“Terry? The man is an ant-fucker.”
“A what?” I ask.
“Ant-fucker. He wastes his time with meaningless projects when he should be sailing,” the evil man says. “He is too old for this life.”
We stand watching Terry painting the hatches of his steel boat.
“Some people live their lives at sea. When they get old they grow fearful. But they’re too proud to admit they’d be better off in a retirement home.”
He gives his anchor a mighty heave. Forty kilograms of steel crash into the dirt below, causing the yard dogs to scatter and drawing dirty looks from passersby.
Working his fingers over the chain, hunting for weaknesses in its links he continues, “Some people aren’t cut out for this. They lack the strength. So they delay themselves with all manner of excuses.”
“Suppose there’s a reason for his delay,” I say.
“Reason? What reason to waste what little time he has left? What reason not to expire at sea?” The evil man shudders at the apparent cowardice.
I don’t want to die. But I sure do think about it a lot.
When you are out at sea, you can’t help but think about dying. In the face of the indifference of ocean. And the aloneness you feel.
A friend of mine has a sick joke. He’ll wait until there is no land in sight. Then he’ll look at you and say,
“I could push you into the water right now and nobody would ever know.”
He’s right. Out there, life simply isn’t accounted for the way it is on land.
The open ocean is a world of immediate consequence. One that will test the mettle of your character.
Who are you when things go wrong?
Does your partner trust you when she fears for her life?
Can you create a path where no path has been laid for you?
As a precocious teenager I read about war and philosophy. Much of it went over my head. That is, until I encountered the ocean. A space where dying was easier than living.
While Death may be the great revealer, it’s cousin, the Fear of Death, is a bit of a trickster.
We would hope that the Fear of Death would be a reliable signal. A faithful report of how likely a thing is to kill us.
But that just isn’t true.
Novelty plays a major distorting role in how we evaluate our chances of dying. Take COVID-19. Long after we understood the risks, many people feared contracting a fatal case at the grocery more than they did the more likely scenario of dying in a car crash on the way there.
In sailing, we obsess over the minimal chance of being boarded by pirates or having a keel fall of at sea and we minimize the systemic risks of missing routine medical checkups, year after year, or exposing our lungs to aerosolized fiberglass and anti-fouling chemicals.
The Fear of Death permeates the entire cruising culture. Manufacturers tout safety ratings of their new vessels. Cruisers swear by specific rituals concerning how and when one should go to sea. All to assuage the lizard brain panic that arises when we consider our demise.
As a cruiser you’re faced with the task of making rational decisions in the face of the Fear of Death.
Budget cruising means that you’re buying an old boat. Which means that the boat has numerous things wrong with it. Most of which are cosmetic. But some of which have a small chance of killing you.
You don’t have enough money nor time to make textbook fixes to all of them. And you probably are scrambling to learn how to fiberglass and make all the money you need to cruise during the 6-month off-season. So you make compromises and hope that those compromises won’t kill you.
Sure, you can consult the experts. But the experts cannot decide how much risk you are comfortable with. The truth is that many people cruise around on boats that experts would immediately have condemned. And some people never get around to cruising because they spend upwards of twenty years ant-fucking. Pick your poison.
I have never been so scared as when I first took my sailboat out to sea with my wife. Hell, I was almost as scared the second time. But in the end we were safe. And it’s not that things could not have gone wrong. But they did not.
And, though we stacked the odds in favor, we could not eliminate completely the risk of dying. We just had to be OK with that.
The Fear of Death is a mix of signal and illusion. Evaluating that Fear requires an external aid. Because the pink matter inside our heads is trained to react to prehistoric fears. There’s only animal panting, anxiety, and extreme irrationality.
For me, I rely on knowledge, preparation, checklists, expertise, and a little superstition. Most of all I rely on my faith.
Not a religious faith. But my faith in myself. Faith in the fact what, while the Fear of Death may make me a coward, the reality of Death, the great revealer, shows me who I truly am.
And in that moment, when it’s you and me out on the ocean, and Death asks who is willing to survive. It’s us. We are.
Because I am one badass motherfucker.