How It Started

by | Sep 2, 2014

The ridge was high, snow covered and buried in cloud. Below us, below the cloud, was Juneau, home. I followed Don, muscling my skis into sudden turns when rocks jutted through crusty snow. Don’s hair swayed across his back brushing his belt-line. It hadn’t been cut since the day the Marine Corps had remade him a civilian, 8 or 9 years ago, after it had run him through two tours as a forward spotter in Viet Nam, after it had shredded his ear drums and, though we didn’t know such a thing existed at the time, after it had twisted his psyche with PTSD.

I’d once asked him: “Do you think about it? Viet Nam?” One of his lower eyelids sagged showing the red meat under his eyeball. He looked at me with the distant hardness of a man who has seen people killed, people he killed, and he said: “Every day.”

There was no good way off the ridge—unless we turned back, which wasn’t going to happen. It fell off steeply on both sides and the slopes were tangled with alder and willow. Farther down, stood Sitka spruce and spotty snow. We’d have to shoulder our skis and crash out through the brush.

“What are you going to do with your boat?” Don lived in the harbor on a small black-hulled sailboat. A boat that size, I figured, could make a run to Sitka on the outer coast or up Lynn Canal to Haines, both small towns in Southeast Alaska a hundred miles or so from Juneau.

“Sail her into the South Pacific,” he said.


“You can do that?”

“Yeah.” He dropped off the ridge and picked up a line.

When we got off the mountain and back into town, I hiked over to the library in wet ski gear and hunted down the books on sailing. They were in the sports section and if I’d ever walked down that aisle before, it was because I’d been lost. There were two shelves. I poked through them, dingy sailing, day sailing, boat buying, nothing of much interest. Then fat among the skinny picture books was a dusty volume with the cardboard sticking out of the worn fabric of its binding. I pulled it off the shelf: Cruising Under Sail, by Eric and Susan Hiscock.
I sat on the floor, squeezing sweat and snow-melt out of my long-johns, and thumbed it open. Published in the 50s by a couple who had circumnavigated several times, it was a chapter by chapter explanation of how to take a sailboat around the world.

At that moment, God leaned out of the clouds and whacked me with a meat hammer.

I read that book like a thriller. There was no sleep for me until I finished it days later. In later years, I gave copies to friends who wanted to sail off-shore; none finished it: too detailed, too dense, too long. But it launched me. From that day forward, I had no choice. I was crossing oceans.

Only eighteen months later, the night before I was to fly to Victoria to buy Kainui, did I do the adult and responsible thing and sit down at my kitchen table and consider the path I was heading down. Was this what I wanted to spend my 30s doing? Spend my money on? Risk dying for? Reasonable questions, but beyond pointless.

The next morning, I boarded a flight south, a bank check for $22,000 in my pocket.

It was the last life-altering decision that I would ever make with such unalloyed enthusiasm and excitement and so pumped with a sense of grand mission. Alaska, Italy, jumping a rogue truck and crossing Africa, sailing around the world—in none of those, did I really have a choice; the decision had been made outside of my ken. Years later, with Kainui passed on to another sailor, it was as if the spirit had left me, as if I were adrift. I had to think about my life’s choices, ponder their pros and their cons—they never called to me with the urgency that they once had. And life became a little grayer.

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