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:
http://sailingauklet.com/2014/07/28/brain-retraining/ (skip to bottom for resource links)
This has happened to me while quilting, when I have the whole day to myself without interruptions. I’ve had the same error-thing happen: I’m just merrily going along thinking I know what I’m doing and then realize I’ve made a mistake, like missing a turn when driving. Sometimes there’s nothing to do but make friends with the seam-ripper, but other times I can redesign the quilt to accommodate the error and find it immensely improved and the process immensely satisfying. I can’t rush myself into this state; it comes only from becoming totally immersed in the work, in the colors and textures, in the rhythm, and forgetting everything else. I’ve thought it had something to do with creativity. There are adult “coloring books” that purport to achieve this state — I have been skeptical, but maybe there are many ways through that “magic window.”
Wonderful! It also sounds something like the “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” stuff, about what happens when one’s consciousness shifts to a more right-brain centered experience. I’ve thought this about sailing, too. Wherever it comes from, what a gift it is! Thanks so much for writing – it’s wonderful to think about the interconnections.
Helen Opie said:
So well said and I agree with you, CarolB; it is a state that comes on when one is wholly immersed in something one loves, whether it be sailing or quilting or painting, or probably writing, and surely music-making whether playing, practicing, or composing. I go into it fairly readily on open unpopulated beaches as well as when painting.
I have never thought consciously of this until this post, and agree also that the little ‘errors’ or steps off the well-trodden path of routine happen because we are crossing over from one state or level of brain activity to another. This state-interchanging happened as Shemaya described when I was a quiltmaker; it was also part of the wondrous experience of building my Puddle Duck Racer sailboat (all 8 feet of her rectangular hull) over this year, even though I only got he finished enough for sailing in time for one good afternoon; most of all and this shifting happens when I am painting intensely for days in a row. There is the simultaneous dreaminess and clarity of action, the little and sometimes funny errors, like putting my plate or my keys into the fridge instead of my palette. Or I just forget the time and have trouble re-orienting to daily tasks before returning to the always-land of thoughts and ahas.
Thanks so much for this! It’s wonderful to think of you being in that place for days, with your painting. And quilting! Here’s to you having plenty of time sailing in the PD Racer when the warm seasons come around again. For meditation, and for the perfect joy of the water.
Take good care,
Shemaya, the dreamy meditative state that you sometimes experience is (a doctor who I once mentioned it to, informs me) a form of sea sickness. I also experience it even though I never get sea sick in the conventional (one of the benefits of being totally deaf) sense of the word.
Ah, aren’t those doctors rascals sometimes. Considering one of the best parts of the experience an “illness!” Did you see the other two responses to this post, about experiences folks have had on dry land? Of course this is the great thing, that everybody has so many varied experiences, and varied interpretations.
Wishing you the best of all times, out sailing!
Oh, I most certainly don’t disagree with you (or the other two ladies) just though to mention what the medical profession calls it. Whatever it may be, I certainly experience it myself any time I’m on the water for more than six to eight hours and I find that when I anchor or come back ashore, it takes a few hours to wear off.
Helen Opie said:
I think the medical people’s ideas of health and illness are sometimes based totally on theory and not at all on their own human experience. I think trying to describe this state to someone who has not experienced it is like trying to “explain” a peak experience. That expression, “If I have to explain it, you wouldn’t understand” might be applicable in such cases.
Though one is so tempted to keep trying to explain! And isn’t that the beautiful thing, that there are indeed avenues for doing that, whether by words, or art, or by suggesting an avenue that might lead somebody to their own experience of the same thing… And in the process of trying to explain, sometimes one gets to find out that one is surrounded by other people having that same experience after all. That’s my favorite part about having put that post out there. Who knew, that it would resonate with painters, and quilters, as well as with other sailors!
That’s so validating, that you experience this also in such a regular, relatively predictable way, while sailing. I found it doesn’t happen in the same way if I sail with other people, even if we are out for a long time that might be quite tiring. This is part of what led me to recognize it as a meditation-type process going on. How about you? Only when you sail for that many hours alone, or also with other people? I wonder if other sailors will chime in on this…
Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!
Helen Opie said:
Excellent point! If this were seasickness, would it not occur whether or not you were in the company of others? I have never noticed that the people on the Digby-Saint John ferry avoided seasickness because they were in a crowd with fellow passengers.
In truth I cannot really say as 99.9% of the time I sail by myself. I can remember once (sailing south on the Chesapeake on a boisterous day) and I did have a girlfriend onboard. That day I certainly experienced the trance like state we are talking about, however I was effectively alone as my lady friend was seasick and spent all of her time below. She only came on deck once or twice to ask when we’d reach port (Solomon’s Island). I also remember that the state passed almost as soon as we got in and she came on deck again.
However, apart from that occasion, I can’t recall having experienced it while sailing with others. So it may indeed be something you only experience when alone. I have a sneaking suspicion it may be similar (or the same) as that which the Buddhist try to teach there acolytes.
I’m reminded of Jesse Martin once saying: “There are places you can only get to by sea, and there are places you can only get to by being at sea” or possibly totally and intensely being engaged in what you are doing. This might also be a state that the ultra long distance runners also get to.
“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”.
Yes, I so get that Shemaya. Coming back to offshore sailing after a twenty year hiatus, I’ve revisited that whole of body rapture that only singlehanded sailing can bring. Many forms of meditation encourage one to still the mind by deep concentration on a single thing eg. your breathing. Well, at sea after a few days, heavily fatigued and malnourished, you really have trouble thinking about one thing at a time. Imagine crossing an ocean, weeks on end? ;))
That’s so true – and at the same time, my highest goal is to manage to be at sea for (somewhat) extended amounts of time and at the same time to be rested, and well nourished. Lately my mantra has been “arrive rested.” Not that I always achieve it, but it’s a good reminder along the way – naps before being tired, for example, and a routine of “nap, eat, tend boat” repeated in that order. In some ways, I have less time to enjoy the surroundings on those passages with overnights, than in shorter stretches at a time, because of the nap schedule! Did you see the post titled “Stage Harbor to Stage Island Harbor” from 2013? That’s a model that I hope to repeat, and I learned a lot from the more recent trip around Cape Cod, about choosing conditions for setting out. It’s a great exercise, learning more about this!
I re-read the Stage Island post and agree with the idea of looking after yourself. How many times do we decidedly go below and feel instantly better. Food and rest, if only a little, can help you feel better, enjoy the process rather than merely tolerating it to vector the next port. Whales help!
After a nearly 30 year hiatus from singlehanded sailing (OMG am I that old)),my most recent effort was made ordinary I patches by not getting enough rest or food. It was on the final day, sitting becalmed within a mile of port for 8 hours, not including from 11pm. the night before, that was forced to sit, look, eat, sleep, that it dawned on me that this time at sea is what it’s about.
Few sailors get that. Sailing out of Sydney in the middle of our festive summer season, I saw heaps of yachts and none were just sailing. There’s this mad rush from shorelife that I know think needs to be left there if you want to get in synch with the ocean. This is where smaller boats come into their own, you don’t have to flog yourself for long hours of work to pay for them.
Many would disagree though. Best, Terry
Yes, exactly, about the small boats and declining a big motor. That’s something, your experience of being 1 mile away from the harbor for so long, waiting for the wind. So close! I have to confess that this does make me think about the yuloh – I’m happy to be becalmed at some miles out, but I do like having the option of fussing away at sculling, to make those short distances. Did you see this video, of the woman with a Folkboat, which toward the end includes her demonstrating her yuloh arrangement? I only recently added this link to the end of the “yuloh plans” post: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIPf5mDxMcw
Thanks for the heads up on the Yuloh, I agree fully:)) I’ve since fitted oars. What with solar cell, windvane, stern hung rudder, I couldn’t fit a yuloh in. Big fan of recycling though. I would have enjoyed rowing through the heads, of only for the novelty of achieving it. I thin the wait out there was the best few hours of my recent life, there was absolutely nothing I could do, so it was 100 per cent relaxation.Cheers,Terry
That’s wonderful, how you found such a good time in that day. I know what you mean about yuloh obstacles – my previous boat seemed pretty impossible that way also. Great that you have the oars now, for just in case! A friend of mine carries oars in his engineless catboat, and still writes stories about entire days spent drifting in the neighborhood of a particular buoy, just outside the harbor. No reason to stop doing that, just because the oars are on the boat :-)
“No need to stop drifting just because there are oars on the boat”, totally. You can get into such harmony drifting, your power to do anything, taken away, is a blessing.
Where can I read about that drifting cat boat friend of yours?
Btw, think you should write a book or ebook, you have such great expression. I’d like to read more about how you don’t go ashore much and rely on a shore crew. There’s something there for all of us who dream of cocooning ourselves away on board.
Thanks again, Terry :))
You’re in luck, as far as my friend’s writing – this past year he had a nifty book of his sailing stories published: Penelope Down East, by W.R. Cheney – it’s on Amazon, including in a Kindle version. His work also appears quite a bit in Points East Magazine, to do with coastal Maine, which can be read online for free. A search for the magazine title and his name will turn some of them up.
And thanks so much for the encouragement, on my own work! The idea has been rolling around, the last while, so we’ll see…
It’s funny, about the power question. I actually don’t perceive it as being powerless, rather as working together with the conditions of the moment. But I do very much like the opportunity to work with those conditions, within a framework that only has a certain range of options. It’s so relaxing, to have a more manageable range of possibilities, for a time!
Staying onboard for somewhat extended amounts of time has been an interesting aspect of the whole business. Funny thing though, about the cocoon thing – because of assorted circumstances in my life, I’m actually in much more of a cocoon when I’m at home on land. On the water I see so many more people, and have all sorts of interactions with them, pretty much daily. The passages are different, and I appreciate that meditative time. Satellite phones are great for safety check in, and it’s helpful that they have such exorbitant rates, because you only talk for 2 minutes. Pretty much perfect!
I love that you’ve been going out having such a good time just being with the water, and whatever’s going on. Thank you so much for sharing that here – I very much look forward to hearing more about it.
Hey Shemaya, this discussion is getting marginalised, s I’ll be brief :)) read Penelope, loved it, learned about you!
On feeling powerless,my bad expression, I meant the lack of alternative forced one to drift and that’s a good thing. My new motto is Surrender to Nature, have you heard of this?
Boat as cocoon x Better boat as snail – carrying your possessions, …and socIalising too.
You should write, you sound bright, have something to say and g hard under sail I hear.What’s not to love about that. Fair winds Terry
Hi Terry – yes, puts new meaning to being “marginalized” I’ll try an e-mail!