There is a Difference
by Tania Aebi
Yes, boats that get used are labor-intensive attention hogs. If you want to keep using a boat safely and enjoyably and can’t afford to pony up for somebody else to do the dirty work, you have to be able to grunt, sweat, solve problems and fix things yourself. You just have to. And you do it, and keep on doing it, because you know the work will payoff, that being able to use your boat is the greatest return. One of the lessons I wanted my boys to learn during their ten months of sailing a small boat across vast bodies of water was about this direct correlation, that easy street and mai tais on sun-drenched decks are only possible after the work has been done. But, after two months aboard, as we headed into the Pacific Ocean, I was afraid the biggest lesson learned was: Hey look, Mom doesn’t just run households. She can do boats, too.
She can, which was why we were able to cast off from Panama and sail into the Pacific feeling relatively confident about our boat, all her systems and well-stocked larder. While they’d been doing their homeschooling, I’d done the work and provisioning, hoping they’d pick up a thing or two about physical labor and tactile problem solving through osmosis, and a beautiful crossing was the compensation. It came with all the down time of being in the middle of the ocean with night watches, where hours of silence passed filled with the sort of contemplation that can lead to new thoughts, dreams, ideas, and sometimes, the revelation of great truths or surprises. This had happened to me during past ocean passages, and I wondered if the same would hold true now for the boys.
We winged downwind for days on end, days that slowed to hours and minutes of occasionally tweaking sails, readjusting the Monitor, plotting our position, doing sailorly stuff in-between lots of reading, talking, planning meals, cooking, and me finding things to fix or maintain because not doing so didn’t feel right anymore. While Sam prepared and set up fishing lines, gathered recipe ingredients, argued with me about anything he could think of, as was his duty as a fourteen-year-old, and knocked off one home-schooling unit after another, Nicholas staked out a spot on the settee behind the salon table, claimed the two common-property boat pillows to prop up his head so as to ensure maximum comfort, and ploughed through the pleasure book collection. Every once in a while, he’d place the book of the moment on his lap, gaze off dreamily, and ponder if the current day would become one designated as bath day, or not, and calculate exactly how much time needed to be put aside for the home schooling in order to stay ahead of the program just enough so as not to fall too behind Sam.
He was a fixture on the berth behind the salon table, the pillows became his, the corner homesteaded to an extent where neither Sam nor I would have dreamed of moving in, not unless we wanted an argument, which happened sometimes—anything for a bit of excitement. It was from this reclining position behind the table that Nicholas looked up one day and made the most exciting announcement. Out of the blue, my oldest son said that he’d figured out his life ambition. He knew what he wanted to be when he grew up.
Often, we want for our kids the things we felt we lacked. At his age, I never felt driven by any particular ambition and kind of drifted toward things. It had never seemed as if Nicholas knew what he wanted either, no fiery passion had been guiding him through childhood with great focus. So, to hear him suddenly say that he knew what he wanted at almost seventeen was amazing, more than I’d ever known, more than most of my friends from that age period had known. In fact, many of us are still trying to figure it out.
Shangri La slid down another wave; I put the kettle on, and sat there wondering how I could have missed all the signs that he’d be any different. I mean, this is the kid who’d always lived and operated by the principle that if it weren’t good enough, it wouldn’t be called the minimum. Unless you count reading every single Bernard Cornwell book three times over, he hasn’t set many ambitious precedents.
Before leaving, I’d imagined that almost a year of living and sailing aboard a small sailboat would lead to all kinds of long-term benefits for the boys, like heightened senses of responsibility, curiosity about the world, self-reliance, a familiarity with sweaty work and problem solving. The jury was still napping on these points, not enough time had passed to see how they played out. But, maybe the boating life had worked some kind of magic in an area I’d never anticipated. Or, was Nicholas just talking more talk?
“So,” I prodded, “What is it? What’s your calling? Dive instructor, paintball teacher, linguistics professor, what?”
Sam looked up from his tackle box with a smirk. The hopes or expectations he has for his older brother are much more realistic than mine, even in the middle of the ocean where fantasies and dreams can run wild. He figures, why set them so high if they’re just doomed to drop where there’s no pillow at the bottom because Nicholas is already using them to ensure his comfort?
We talk a lot. We’re a talking family. Whether we’re joking, being serious or critical, or arguing, we talk. Blah, blah, blah. When you’re a mother stuck with two teenagers on a small boat in the middle of the ocean, that’s when you appreciate talk the most, even when it’s coming from the mouth of a cranky fourteen-year-old ranting about some other way you’ve managed to slight him, further proving that you love his brother better. That kind of talk can be many things, but never boring. And now, here was a whole new kind of talk. Future talk. Ambition talk. The kind of talk Nicholas could do only because I’d had the brilliant idea of taking him on a boat where he’d have time to see life from a new and different perspective, figure things out. I knew it was a good idea. Maybe I wouldn’t be visited by social services. Maybe I’d get the Mother of the Year Award.
“Mom, you’re so gullible,” Sam said.
“I prefer to call it optimistic,” I replied.
“I want to be laid back,” Nicholas inserted, as usual, ignoring our bickering.
“I said I want to be laid back.”
“That’s your life ambition?”
Nicholas lay back against his pillows again and tried to resume reading, presumably off to an excellent start. He gets an A for effort. But, had he really thought he could head into a life of sipping mai tais on sun-drenched decks, just like that? Oh, the naiveté of youth. The innocence. Little did he know that an announcement like that would make me suddenly realize it was me who needed to do some learning. The kettle began to whistle and that’s when I told him the party was over. I wanted a cup of tea, followed by dinner, and a day ending with a clean stove, sink and counter. If I couldn’t teach the boys about engine maintenance, bilge cleaning, rust prevention, and the labors of boating that lead to the fun, they could teach me how to have the fun I’d earned. So now, with the best of teachers, I’m learning how to be laid back, maybe even a little bit of a labor-intensive attention hog, while they learn how to run the galley. And hey, forget the tea, where’s my mai tai?