on the remote outpost of Fanning Atoll—and even fellow sailors all ask the same basic question: Why? So with my voyage at a standstill as I spend the winter in Hawaii working and waiting for fair weather to sail the final 2500 miles to California I thought I’d break my long silence and take a stab at the simple question.
One of the greatest things kids have going for them is the ability to dream big and dream often. Kids are by nature curious dreamers. (By dreams I don’t mean the images that come to you during sleep, but rather “a cherished aspiration, ambition, or ideal,” as my computer’s dictionary puts it.) Anyone who has known me from a young age probably knows I grew up with typical boy dreams: first to be a pro baseball player, then a pro basketball player, then a baseball player again. But always in the background was the dream of the island paradise: living on a palm-clad islet surrounded by shimmering blue water with surf breaking offshore and scantily-clad bronzed women prancing around the beach. As I grew my love of the ocean and nature in general blossomed and I found myself being pulled constantly to the sea. It didn’t matter what I was doing—tidepooling, boogie-boarding, sailing (or rather capsizing) The Laser, bodywhomping, buoy hunting, surfing, or just sitting atop the cliffs watching the sunset or the fog roll in or a storm pass through—all that mattered was that I was near the ocean and immersed in nature. With the passing of the years I began listening intently to my father reminiscing on his days as a seventeen-year-old sailing to the Caribbean aboard the Heddy and found myself devouring Sterling Hayden’s Wanderer and Robin Lee Graham’s Dove. By the time I set aside Dove my island paradise dream had transformed into the dream of one day sailing to the South Pacific islands, maybe even around the world. Within months I was searching out a way to get seagoing experience. I looked for work on a Scripps Research Vessel and sent letters out to a number of yacht delivery captains, almost always receiving the same response: you’re to young, try back when you’re 18. By November of 2002 I was ready to set the dream aside when I got a call that a boat was sailing out of San Diego needing crew for a trip to Germany. (Anybody interested in that trip can order a copy of my book Voyage of the Atair.) Eight months later I returned home with 10,000 sea miles under my belt and a firm goal to sail to the South Pacific before the time I “should have” graduated college.
My childhood dream of living the good life on a tropic isle transformed into the dream of sailing round-the-world, and later morphed into the explicit goal to sail to the South Pacific. But all this back story still only gives a partial answer as to why; after all dreams of sailing around the world are a dime a dozen and most people with these dreams never leave their home port. So why, I again ask?
Well, there’s the tradewinds, cumulus clouds speeding across a clear blue sky, deep blue white-capped seas, sunsets, a twenty-five knot breeze originating in the Arctic and blasting down the Baja coast, sailfish, sea turtles, the moon rising over a dark and desolate coastal mountain range, dolphins frolicking in the bow wave, sea breezes, Papagayo winds to keep you on your toes, Ollie’s Point shared with good friends alone, the scent of land after days at sea, solitude, a starlit night watch, the smell of the sea after too long ashore, giant tortoises, the Humboldt Current, penguins and seals, dorado lunches, remote islands, perfect waves with empty lineups, days without a sign that other humans exist, snorkeling in sapphire waters over rainbow reefs, atolls, a Tahitian beauty in a bikini waving you shoreward, the feeling of being 1000 miles from any land, beers shared among newfound friends after a successful passage, Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, French Polynesia, the Line Islands, Hawaii, and a thousand and one ports along the way, vicious lightning storms that scare you to drink, arriving in a foreign port with bad charts in the midst of a white squall, green skies over your first atoll, the knowledge that you are truly living each day, and the ability to share all this with family and friends old and new.
Yes, but why you may still ask? To accumulate a wealth of knowledge in the ways of the world and cultivate a well from which many a story can be drawn. To prepare myself for life in the “real world” while seeing how long I can avoid such a life. To get away from the disgusting world we live in and search for more promising lands and a brighter future. And to embody Jack London’s great words: “I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”
One simple question; one convoluted answer. So perhaps I should just let past greats speak for me. When Edmund Hillary was asked why he set off to climb Everest he replied beautifully: “Because it’s there.” And then there’s the greatest of all American writers, Mark Twain, who once said:
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than those you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor, catch the tradewinds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”