Setting Sail Into Unknown Waters

Do you grasp the opportunity or yearn for the safety of the familiar?

First published in Medium 05/10/2022

A person sat in the rear of a sailing boat with red sails, setting off into the sunset.
Image created by author using Midjourney

I have had good chunks of my life where I lived a life I love. They always happened when I stopped thinking about my security and prioritised adventure. I left the arid land of secure jobs and pensions and sailed out on my own. I discarded detailed plans, goals and targets. I pointed myself at the horizon with no destination in mind. I trusted that the power of my passion and excitement would fill my sails and carry me into some unknown world that would feed my soul.

One real sailing adventure in my teens has provided me with a metaphor that I can apply to any point in my life where I have changed direction, set myself free, and embraced freedom and excitement.

The same metaphor has helped me identify times when the opposite is true. I have been following someone else’s rules; I have been stuck in a place where I am afraid to give voice to my ideas for fear of rocking the boat. I have had the wind knocked out of my sails. Daily, I am rowing back and forth and exhausting myself, like the ferryman in The Giant with Three Golden Hairs. I am unable to discover the simple solution to my cursed life. A delusion drives me to say this is the only way to keep myself afloat financially.

Breaking the rules, escaping the moorings.

In my late teens, I felt very lost. I had been trying to live a double life.

One version of me dressed smartly and went to school, only to sit bored all day dreaming of what I could do if society did not force me to go.

The other version was constantly creative. Drawing, painting, writing poems, songs and stories, singing in choirs, acting in plays, teaching myself to play the guitar and piano, and inviting friends over to listen to the latest album by Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd or King Crimson.

On this day, I had failed two of my three A-Level exams, and my latest girlfriend was off to Paris. I had no plan of what to do next. I could not get into University or College, but it was clear that academic life was not for me. I was adrift with no clue of what was calling me, apart from a vague notion of being a rockstar.

I drove with a brother down to our Grandparents, who lived in a tiny cottage nestled into the cliffs in South Cornwall. There was a good wind, and I wanted to get in our sailing boat Sonia and feel freedom away from all pressures and expectations.

My grandad nodded when I voiced my intention and then removed his pipe from his mouth and said.
“Stay in the harbour; there’s a wind out there.”

I nodded and went to the boatshed to collect sails, life jacket and rudder. Leaving them at the top of the landing stage, I slipped through the dark alleyway between boatshed and rocks to the little rocky cove where the rowing boat was moored up. I rowed out to Sonia, switched moorings, returned her to the landing stage and rigged up sails.

All set, I let the sails grab the wind and soon I was out in the large harbour feeling that wonderful heady mix of freedom and control. However, it wasn’t enough. The safety of the harbour felt like a prison. I could see the ocean beyond the two blockhouses which, for centuries have marked and protected the entrance to the harbour.

I had been obeying the rules for too long, staring at the ocean out of the classroom window, not wanting to be there but having no possibility of being anywhere else.

It was not a conscious process to continue my tacking journey past the ferries, the two harbour tugs and all the moored yachts and leisure craft. I didn’t even consider my Grandad’s warning. I sailed past them all and into the swell of the ocean. It felt good, and I felt free.

In a matter of minutes, I realised that the storm I was sailing into was too much for the tiny wooden sailing dinghy of which I was master. With each tack, the swell increased, and each wave began to deposit increasing amounts of water into the front of the boat. I was exhilarated, but I had not considered the difficulties of turning back.

This challenge occupied me now. I needed to choose my moment as I crested a wave. Was the distance from the next enough for me to swing 180 degrees without being caught and tipped sideways into the angry sea? After I had crashed through a few more waves, I saw my chance. I jammed the tiller away from me, ducked under the boom and held my breath for a second until I felt the reassuring thud as the wind took control of the sail.

Now I was surfing into the harbour with the wind behind me. There were no feelings other than contentment. I had risked stepping into the unknown and had the skills and knowledge to face the challenge and survive.

The unseen safety net.

I was unaware of the unseen safety net until I was lying in my bunk below my brother that night.

I returned late that afternoon, moored both boats and stored the sails. The cottage did not boast “new-fangled” things like showers or constant hot water, so I warmed myself on a mug of tea. My Grandparents said nothing about my little adventure as we sat together eating the evening meal and then playing draughts.

I learnt from the shipping forecast that we had been experiencing force four gales, which was building.

Later my brother whispered to me from the bunk above.

“Grandad was watching you the whole time.”

“What do you mean?”

“The minute he saw you were heading out he was on his feet and asked me to come too. He had his binoculars, and we were headed to the cliffs stopping at the phone box on the way.”

“Who did he phone?”

“The coastguard. They put the lifeboat crew on alert. We were watching you from the cliff. Grandad said the lifeboat had the engines going, and if you capsized, I had to run to the phonebox and let them know. They would be with you in two minutes.”

I wonder now how much that unseen safety net my grandfather created was influencing and encouraging me to take risks, or giving me a safe platform from which to launch myself.

A few months after this experience I jumped on a train to London, and within a week I rented a flat and secured a job. My great adventure away from the safety of my parent’s world had begun.

Reminding me to step into the unknown

That feeling of going through the motions, living in one world while yearning to be in another has returned to me many times throughout my life. I also recognise how the frustration builds until I finally break through and how that process is not conscious. I wonder how much I am creating my own unseen safety net and how that contributes to the moment when my intuition says, “Now is the time.”

All logic and thoughts of consequences are suspended, and I head out into the unknown past the harbour walls.

If you would like help creating a sense of freedom and adventure in your life contact me through my website.

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