A funny thing happens, off sailing for days, or in the intensity of one long day with an assortment of conditions. For a while I thought that this was all about fatigue, that odd experience of being much, much less connected to the necessities of daily routines. Small mistakes, or details overlooked, and a focus that feels dreamy, rather than the usual, grounded, routines of the day. After those long two or three day passages – of which there have now been four, this year – it happened again that it was the day after, even after having had a good night’s sleep, that I was prone to those odd mistakes. This year I became especially aware of the feeling of dreamy, altered reality that went with it all. As the year has gone on, I’ve found this happening even after long single days of major effort, with no overnight sailing at all.

Often, those extended, hard-push days come because of a schedule that involves trying to visit with somebody, who will not be available a day or three later, after the amount of time that would be involved if the sailing schedule were more relaxed. So after having sailed hard, on what would normally be a rest day, I find myself in to a dock, and visiting. Oddly again, by part way through the day of activity and interaction at the dock, rather than being more tired, and more affected by fatigue, instead I am back into that “normal” place. No more unobservant mistakes, no more sense of dreamy unreality to the tasks of the day. If it’s time to sail away later, to someplace for the night, that goes forward with the usual grounded routines solidly in place.

Meanwhile, there is this: sailing, for me, and single-handing, particularly, have that quality of “I just have to do this.” A pull, that when honored feels exactly right. When neglected, there is the feeling that I am missing something vitally important. All these years, I could not have told anybody more than this: that I simply am drawn to doing this, with a sense of both urgency and deep desire.

Along the way, time in the boat has contributed to increasing strength, well-being, and overall health. Through the long winters ashore these have often slipped, but have returned again with a good long dose of boat time. Once again oddly, if I hang around on the boat for too long in one place, with friends, enjoying the fun of life near town, that magic shift begins to lose traction. I’ve begun to think that oh well, just being on the boat is not the magic cure.

Then for whatever reason, it’s time to be off to sea again. Sitting with exhaustion, and those long, long days that unfold themselves when the weather is just right to sail, and just right the next day, and the one after that. With a destination in mind, it makes no sense to decline a good wind; doing so can mean an extra week, and/or long slogs upwind, or worse, without wind at all, floating in place for half a day or more, if one has the poor judgment to raise the anchor in the first place (nevermind that the weather report said that there would be a breeze). So in those times that are just right, it’s off to sea again, communing with the wind, and the tide, and the long, long days, sometimes into nights.

Surprisingly, in those long runs strength returns. Along with that dreamy feeling, somehow interwoven with fatigue, but I am learning that although they are interwoven, that dreamy feeling and fatigue are not the same thing. The dreamy feeling has complications: it can feel like loss of cognitive ability – and in some ways, it is. Although mistakes are not catastrophic, they can be pesky.

In a conversation about all this a few weeks ago, I talked about concerns of losing mental capabilities, and fears of something along the lines of dementia. But I got an interesting response back (thank you, Lori): that when one is doing deep inner work, in a big way, sometimes one ends up in an altered state that is something like meditation, and in that place, the normal everyday stuff can slip away. I heard this and thought, yes, that feels right, somehow true to my experience. This was relaxing – I mostly stopped worrying about dementia – and it was illuminating, especially in relation to sailing, and that dreamy state. As in, sailing off for days or weeks at a time is an entry into a different kind of awareness. Sailing requires focus, and at the same time, that very focus can be the pathway to disengaging from the concerns and cares of one’s land-bound life. Rather like meditation.

This connection between sailing and a meditation-like state, and the experience of healing, goes together with the material that is taught by the brain retraining folks, particularly in the work by Ashok Gupta. Gupta focuses quite a bit on stillness meditation as a primary tool for recovery from chronic illness that is related to limbic system issues. (See previous posts, linked below, for more on this.) Myself, I don’t ordinarily consider myself somebody who is good at meditation. In brain retraining, I have been more drawn to the techniques offered by Annie Hopper (also referenced in those same links), which do not particularly emphasize stillness meditation. And yet, here is sailing, and this meditative-like state, and my experience of improved well-being, if I spend enough time in that place. It’s not just being on the boat; the kind of sailing matters. Off, and alone, with enough time to be totally immersed.

This is the kind of sailing, and boat time overall, that lets one press into that place of somewhat altered reality. Partly fatigue, but partly something else. It’s liberating to go to sea, any way around. That it has this aspect that is something like meditation is not something that I’ve thought about before. I’ve just known that whatever that feeling is, I want it. And it feels deeply important, far beyond the glitter of an interesting toy. Come to find out, the mechanics of this healing are becoming perceptible.

So this is what I’ve learned: the motion of the boat is good, and I’ve known for a long time that it works rather like passive range of motion exercises. Muscles, joints, and everything else, that are over-tight, or strained, loosen in the process of relaxing into the gentle shifts of a small boat. Not so much in snappy, uncomfortable waves, but with attention and some luck one can mostly avoid those. The less obvious benefits of the sailboat process come from that state of meditation, that arrives without fanfare, often completely invisible as it interweaves with fatigue. As I’m learning to recognize that meditative feeling, I’m hoping to become more fluent in working with it. I am told that as it becomes more familiar, it’s easier to move in and out of a place of meditation, shifting between that dreamy state, and the requirements of everyday life, with more fluidity and ease. It’s the jarring of the transitions that I think contributes to the odd mistakes, especially when one has no idea what’s happening in the first place. Recognizing the process should go a long way toward helping with that.

The other obvious question, having come this far, is whether once recognizing and becoming familiar with that state of meditation, it can then become possible to move into it regardless of outside surroundings. As in, do I have to go sailing to find that place? I like sailing anyway, for all the many reasons: the water, the motion, the intriguing challenges of rigging, wind, and current. The absolute, extraordinary beauty of light on water, clouds and sky, and wild shorelines of all varieties. But sailing having shown the way, having opened the window, perhaps it is also possible to enter the feeling of that place, from anywhere at all. And by entering the feeling of that place, to have access to the healing that comes of residing within it. It’s a long way around, compared to basic brain retraining protocols. Heaven knows that making this boat project happen has been a vast undertaking. But sometimes the long way around, with all its depth and richness, is just the perfect thing. So I’m paying attention, feeling the perfect gift of the opportunity to watch how the entire process unfolds.

In the meantime, there is more sailing this fall, with a plan to haul the boat in a few weeks in Gouldsboro, and to settle in for the winter there in the new house. Presently I’m in Smith Cove, outside of Castine, watching the rain. It’s a snug place to be, with gale warnings on the radio, and time to sit still, and write.

[mostly written in September, 2015]

Previous posts on brain retraining: (skip to bottom for resource links)